The Watch List: 2019 FCS & DII Season Preview

Updated: May 30th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the Spring and Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

FCS Storylines to Watch

Walter Payton Award Contender: Zerrick Cooper, QB, Jacksonville State.  Since 2002 when Tony Romo won the award, just two non-QBs have won the Walter Payton Award.  So, picking a passer was a safe bet.  Which one to pick was the tough part.  I went with Cooper because he has some name recognition―he was a 4-star recruit who transferred from Clemson after the 2017 season―and he offers some rushing upside that Jake Maier does not.  Cooper amassed 3,416 passing yards and tossed 32 TDs; he added 366 and 6 on the ground.  Jacksonville State is predicted to make another playoff appearance in 2019 so voters will have plenty of opportunity to see Cooper.

Underclassman to Watch: Josh Davis, RB, Weber State.  Davis was crowned the top freshman in the FCS last season, winning the Jerry Rice Award.  He’s an explosive running back and punt returner who has tremendous breakaway speed.  He’s shifty enough to get around defenders and can also throw a wicked stiff arm.  His 30 receptions were the cherry on the sundae.  Weber State may not be high on your watch list, admittedly I had no idea the school was was in Utah, but they are projected to be a Top 10 team this season so we should all plan to check them out at least once to see some of Davis.

Newcomer of the Year: Zeb Noland, QB, North Dakota State.  Noland is transferring in from Iowa State where he was a spot starter over the last two campaigns.  He posted a 2-3 record in the five games where he was the primary quarterback.  His career stat line for the Cyclones was 1,255 passing yards with 6 TDs and 2 INTs.  There’s been no official announcement that Noland will be the starter but I doubt you publicize bringing him in without planning to give him the job.  He’ll be filling the large void left by Easton Stick who was drafted by the Chargers this Spring.

Coaching Carousel: The last two coaches to win an FCS Championship, Mike Houston and Chris Klieman, have moved up to the FBS level and leave their blue blood programs in flux.  Mike Houston left James Madison (2016 champion) to take the job at East Carolina (9 combined since 2016).  Meanwhile, Klieman is heading to Manhattan, Kansas to take over the Wildcats.  Klieman’s Bison won four of the last five FCS titles; while he’s likely to have more early success than Houston with a more talented roster, it will certainly be an adjustment for Klieman.  Defensive coordinator Matt Entz takes the reigns in North Dakota State and the Dukes will have former Elon coach Curt Cignetti on the sidelines.

FCS Players to Watch

Jake Maier, QB, UC Davis: Maier is heading into his third season as the starting quarterback for UC Davis.  He’s topped 3,500 passing yards in each of those two seasons and has a combined 60 TDs to 20 INTs.  Maier is a pocket passer who throws a strong and driven football.  However, he can be flustered by the rush and lets his mechanics break down, often making fade-away passes.  He leads his backs well on swing passes from the backfield but his anticipation on other routes needs to improve.  In the film I watched it appeared like Maier patiently went through progressions on a number of passes.  If he can compile another big season, Maier may attract some NFL scouts with his strong arm.

AJ Hines, RB, Duquense: Hines has topped 1,000 rushing yards each of his three years with the Dukes, totaling 3,849 so far in his career. His freshman season impressed so much that he was honored with the aforementioned Jerry Rice Award. I was excited to dive in and came away from his highlights thinking that he could earn a role in the NFL as a short-yardage back. He’s stocky with a low center of gravity. He prefers to run into defenders rather than around or past them. Hines lacks the acceleration to beat faster defenders to the edge but he does pick up momentum once he starts downhill. You might assume that he’s just a two-down runner but he’s also a factor in the passing game, with a career 42-544-3 receiving line. From what I’ve seen so far, I think Hines has a chance to land on an NFL roster, probably as a priority free agent. If he does, he can stick around for a few years in a specialized role (a la Zach Zenner).

Josh Pearson, WR, Jacksonville State: Pearson’s stats and measureables drew my attention when I started my preseason research. He’s listed at 6040/205 and scored 17 TDs last season. Unfortunately, after a deeper dive, I think he may be a better story than prospect. Pearson, a redshirt senior, had a rocky start to his career at Jacksonville State after being declared academically ineligible and losing his scholarship. He fought to get his grades up and finally debuted in a game in 2017 before starring in 2018. I was able to find some highlights online and was encouraged to see his strong hands stab the ball on numerous occasions. Pearson appeared significantly smaller than his listed measurements; I’m thinking a more realistic estimate of his size would be 6020/195. If he’s able to replicate his dominance from last year, I’ll need to revisit Pearson in the Winter.

Matthew Gonzalez, TE, Robert Morris: Gonzalez is the only tight end on my shortlist who had 40+ receptions, 600+ yards and 10+ TDs in 2018.  After reviewing some Robert Morris highlight packages, it looks like Gonzalez has more of a receiver’s build than that of a tight end.  Whether you view that as a positive or a negative depends on your spin.  He’s listed at 6030/230 which puts him in line with Evan Engram, one of the smallest (albeit productive) at the position in recent history.  Gonzalez does line up in-line so he has experience as a blocker and as a route runner from that alignment.  I wasn’t able to isolate clips of him as a blocker so that aspect of his report is largely TBD.  Since the NFL trend is towards “move tight ends” I think it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on Gonzalez in 2019.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Case Cookus, QB, Northern Arizona: Cookus started his career at NAU strong with 50 TDs in his first fifteen game.  Disappointingly, his sophomore season was cut short by injury after just four games.  The same happened in 2018 after just two games.  If he can stay healthy and find his freshman production he may earn some attention because he has good size at 6040/205 and throws well on the run.
  • Jaquez Ezzard, WR, Howard: Ezzard averaged more than 26.0 yards per catch in both 2017 and 2018 so he’s a big play in waiting.  He’s compact at 5090/190 but looks like he may be strong enough to win inside at a higher level.  It was hard to judge his speed in the highlights I saw but it seems like he’s plenty quick.  Ezzard has done some kick and punt returning in his career at Howard which is a positive because that’s likely how NFL teams would try to take advantage of his explosiveness.
  • Luke Stuffel, TE, Findlay: It’s possible that Luke Stuffel is a unicorn because it’s nigh impossible to find Findlay football highlights anywhere online.  He’s listed at 6060/269 and averaged 18.9 yards per catch last season (16/302/5).  You’ve got my attention Mr. Stuffel, now just point me in the direction of your game film!

DII Players to Watch

Jayru Campbell, QB, Ferris State: Campbell looks like an FBS player when you watch his highlights online.  He’s imposing at 6050/200 and is a true dual-threat quarterback who runs with speed and elusiveness.  As I was taking notes I thought to myself, “this is too good to be true.”  Unfortunately, some further research found that Campbell has numerous off-field issues including three violent incidents (one including an opposing player, one with a school security guard and one with his girlfriend).  Campbell was a verbal commit to Michigan State but instead attended the JUCO powerhouse of Garden City Community College to start his career before transferring to Ferris State.  I hope that Campbell has sought help; it’s unfortunate that we may never get to see his true potential.

Walter Fletcher, RB, Edinboro: Fletcher has starred the last two seasons, gaining over 1,800 scrimmage yards in both 2017 and 2018, adding 38 combined TDs.  He stood out to me when combing through statistics because of how involved he is as a receiver: 30+ receptions in all three seasons.  Luckily for us, he posted a long highlight reel from the 2017 season which I dove into.  He has a fantastic juke move, cutting on a dime without losing much speed or momentum.  He has enough speed to beat DII defenders but it’s hard to get a true feel for his long speed―I’d guess about 4.60.  I’d love to see Fletcher get some postseason all-star game love if he has another successful season.

Shane Zylstra, WR, Minnesota State: Zylstra has dominated Northern Sun opponents for the last two seasons.  In 2017 he went for 51-861-15; then he improved those numbers last year with 66-1,261-14.  He has a big frame, 6050/220, that appears ready for the rigors of the NFL.  I underestimated his speed, thinking he’d be a plodding runner at his size.  A change to tight end could be a possibility for the NFL because in my short study it appears that he’s at least an average blocker.  His combination of attributes would make him a versatile addition to an offense.  Zylstra is big, powerful and racks up numbers―that’s what I want to see from my under-the-radar  prospects.


Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

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