The Watch List: 2019 Independents Season Preview

Updated: June 10th 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.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame.  Book was the savior for the 2018 Notre Dame squad and he’s expected to be the BMOC again in 2019.  Four extra starts at last year’s pace would put Book just shy of 3,500 yards and 30 TDs which could be enough to get on the Heisman short list.

Underclassman to Watch: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU.  Like Book, Wilson began the season as the backup but earned rave reviews after taking over.  Wilson ended the season with 1,578 passing yards, 12 TDs and 3 INTs with a surprisingly high 65.9% completion percentage.  He’s comfortable on the move and adds as a rusher as well (221-2).  Wilson started and ended the season well, book-ending the season with four total touchdown performances.  Cougar fans have their fingers crossed that Wilson can apply that production to a full season in 2019.

Newcomer of the Year: Andrew Brito, QB, UMass.  I struggled to find a freshman or graduate transfer who was likely to make an immediate impact in 2019.  I decided to pick Brito for this spot because he may be the one preventing a complete meltdown in Amherst.  The Minutemen are losing their top passer, rusher and receiver heading into the new season and will be desperate for a new leader.  Brito is a JUCO transfer from the College of the Canyons, a renowned JUCO program.  He had a strong 2017-18 season, topping 3,000 passing yards and totaling 34 TDs, finishing with a 10-1 record.  Brito is likely too small to be a dual-threat at the FBS level but if he earns the starting role this Summer he would give the offense a little excitement.

Coaching Carousel: Liberty welcomes a familiar name to Lynchburg in new head coach Hugh Freeze.  Most famously, Freeze was the coach at Ole Miss for five seasons, posting a respectable 39-25 regular season record and a 3-1 bowl record.  Most infamously, Freeze was caught up in numerous scandals at Oxford, including calls to an escort service on recruiting trips.  Ole Miss led the SEC in passing their last two seasons with Freeze at the helm, so expect big numbers from QB Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert and WR Antonio Gandy-Golden.  I struggle to see how Freeze fits in with Liberty’s evangelically inclined mission statement but he’s undoubtedly a big name for them to bring on board.

Players to Watch

Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, Liberty

Gandy-Golden is listed at 6040/220 and while that may be a shade exaggerated, he plays big with his jumping ability.  He’s not a tackle breaker but he does have 4.45-4.50 straight-line speed.  Not only does he look the part of a big-time receiver, he plays it too.  He has gained over 1,000 yards and scored 10 TDs in each of the last two seasons.  The most recent of those two campaigns, 71-1,037-10, came at the FBS level which is encouraging.  However, in his two P5 games in 2018, AGG went for just 5-60-0.  He has four tough matchups this season (Syracuse, Rutgers, BYU and Virginia) and I’ll need to see him succeed in those games to be truly sold.

A few things stood out to me when I watched Gandy-Golden’s highlight reels.  First was how strong his hands were, especially when catching the ball away from his body.  In the clip below, the defensive back tries to rip the ball out after a fingertip catch but Gandy-Golden holds on even as he goes to ground and takes a hit.

In addition to his strong hands, you can see his concentration and body control in this next clip.  It’s a hard place on the field to secure a contested catch but he does it with relative ease and gets the score.  His highlights are littered with similar clips where he should lose sight of the ball but still makes the grab.

It may be early in the preseason, but I’m already declaring Antonio Gandy-Golden as my mid-major sleeper.  He checks nearly every box, although it’s fair to question his level of competition.  My initial reactions are based on highlight reels so it is important to remember there’s still a lot to learn about him as a player.  I’ll be watching closely this season to monitor his consistency and how well he does against Power 5 competition.

 

Matt Bushman, TE, BYU

Bushman is a versatile tight end who was utilized all over the formation last season by BYU.  He most frequently lines up in-line but he’s also split wide or in the backfield.  He came into 2018 with high expectations after a standout 49-520-3 freshman season.  Unfortunately, his stats decreased last season (29-511-2), although he did greatly improve his yards per catch average to 17.6.  Part of his sophomore slump can be attributed to QB Tanner Mangum who was pulled for the aforementioned Zach Wilson mid-season.  In the games Wilson started, Bushman averaged 54 yards per game which would net him nearly 650 yards over a full season.

Another reason that Bushman’s stats fell in 2018 is that he was asked to block more.  He is one of the best blockers I’ve seen as an underclassman.  He’s also a good route runner which is rare for the position at his age.  Bushman stands out though for his hands.  He’s a natural pass catcher, although if I’m nitpicking he does sometimes let the ball come to him rather than attack it.  He also shows good field awareness and body control.  He ties all of those traits up into the two below catches.  The first is a one-hander over a defender that ends with him somehow landing his knee in bounds.  The second is a hard-fought touchdown after a good play action fake frees the middle of the field; after he makes the catch he still has some work to do to hit paydirt.

The hope for Cougars fans will be that the Wilson and Bushman connection, showcased above in the Utah game, improves further in 2019.  I expect that it will and am expecting a 40-650-5 season.  I’m not sure if Bushman has any pending mission work which would pause his professional aspirations, but if not he’ll be a Top 5 prospect at the position for the 2020 NFL Draft.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame: Ian Book took over as the starter for the playoff-bound Irish heading into game four. That first game, against Wake Forest, was stellar. Book tossed two touchdowns and rushed for three more. He scarcely slowed down after that, keeping the winning streak alive all the way to the semi-final. He averaged 292 yards in his nine starts and totaled 19 passing TDs to 7 INTs. Head coach Brian Kelly turned to Book because he offered a more balanced, and more accurate, option under center, rather than the run-first Brandon Wimbush. When I watch Book, I see a risk-averse passer who is content to check down or use his pocket patience to find an escape.  When he evades the rush he often keeps his eyes upfield so he can find his receivers as they uncover.  Book is a scrambler but he’s not fast.  He has average arm strength, or at least he didn’t uncork one in either of the games I watched.  He’s accurate and throws with some anticipation on short and intermediate routes.  He’s adept at placing the ball between the levels of a zone defense.  If Book leads the way to another playoff berth we may talk about him as a mid-round prospect next year.
  • Jason Huntley, RB, New Mexico State: Huntley is a satellite player — somebody you want to get out into space.  He has game breaking speed, is a great open-field runner, and shines as both a receiver and a returner.  Over the last two years, he has a combined 86-892-5 receiving line to go with five return touchdowns.  If you play college fantasy football, he would be a sneaky asset as the Aggies are likely to be behind often.  His thin frame (5080/188) doesn’t lend itself to between the tackles running so his professional upside may be limited but he could develop into a special teamer.
  • Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame: Claypool has a shot to get an NFL look because of his size: 6040/227.  Compared to combine participants from the last five years, Claypool would be the biggest receiver of the bunch.  Technically, three NFL players did measure larger but they were all moved to TE (Devon Cajuste, Darren Waller and Ricky Seals-Jones).  It’s tough to predict a position change this early in the process but it could be a consideration for Claypool.  Unsurprisingly, he plays with strength and is unafraid to go over the middle. I’d like to see him use his height to win more balls in the air but he was mostly used as a possession receiver in 2018. I took a closer look at Claypool’s situational stats and was surprised to see that more than half of his production comes on first down and just five receptions came in the fourth quarter. He did convert 11-13 on third and fourth down which confirmed what I saw, that Book trusts him in short-yardage situations. Ideally, with Miles Boykin gone, we’ll see Claypool become a clutch target in 2019.

 

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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