The Watch List: 2019 Sun Belt Season Preview

Updated: June 25th 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: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State.  In his first season as the starter, Thomas showed Mountaineers fans that he could ably take over for long-time starter Taylor Lamb.  Thomas is a dual-threat quarterback who runs the zone read well.  He has the potential to hit 3,000 combined yards and 30 combined TDs.  Non-conference upsets against North Carolina and South Carolina would earn Thomas and App State some national pub.

Underclassman to Watch: Marcel Murray, RB, Arkansas State.  As a true freshmen last season, Murray led Arkansas State in rushing with 860-8.  He also added 16 receptions for 141 yards and 2 scores.  The team vacates nearly 1,500 yards in rushing so there should be plenty of touches for Murray.

Newcomer of the Year: Dahu Green, WR, Arkansas State.  The Red Wolves had the conference’s most prolific passing attack in 2018, averaging 281.5 yards per game.  They return three of their four leading receivers, however they need to break in a new quarterback this season.  In addition to those three returners will be Dahu Green.  Green isn’t technically a “newcomer” but he might as well be.  He’s a former 3-star recruit who transferred from Oklahoma after the 2016 season.  He sat out 2017 and then got hurt in the first outing of 2018.  Green, who is listed at 6050/197, will be a wildcard in Arkansas State’s effort to maintain their passing prominence.

Coaching Carousel: The Sun Belt’s top two teams, Troy and Appalachian State, welcome new head coaches this season and may struggle to repeat a combined 14-2 conference record in 2019.  Both new coaches, Chip Lindsey and Eli Drinkwitz, got their starts as position coaches in the Sun Belt before ultimately moving on to Power 5 offensive coordinator positions.  Drinkwitz went from Arkansas State to Boise State to North Carolina State; Lindsey went from Troy to Southern Miss to Auburn.  If Arkansas State wants to wrest the championship trophy from the East, this will be their chance while the West reloads.

Players to Watch

Caleb Evans, QB, Louisiana-Monroe

Evans is likely the best quarterback prospect in the conference so I thought it was important to feature him in my preview.  Evans will be a third year starter and will be looking for his first winning season in 2019.  In both 2017 and 2018 he topped 2,800 passing yards and had 33 combined passing TDs.  Unfortunately his interceptions spiked in 2018, from 6 to 12.  He’s a running threat with rushing lines of 573-13 and 632-10 the last two campaigns.  Evans is listed at 6020/210 and looks sturdy enough for the next level.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to find good film of Evans this early because he’s an unheralded name.  I was able to find a number of highlight reels on Youtube (the best of which created by the school itself which is rare in my experience, so props to the ULM video team).  What struck me first about Evans was that he looks composed and poised in the pocket.  He does not appear to get rattled by the rush and even though he’s a good runner, he can still keep his eyes upfield.  In this example from the South Alabama game, Evans is flushed after a blown block.  It looks like he’s going to take it himself but he’s unlikely to get the first down.  Instead, he flips it to an alert receiver who easily gains the first.

When he does decide to keep the ball, Evans can make defenders miss.  This dance routine against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2017 is from a bad angle but you can see how many times he tries to find a crease only to have to move on to the next.  When he does finally get forward, he tries to make one last guy miss by spinning out of the tackle so he falls forward and gains extra yardage.

I wish I were able to get a better feel for Evans arm strength and ball placement but that proved to be difficult with the film available.  I suspect that he has better placement than power but I’ll need to watch more before I can truly say that.  The Warhawks have two early season contests, Florida State and Iowa State, that will be proper showcases for Evans against Power 5 defenses.

We may hear a lot about Evans in 2019 because I suspect they may be a surprise eight win team.  Per Phil Steele, ULM is one of the most experienced teams in the nation.  Even better news for Evans, all five offensive line starters return, combining for the second most returning offensive line starts in the FBS.  It’s clear that Evans has some desirable physical tools and he will have a chance to display those again this season.  If he protects the ball better and shows us his arm talent, he’ll be a priority UDFA, if not better.

 

Kirk Merritt, WR, Arkansas State

I settled on Kirk Merritt as my second player preview for the most pragmatic of reasons: there was a full game film available on Youtube.  At first glance, I thought I was going to have a simple write-up of a productive slot receiver.  However, after I did some more research, I realized there is a lot to Merritt’s journey to Jonesboro as a sought after JUCO transfer.  Merritt was originally a 4-star recruit who landed at Oregon and played in eleven games as a freshman (he mostly played special teams).  He transferred for family reasons in 2016 to Texas A&M.  He would never see the field for the Aggies though because he was dismissed from the team after two alleged incidents of “indecent exposure” (Merritt’s lawyer blamed it on a severe case of “jock itch” which seems dubious).  Merritt landed at East Mississippi Community College, the host of the aptly named Netflix series Last Chance U.  He led the team with 52 receptions on their way to another national championship.  247Sports had Merritt pegged as the 4th best JUCO receiver.  He chose Arkansas State over offers from Bowling Green, Troy and others.  A lot to digest there but let’s move on.

Once he saw the field at Arkansas State, Merritt produced right away.  He ended the season as the leading receiver of a fertile passing offense: 85-1,005-7.  Merritt is strictly a slot and screen receiver from what I saw.  His game logs back up that assertion as well: he had seven games where he had 3+ receptions and averaged less than 10.0 yards per reception.  The team force feeds him the ball as an extension of the running game (in fact, his 6010/215 frame looks more like a running back) because he can make tacklers miss in the open field.  He usually avoids the first defender and then if he has a block or some open space he can hit the second level and beyond.  I was glad to see he did often use his hands to snatch the ball.  He’s often stationary and facing the quarterback when he catches the ball so it would be easy to let the ball get into his body.  On this play, you can see Merritt hands-catch the ball and then he shows a flash of his dynamism as he performs a looping spin move around the first defender and then has a short sprint to the goal line.

Merritt’s entrée into the NFL will be as a special teamer.  He’s a good blocker — more on that in a second — and wherever he’s played he’s contributed as both a punt and kick returner.  My favorite play of Merritt’s was a block early in the Georgia Southern game.  It was the first of many times I saw Merritt win as a blocker.  He squares up, maintains contact with the defender for nearly five seconds and then finishes the block by bringing him to the ground out of bounds.  To me, it shows that Merritt is a high effort player who doesn’t mind doing the little things.  The play made me feel like Merritt is tailor made for a special teams role — imagine him wrestling with a gunner on a punt return.

I don’t know Merritt and his background enough to make a personal judgment, so I’ll just leave it at this: Merritt has the ability to land in the NFL as a special team stalwart.

Honorable Mentions:

Dan Ellington, QB, Georgia State: Ellington, a JUCO transfer, suffered through a 2-10 season in his first on campus in Atlanta.  Despite the poor record, there are some things that intrigue me about Ellington.  First is his size: he’s listed at 6030/205 and has a thick frame for a quarterback.  Second is his rushing ability: he led the team with 625 yards of rushing and 5 TDs.  Lastly, in the highlights I watched it appears that Ellington has the ability to throw a pretty deep ball.  We’ll get to see Ellington versus the Tennessee Volunteers in Week 1 so let’s see how he does against an SEC defense — if he holds his own, we’ll need to monitor him.

Trey Ragas, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette: Ragas is a bear of a back at 5110/227.  He runs with good balance and an ability to get lower than the tackler, requiring multiple defenders to bring him down.  What he lacks in breakaway speed he makes up for in short-yardage punch.  He caught more balls than I expected based on what I saw (25-229-2) which was a pleasant surprise.  Ragas is unlikely to be sought after in next year’s draft but he could catch on in a situational role.

Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State: Evans was the beneficiary of RB Jalin Moore’s injury-shortened 2018 season.  Evans led the Mountaineers rushing attack with 1,187 yards and 7 TDs.  I watched his sophomore and junior highlights and was impressed with his open-field ability.  He has 4.45-4.50 speed and just enough strength to shed a tackler.  He’s listed at 5110/191 but looks a bit leaner than that.  Evans adds to the squad on special teams — 26.3 kick return average and 2 TDs — but I would like to see him produce more as a receiver this season.

Corey Sutton, WR, Appalachian State:  When I started researching Corey Sutton I came across the unfortunate mess that his 2017 transfer from Kansas State became.  Seemingly through no fault of his own, Sutton’s saga became headline fodder.  Then head coach Bill Snyder denied Sutton’s release to all 35 schools Sutton requested, none of which were K-State opponents.  Snyder added to the drama when he said that Sutton failed two drug tests, a rumor that Sutton denied and that after my search seems unfounded.  What a mess.  I’m glad that Sutton landed on his feet at Appalachian State and was able to succeed in 2018.  His stat line for the year was 44-773-10.  Sutton, listed at 6030/205, lines up both in the slot and outside.  I think his future will be as a big slot who has big play potential and an acrobatic flair.

 

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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