GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: AAC (WEST DIVISION)
By Rebecca Rennie
The final article looking at top Group of Five prospects, the AAC West is loaded with fascinating talent. Most featured will be at the upcoming Combine. Most of the others have starred at recent All-Star games and have intriguing NFL potential.
Entering the Senior Bowl with significant hype but a lot to prove, Jones delivered in Mobile. The Houston O-line prospect was a four-year starter with barely any pressure sacrificed in pass protection. He had questions on length, technique, competition level and scheme deployment that resulted in some polarizing opinions. Those will likely continue throughout draft season, despite the strong showing at the All-Star event.
Measurements made in Mobile confirmed enough length to continue at tackle in the pros (nearly 34” arms, 80.5” wingspan). Combining his ideal frame with rare all-round athletic traits, Jones possesses enticing upside. The potential versatility to line up outside or use his explosive movement abilities inside will allow the team drafting him to find a way to integrate him into the starting five, regardless of current personnel.
The easy, fluid movement immediately stands out in Jones’ film. There’s an effortlessness to his ability to cover distance, able to ride speed rushers comfortably beyond the range of influence. His upper body technique is among the best in this stacked 2020 tackle class. While he could extend more consistently, Jones has a strong initial punch and excellent timing with his hands. Once locked on, the Cougars tackle is tough to disengage from.
There’s no doubt that his lower body technique and footwork are requiring an overhaul. While his athleticism to cover ground compensates, Jones lacks a conventional kick slide as he travels. He struggles to maintain width in his base, getting narrow to raise his pad level and affect his quickness in redirecting. It hasn’t prevented Jones from being consistently effective as a pass protector but will need reworking regardless.
Jones has enough power to compliment the frame and movement pluses. At times able to dominate and overwhelm in the run game, the imposing O-lineman has improved in this area. His natural athleticism aids his execution in finding blocks on the second level. Again though, improving pad level and leverage will allow Jones to make more consistent use of his power and quickness.
There are unquestioned issues in Jones’ game, primarily with his base and footwork. That could put some off assigning a high grade. Despite the technical flaws, Jones is not uncoordinated or awkward in executing. Quite the opposite, Jones displays calmness and composure while rarely beaten. Unsure what to expect entering film study, the resulting opinion here is a firm first round grade with exciting upside to match with the top names in this talented tackle class.
THAKARIUS "BOPETE" KEYES
One prospect who could have greatly benefited from his Senior Bowl invite, Keyes was unable to take part due to injury. He has a Combine invite though, where he can hopefully take part. Regardless of his ability to work out in Indy, Keyes is one of the most under-discussed prospects in this class. His film is superb, showing skills and measurables that ought to translate well to the next level. To the right team, a late Day 2 selection is not beyond the talented cornerback.
The full potential has probably not been untapped yet for Thakarius. A late starter to football, he did not take to the sport until his junior year of high school. That contributed to taking until his third collegiate season to earn a starting position with the Green Wave. Entering 2019 with a game that remained very raw, Keyes improved further as the season went on.
The physical tools are all there with long arms on his tall frame. A smooth athlete, Keyes has the speed and long strides to track back deep. While very leggy, his loose hips and easy transitions aids his coverage game. Though still prone to giving up separation at times, his recovery speed stands out. His length and vertical give him a big radius to attack the ball and challenge taller receivers at the catch point. A willing tackler, he hits hard and wraps up well with his long arms.
Early in the season, Keyes looked to be a little late in his reactions and route recognitions. While still a work-in-progress, his consistency in man coverage improved over the year. Keyes might be one of the best corners in this class in terms of his physicality off the line of scrimmage. Using his length to his advantage, he is effective in disrupting receivers in the initial exchanges. Keyes is an ascending prospect with the traits and upside to warrant a Day 2 draft grade.
Listed at running back at the Senior Bowl then at wide receiver for the Combine, Gibson is simply a playmaking weapon still unlocking his potential. The Junior College transfer only played one season of significant snaps at the FBS level. Even then, his 2019 year included only 71 offensive touches.
He made the most of his opportunities, however, proving highly productive with the ball in his hands. His dynamic play included some highlight returns on special teams, including a spectacular touchdown versus SMU.
The rawness in Gibson’s game is clear on film and in no way a surprise. Even going back to his two seasons in JUCO, Gibson did not see much action. His natural athleticism, bruising physicality and chiselled frame make him a nightmare to handle with the ball in his hands. Doing his best Derrick Henry impressions, Gibson frequently flashed his ability to bulldoze through traffic, lowering his shoulder and leaving a trail of embarrassed, floored defenders in his wake.
The burst and straight-line speed at his size is equally effective in his big plays and eye-opening yards-per-touch averages. The deviation between ceiling and floor is likely wide, however. Gibson is much more athlete than football player currently. As a runner, his vision and decision making are concerning at this time. Gibson regularly misses open running lanes or fails to hit the holes with timing. His cuts and reactions lack instinctive feel as he navigates traffic.
Similarly, as a receiver, Gibson is often imprecise with his route execution. More so, there’s a lack of understanding, feel and awareness of how to set up covering defensive backs, sell his route breaks and take on press coverage. There’s time for him to develop but there’s also the chance that he won’t reach the desired level of consistency and nuance to fully utilize his physical abilities. A mid-round investment is certainly valid however to risk for the reward of the unquestioned upside.
As impressive as the production has been this season, Proche has been piling up numbers all four seasons of his outstanding college career. The Mustangs receiver crushed his Senior year to earn a Senior Bowl spot. He finished 2019 with 111 receptions, 1,225 yards and 15 touchdowns. Proche lacks ideal length and a smaller catch radius but is well built for his size.
Upcoming Combine testing should reflect a solid athlete who is quicker than fast. There appears a lack of true long speed to threaten deep but has sharp footwork and change of direction skills. The short area quickness and suddenness as he breaks routes compliments his route running savvy. Proche displays natural positional awareness and feel for space to manipulate coverage, separate and find openings.
The SMU prospect might be at his best after the catch. Proche has instinctive feel as a runner with the ball in his hands. His vision, anticipation, footwork and shiftiness stand out in gaining additional yardage. Despite a smaller frame, he throws a nice stiff arm to help in breaking tackles. He fits the type who plays bigger than they are. Proche seems to play with next-level determination and competitiveness. There’s a lot to like about his play style and demeanor.
Though he averaged over 20 yards a catch back in 2017, Proche has generally been more of a reliable receiver on shorter targets since. This past season he averaged around 11 yards per reception. His consistency is going to be coveted, though. Proche has all the fundamentals as a natural hands catcher. Regularly snatching the ball out of the air outside his frame, he shows off strong hands. He tracks and adjusts to the ball instinctively and gets his share of wins under pressure that will aid him over the middle of the field.
A pleasant surprise on film, Mooney might be one of the more appealing smaller build receivers in this class. The slight frame at only 171lbs is concerning but doesn’t negate the positives in his game. Invited to this year’s Scouting Combine, he hopefully has added a little more bulk to his frame. Doing so without sacrificing any of his explosive speed will be encouraging for his draft stock.
There are shades of Toledo’s Diontae Johnson from last year’s class, picked by the Steelers in Round 3. In addition to a similar frame, Mooney has impressive burst, shift and footwork that Johnson likewise featured. His initial acceleration and maintaining speed through the catch point and out of route breaks is excellent.
More than just athletic, Mooney impresses with his varied and advanced releases off the line. His combination of burst, hand usage, footwork and feints allow him to win early versus press coverage, despite the small frame. Once earning a step advantage in the initial route phase, he’s tough to reign back in. His competitiveness under tight coverage is obvious, while not afraid of contact or taking hits over the middle.
In addition to his clever execution off the line of scrimmage, Mooney shows plus instincts and field awareness. Tracking the ball well, showing fantastic body control as the ball arrives and effective timing with his hands, including away from his body. He consistently comes down with the ball on catchable targets.
Averaging almost 18 yards per catch over the past two seasons, Mooney has shown big play ability. His smart play and route running have allowed him to affect the game from multiple alignments and levels of the field. Dangerous both stretching the field and working after the catch on shorter targets, he shown versatility in his deployment. A strong Combine, including weigh-in could be the catalyst to a draft stock rise.
There was no Combine invite for Scott, but it would be surprising if he wasn’t drafted. The standout from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl has rare length and tools, while flashing refined technique on film. Still improving, Scott took his game to the next level in a breakout senior season. The Mustangs edge defender totalled 18 TFLs and 10 sacks in 2019, along with 3 forced fumbles.
The length in his frame is ridiculous, measuring in with 10 1/4 hands, 35 1/4” arms and nearly 83” wingspan. The frame is fairly lean but with room to add some mass. Scott uses that length well, generally getting good extension into the body off the snap, lock out and drive. The reactions and upfield burst off the snap are good, bringing a high motor to his pass rush reps. Scott shows good flexibility to dip and bend as he turns the corner.
What surprises with Scott on film is some of the technical aspects to his wins. Though long, he seems to have good understanding of leverage at the point of attack and in working off blocks, particularly on inside moves. He flashes advanced hand technique along with the leverage to slip through gaps on route into the backfield. He often demonstrates defined rush plans and combinations to set up blocking O-linemen.
Scott moves around the SMU front regularly. Lining up from two and three-point stances, left and right sides, and often moving inside on passing downs, he’s been adaptable and versatile. There’s certainly inconsistency in his play, but the high points are encouraging. He’d be a developmental project but one that could pay off. The tools and the flashes hint at some upside worth exploring.
You can count this writer as an unabashed fan of Perry and his NFL potential. It’s a difficult analysis to make with a triple option QB making a position switch. However, after watching film of not just his 2019 season at quarterback but also from 2018 and 2017 that included play as a slot back, the easier it was to buy into Perry. He is just a natural at whatever he’s asked to do on the football field in addition to being an explosive athlete.
It took some time to locate enough reps as a route runner and receiving target from his past film. There are clear signs though, that Perry has an instinctive feel for space. His burst and instantaneous change of direction speed as he redirects will aid his transition to receiver.
With the ball in his hands, Perry shows obvious plus vision and decision making as a runner, with dynamic cutting ability. Able to take full advantage of those opportunities with his explosiveness, he’s a playmaker as a receiver, runner and kick returner.
It goes without saying that the character and work ethic are off-the-charts good. At his size, it’s not going to be where he makes his money but some of his pass protection blocks on his slot back film are outstanding and speak to what he’s about on the football field. All the reviews from the East-West Shrine Bowl were positive, displaying sharp route running throughout practices. It’s easy to believe in Perry making a roster and finding an impactful role.
This article is getting lengthy, yet it can’t be wrapped up without some superlatives on Bryce Huff. A player who some might view as limited by size or an unclear positional fit, should instead by looked at as a versatile defender with upside. There’s off-ball linebacker potential to go with his play as a physical pass rusher and edge setter versus the run. Huff is a nasty and aggressive player yet brings smart timing and hand usage as part of the package.
He has his share of ineffectual reps where he is shut down early. It’s tough to lock down the disruptive forceful edge defender for a full game though. Huff makes good use of his natural leverage and low center of gravity. The variety in his rush move repertoire allows him to keep O-linemen guessing. From a powerful rip and dip move off the edge, inside spin, forklift and an often-deadly push-pull, he offers multiple ways to win.
There are more elite athletes than Huff but he’s light on his feet, efficient changing direction and decent overall burst. His motor sees him regularly chasing in pursuit downfield and to the sidelines. Some of his lateral play hints at some potential to contribute as an off-ball linebacker.
Huff’s sack numbers dropped from 9.5 in 2018 to just 6.5 in 2019. That doesn’t tell the full story though, having piled up pressures and hits that speak to his disruptive abilities. He drew extra attention from blocking assignments and opened opportunities for teammates as a result. His 52 tackles reflect his run defense contributions and hustle. Though another not invited to the Combine, he was widely praised during Shrine Bowl practices.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
It speaks to the depth of talent in the AAC West that Trevis Gipson wasn’t featured earlier in this article. The Tulsa edge defender has developmental potential that saw him compete at the Senior Bowl. It’s likely that most others view him as a better prospect than Scott and Huff, even if not the case here. The 6’4”, 259lb pass rusher stands out for his length and motor. He’ll need to add strength and sharpen his hand technique. Some balance and body control issues are a concern.
Apologies to Tulsa, as another Senior Bowl attendee is also only a late mention here. 6’1”, 202lb cornerback Reggie Robinson II has the physical traits to likely be drafted on Day 3. The play on the field hasn’t matched up consistently enough though. He is completed on more often than not and particularly struggled against better offenses faced in Memphis and SMU. He doesn’t look instinctive with late reactions and poor ball tracking, along with disappointing footwork to allow separation.
The Combine will see SMU safety Rodney Clemons join teammate James Proche in Indianapolis. The 5’11”, 198lb defensive back’s contributions in coverage including 9 PBUs and 4 INTs this season. A solid athlete with good range, the 4-year starter offers versatility to play single high, in the box and at nickel. He may not have the highest ceiling but should contribute well when called upon and on special teams.
Memphis running back Patrick Taylor Jr. has been under the radar much of his college career. He has been less heralded than his teammates Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and now outstanding freshman Kenneth Gainwell. Injuries have also held him back and was limited to only 6 games by a foot and ankle injury in 2019. The 6’2”, 227lb back has size and power as a downhill runner between the tackles, but also a useful receiver out of the backfield. Medicals will be key to being drafted.
Some of the most enjoyable O-line film of this draft season was provided by Memphis center Dustin Woodard. His lack of size and length at 6’1”, 295lbs and 31.5” arms are not ideal. There’s so much to like elsewhere though. Woodard shows excellent movement, impressing pulling from center in the run game. Playing nasty with impactful punch at the point, he uses his pad level effectively with ideal balance and plus footwork. He’s a high priority free agent at worst.
It’s impossible to ignore the production of senior SMU running back Xavier Jones. The 5’10”, 208lb back tallied 25 total TDs and 1,276 rush yards in 2019. His quick feet and sharp cuts stand out, even if he can at times dance too much in the backfield. He’ll break tackles but goes down a little too frequently to the first defender. In addition, his vision and manipulation of linebackers is limited. He could projection to a situational back and some of his athletic traits could translate to passing game contributions.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: Houston Athletics
CFB/NFL DRAFT analyst
Rebecca is an NFL Draft analyst focusing primarily on the FCS and Group of Five conferences, and a fan of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanford Cardinal. You can find her other articles here and follow on Twitter @bex_r86.