GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: C-USA (EAST DIVISION)
By Rebecca Rennie
Conference-USA features a lot of draft talent across its 14 teams, and so in the first of two parts, Rebecca takes a look at the best of the East Division. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine, in our continuing series looking for FCS and Group of Five draft prospects!
With the 2020 draft shaping up to be a class loaded with talent at the so-called “skill positions” at running back and receiver, a strong group of prospects at the tight end spot is feeling slightly under-appreciated at this early stage in the process. Though he may not sit at the top of that list, Harrison Bryant leads the way nationally in production at the position.
Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic team had a down season in 2018 at 3-5 in conference (5-7 overall). They have bounced back this year though, leading the C-USA East Division 5-1 and 7-3 overall. Through 10 games, Bryant has already broken most of his receiving totals from last season. The standout tight end leads the FBS at the position in receptions (48), yards (708) and yards per game (70.8).
Bryant is not the biggest at tight end but is a plus athlete. His size and play style will likely draw plenty comparisons to the likes of Evan Engram and Jonnu Smith. His initial acceleration off the line and burst in and out of route breaks are above average at the position. Maintaining his speed as he changes directions, Bryant will earn separation against the majority of linebackers and safeties he will likely see in coverage.
FAU’s leading receiver generally looks easy and natural securing catches cleanly with control and timing at the catch point. That said, there are a number of occasions in some of the film watched in which tight coverage resulted in the ball hitting the turf. While he sees significant time as a move TE and slot receiver, he will set up inline regularly. Blocking success can be inconsistent and often is doing the bare minimum.
In addition to the overall numbers, Bryant’s performances included a good showing against top competition in Ohio State to begin the year. With a Senior Bowl invite already accepted, he’ll have further opportunity to showcase his abilities against elite opposition. Proving his hands in contested situations will be important. With such a high ceiling as a playmaking receiver, his draft stock could continue to rise through the process. A Day 2 draft selection is a possibility.
Just ask Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman what he thinks of Highsmith. When the reigning national champions took on Charlotte in non-conference play earlier this season, the Tigers comfortably won 52-10. However, the talented O-lineman left the contest knowing he’d personally been through one of his toughest tests. Effusive in his praise of Highsmith, Carman described the 49ers’ edge rusher as the fastest off the snap he’d ever faced.
The film backs up Carman’s assessment. The Charlotte senior has a truly explosive first step and upfield burst, aided by timing the snap consistently well. He backs that up with lightning fast, aggressive hands that exemplifies his overall polished upper body technique.
Though not the tallest or longest, he gets maximum extension from his reach to go with accurate hands into the chest of opponents, impressing post-contact to work off blocks. Working both round the outside and with inside counters, the 49ers’ pass rusher currently has 8.5 sacks on the season.
It’s no surprise that the former walk-on piles up tackles (51 through 10 games) and TFLs (15.5). Highsmith stands out in pursuit in the run game with good closing speed and motor. He particularly impresses with his wrap-up tackling as a reliable finisher when in position. He does have his moments getting blocked out of the action on run plays, but often his second efforts result in completing the play regardless.
Overall, the talented edge defender has an intriguing combination of both speed and under-rated power and punch at the point. His sturdy frame carries enough bulk to go with his burst to win in multiple ways and switch up his attack. Effective working both upfield and laterally on the second level, he impacts the game versus the run and the pass. Highsmith is a productive and consistent winner who regularly takes advantage of being left in 1-on-1 situations.
One of the key names to know in terms of developmental Day 3 quarterback prospects, James Morgan flashes on film as exciting and frustrating in equal measures. With a big frame and one of the stronger arms among the 2020 QB class, the Panthers passer has the physical traits that will probably earn a late-round flier at the very least.
A transfer from Bowling Green, Morgan has significantly improved from his time with the Falcons but continues to have flaws in his game that might be destined to never reach the requisite level for NFL success. Most concerning lies within his poor footwork and questionable poise in the pocket. With an inconsistent throwing platform and narrow base, he regularly doesn’t step into his throws well, including at times from a clean pocket under no pressure.
Prone to locking on to his first read and hesitating when it’s unavailable, Morgan can make bad decisions when he is under pressure. While he hasn’t had many turnovers this season (2 interceptions), he often seems to threaten one on film more so than the numbers suggest.
All that said, the arm strength could be considered elite. The senior QB is capable of some exceptional highlight throws that not all prospects at the position can make. Fitting the ball into tight windows and zipping the ball downfield to hit receivers in stride can at times look easy for Morgan. As impressive as the arm is, there’s questionable ability to throw with touch when required, the ball placement is inconsistent and the decision making can let him down too often.
Morgan fits the profile of a developmental project with upside and a potentially low floor. His physical traits are the primary selling point, with not just the frame and big arm, but mobility as a powerful runner who can make plays with his legs if necessary. There’s sure to be coaches looking at the raw tools, believing they can harness the skill set into a viable starter down the line.
There aren’t many successful NFL offensive lineman who measure in at 6’1”. The likes of Patriots guard Shaq Mason have done so, and Miles Pate could be next. The measurables may not be prototype but the film is outstanding, and the athletic pluses are clear. Rightfully part of the preseason Senior Bowl watch list, Pate currently plays outside at right tackle but also has experience at both guard spots.
Were Mike Mayock still part of our media draft coverage, we’d be anticipating the use of “bubble butt” in Pate’s description. The WKU tackle has a thick stout frame, particularly in the lower body. His wide base, ideal contact balance and natural leverage contribute toward a strong anchor. A consistent and reliable pass protector, Pate has the mirror skills, anticipation and movement to excel.
Pate quickly releases from his stance and achieves depth in his kick slide, and is able to change directions and execute secondary blocks on short notice. His sound technique and coordination, along with good core strength allows him to absorb bull rushes, and to handle speed-to-power transitions comfortably.
While he best projects inside, his quickness and footwork stand out playing off the edge at tackle. Playing from the interior, he’ll be able to utilize his ability to quickly work up onto the second level and pulling in front as a lead blocker in the run game. For a player of his power, he can slightly underwhelm at times as a run blocker, in terms of finishing aggressively on a consistent basis. That said, there’s plenty examples of him doing so that shows he’s more than capable.
Not everyone will rate Pate as a prospect, and the lack of length will remove him from some draft boards. However, he looks to not only be worthy of making a roster but could have starting potential if he lands in the right situation. Here’s hoping he’s attending one of the post-season All-Star games and impresses.
The 49ers senior class certainly appreciate the school booking their matchup with Clemson. As with Highsmith above, running back Benny LeMay made the most of the opportunity to impress. While his 18 carries for 81 yards (4.5 per rush) don’t leap off the page, he showed power and vision while looking the part against quality opposition.
With a bowling ball build reminiscent of Maurice Jones-Drew, LeMay makes full use of his low center of gravity and natural balance. His short but powerful compact frame makes him tough to take down. Capable of breaking tackles and consistently falling forward for maximum yardage, the 1st team All-CUSA back thrives on playing up to physical challenges and taking on contact.
As impressive as the physical elements of his game are, his fundamentals, vision and decision-making round out his skill set. LeMay anticipates holes opening up and hits them with timing, knowing when to head north. There’s very little dancing and hesitation in the backfield. As a receiver he runs accurate routes, avoids disruption through traffic, and sees the ball into his hands cleanly.
Where he is more lacking is in his lack of true top-end speed. LeMay has decent burst and can work well laterally, but without dynamic cutting ability or breakaway speed. There are times where defenders will be able to beat him to outside angles and cut him off. There are enough positives to have a chance at a roster spot though, and could earn a late draft selection.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
After producing well in 2018, Marshall edge defender Channing Hames hasn’t put up the same numbers as a Senior. He did impress early against Boise though, and has traits worthy of a look at the next level. With good size, physicality and power, he also flashes some well-executed rush moves and smart use of leverage. Hames has enough quickness, aided by nice reactions off the snap, and finishes well as a tackler.
Noah Jefferson is an interesting case. The Florida Atlantic defensive lineman sees limited snaps and minimal production, yet the measurables that led to being a 4-star signee with USC are still present if it can ever finally click. The former Trojan has ideal length (6’5”, 315lbs) and quickness with fast hands and a better-than-expected motor. He’s let down though by poor technique and pad level, and rarely makes full use of his extension.
After a monster junior season that included 132 tackles, Florida International linebacker Sage Lewis is only on pace for about half that mark in 2019. He has a sturdy 6’0”, 240lb frame but looks limited athletically. He plays smart, disciplined football between the tackles, though doesn’t appear to have any standout traits that likely results in going undrafted.
Another member of Will Healy’s impressive Charlotte roster, left tackle Cameron Clark is a nasty run blocker with intriguing movement skills. There are some technical flaws including too narrow a stance and he could do with added bulk. However, he appears to have developmental potential, likely as an interior lineman. He displays all the right intangibles and effort level on the field to give him a chance.
Florida International running back Napoleon Maxwell was an unexpected plus on film. He’s had a significant injury history that has held him back over his college career. At 5’11”, 215lbs and plenty of burst, he shows the ability to make effective cuts and break tackles. Given an opportunity, he could surprise in a training camp.
One of the better junior prospects in the conference, Middle Tennessee safety Reed Blankenship was lost for the season following a bad ankle injury against North Texas. A highly active and intelligent playmaker, Blankenship was playing well enough that leaving for the draft a year early might have been an option for the Blue Raider. On the presumption that now doesn’t happen, keep his name in mind for next year.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!