GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: CONFERENCE-USA (WEST DIVISION)
By Rebecca Rennie
In Part 2 of our look at Conference-USA, Rebecca highlights some of the most intriguing prospects from the West Division. The C-USA doesn’t often get the attention it deserves but has plenty of NFL talent. Get a head start on the names to know for NFL Draft season!
RICO BUSSEY JR.
It’s questionable as to whether Bussey Jr. will even be a part of the 2020 draft class. What’s not questionable is that Bussey Jr. is one of the best pro prospects in the C-USA, and therefore a must to include at the top of this article. The senior receiver tore his ACL only three games into the season in what was meant to be a key opportunity to showcase his potential against PAC-12 opposition in the Cal Bears.
Bussey has a redshirt available to return should he chose to use it. However, with his fellow senior QB set to graduate, he may not want to chance the uncertainty of playing with an inexperienced and less talented passer and instead take his chances in the draft. Without the medical red flag, Bussey Jr. is worthy of being selected in the 3rd-4th round range, and still could land early on day three if all checks out with his health.
While not playing at the highest competition level, Bussey shows a polished and dynamic skill set that should translate to the pros. With a trim frame and good wingspan, the athletic receiver has an eye-catching upfield burst of acceleration. He’s able to create separation by outpacing DBs as he stretches the field, or at the top of his routes, notably on comebacks.
Though lean in build, Bussey steps up to physical press corners. His excellent use off hands in the initial phase of play minimizes disruption to his routes, regularly taking the initiative in physical exchanges to deflect contact. Those abilities also show up by owning the catch point, winning vertically and adjusting to the ball. Drops and double-clutches are rare, and the Mean Green senior regularly brings in difficult catches cleanly.
A positive that clearly stands out when watching Bussey is the variety of ways and areas of the field in which he makes an impact. Able to win inside or outside, his abilities to the sidelines are equal to his play over the middle of the field and after the catch. Though he lost his opportunity against Cal this season, he impressed in 2018 against an admittedly disappointing Arkansas team. That year saw the production to reflect the skill set with 68 catches for 1,017 yards and 12 TDs.
At the time of writing, there hasn’t been a decision on Bussey Jr.’s intentions. As exciting has his traits are, many of the positives are athletically based that hopefully will not be diminished on his return from serious injury. Projecting favorably to the vast majority of offensive scemes, he should be coveted if he declares.
The first player to sign with Bill Clark’s reboot of the Blazers football program, Marino has had an unusual and lengthy path through college football. The Southern Cal former semi-pro surfer has ended up in Alabama via a protracted route taking in a variety of stops.
Initially signing with Arizona State out of high school in 2013, academics among other factors led to spending a season at Montana State instead. A parting of ways and return to Cal at Orange Coast College followed, before getting the call from UAB to sit out two seasons, redshirting one year, and maintaining three seasons of eligibility.
The end result is an older prospect who will be a 26-year-old as a rookie. That will hurt his stock, but if he provides a role for the length of his rookie deal, there ought to be no issue in investing a Day 3 selection on a talented impactful player. With a smaller frame, there are shades of Grady Jarrett in his combination of size and style of play.
Though shorter for the position, Marino has good bulk and relative arm length for his frame. He compensates by getting the most out of the extension he does have, with strong impactful hands on contact, and making use of his natural leverage advantage to hold up at the point of attack. The D-lineman wins with his initial quickness and effective upper body technique. Marino utilizes an array of polished rush moves and a fantastic snap-to-snap motor.
With good reactions off the ball, Marino is effective shooting gaps, dismissing any resulting late hands and achieving early backfield pressure. His second efforts to chase down ball carriers adds to his impact. The UAB senior faces a steady amount of double-team attention, yet finds ways to continue to be disruptive and productive, while also opening up opportunities for teammates. With only one way to conclude on Marino, his big-man touchdown vs Tulane is always worth another watch.
As a true junior, Robertson is the second player of the first three discussed who could be returning to college. Still, as with Bussey, there’s a good chance he enters the draft early. Should he do so, he instantly becomes one of the top prospects out of Conference USA.
Though undersized, the playmaking ability is undeniable and has led to several times being compared to Tyrann Mathieu. Lighting up the stat sheet, Robertson has 16 PBUs, 5 INTs (2 returned for TDs), 7 TFLs and 54 tackles in 2019 so far. His ball production this season is no fluke, with 14 picks already over his three seasons combined.
There are ways to overcome size disadvantages, and Robertson utilizes them all. His track speed and impressive vertical leap gives him ways to win physically, while his aggressive play style, confidence and competitive edge aids him mentally. He has flashed the ability to match up and win against tall receivers, notably flashing against Texas’ Collin Johnson to start the 2019 season.
His attacking gameplan results in taking some chances and occasionally being beat. That said, they are far outweighed by the successful plays and game-changing takeaways. With good instincts, the LA Tech star trusts his reads and anticipates throws and routes. His combination of vision, closing speed and footwork lends itself to being able to work in both zone and man assignments. The reports of being a film room junkie fully reflects in his play on the field.
Any receiver who believes they can outmuscle Robertson quickly learn otherwise. The junior corner fights well for position in coverage, and will scrap with the best of them. As a tackler in run support, he can at times be a bit of an ankle biter but is generally effective and always committed.
Overall, Robertson’s high football IQ and playmaking ability, combined with all the desired intangibles and work ethic will make him a popular riser through the draft process. It feels like it would be a relative surprise to not see him head to the pros early after a third highly productive season.
Arguably the most high-profile C-USA player with the majority of college football and draft fans, Fine is likely a fringe pro prospect at best. It’s been a relatively disappointing year for 4-7 North Texas after much pre-season expectation. Fine’s numbers are also a little down in places, though losing his top target in Rico Bussey Jr. is certainly a factor.
The preseason conference offensive player of the year has exceptional intangibles that will certainly earn him a look from NFL teams. Highly motivated and hardworking, Fine loves the game and is reportedly committed in the weight room and film room. His on-the-field demeanor also shines through with a determined winning mentality, confidence in his reads and excellent command of the offense he runs. Proving his football IQ in pre-draft interviews will help his chances of competing for a backup role.
Fine also impresses with his pocket poise and mobility. Navigating the pocket calmly with decent footwork overall, he is also able to effectively run bootlegs and scramble as required. Able to step into his throws or throw from off-platform, his mechanics are good with a fairly quick release. He’s never been a notable rushing threat in college, but the general movement skills are good enough.
Ultimately though, there are some limitations to Fine’s game. While a small frame isn’t as much an issue with NFL scouts as it used to be, there is some concern with the arm talent and execution as a passer. There’s a significant lack of arm strength and zip on the ball. Many passes to the far sideline and down the field take too long to reach their target and can often float. Opportunities are available for DBs to jump in front to make a play on the ball.
In addition, the downfield accuracy and general ball placement is very inconsistent. Too many times the Mean Green QB is over- or under-throwing his intended target. Some simple short throws and crossers make receivers have to work to bring them in outside of frame or from behind. Fine has had a productive college career, but he seems a long-shot to be drafted. His outstanding character and drive should see some attention as a priority free agent at the least, however.
Returning to the Bulldogs’ secondary, senior safety Sneed is another playmaker with some traits to intrigue as a late round prospect. While his numbers aren’t as gaudy as Robertson’s, Sneed has three career pick 6’s as part of 7 interceptions in college. His play in coverage is the area in which the rangy DB will primarily draw looks over his play against the run.
With a lean but toned build, Sneed is a nice athlete with enough range for the next level. His ball skills stand out, with natural receiver skills at the catch point when in position to make plays on the ball. He can be hit or miss in man coverage, but is better providing support over the top as a deep safety, in Cover 1 assignments, flashing well with the action in front of him and working laterally.
Though athletic, Sneed can get a little ragged in his footwork, positioning and tackling technique. His angles when working downhill toward ball carriers are inconsistent. While he has an active game and plays with good energy, his tackling can let him down, too often slipping off some attempts. He is far from the most imposing with his command of the area and hitting ability. He is capable, with some nice stops around the line of scrimmage on occasion, but needs to be more consistent.
His NFL potential should center around his athleticism and ball skills. While his game isn’t the most complete as yet, there’s potential upside with more polish all-round. He has skills that should translate to contributing on special teams units while he develops. A late round selection or priority free agent signing would seem likely at this stage.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
The season may not have gone to plan, but North Texas have no shortage of individual talent, including some on defense. LaDarius Hamilton plays too upright and narrow, but the 6’2”, 260lb edge defender has enough quickness and flexibility to dip and turn the corner. Though he can get stuck on blocks, his high motor and active hands gets results with backfield pressure. His finishing as a tackler is outstanding, levelling QBs fairly but with force.
While most of the prospects in the West center around a few teams, there is potential elsewhere. UTSA safety Carl Austin III looks athletic traversing the field, working downhill into the box with closing speed. Missing the entirety of his 2018 senior season with a knee injury, he looks to be fully recovered. Noted for his leadership and football IQ, he could be a camp surprise as a likely free agent.
As a 4-year starter, initially for three seasons at North Carolina Central then his senior season as a transfer at Rice, offensive guard Nick Leverette has no shortage of experience. Playing with aggression and power, the 6’3”, 309lb lineman is equally coordinated and technically accomplished as he is a mean blocker. Limitations in his athleticism and movement hurts his upside, but the film is good.
UAB junior running back Spencer Brown was a big part of the successful 2018 Blazers season (11-3), with 1,227 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. The powerful 5’11”, 228lb back has been limited with injuries this season though, and has only averaged around 3.5 yards per carry. It might be best to return for his senior season.
A pair of well-built receivers could have an outside shot at NFL opportunity, in Southern Miss’ Jordan Mitchell (6’2”, 202lbs) and Louisiana Tech’s Malik Stanley (6’2”, 220lbs). Mitchell is a well-rounded receiver with a decent combination of size, quickness and strength, though without any standout traits. He’s another who has had some injury trouble in 2019. Stanley, a South Alabama transfer, uses his frame well at the catch point, though lacks ideal speed and separation skills.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: Yahoo Sport UK