GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: SUN BELT
By Rebecca Rennie
We return to the Group of Five as the search continues for under-the-radar draft prospects, this time checking out some excellent talent in the Sun Belt Conference. Get a head start on some of the names to know for the Combine, Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and draft weekend!
Going through a head coach transition from the hugely successful Scott Satterfield to former NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz has not slowed down App State. The Mountaineers are rolling through their schedule at 5-0, including knocking off media darlings North Carolina on the road in the process.
Providing the energy on a talented defense is one of the most under-rated draft prospects in this upcoming 2020 class in Davis-Gaither. Though featuring more of a safety build than his official starting position of outside linebacker, ADG is impacting the game on every level of the field regardless.
Impossible to miss his presence when watching App State play, Davis-Gaither stands out for his instincts, play reads and decision-making. When combined with his fantastic burst, range and closing speed, he is consistently around the action and regularly blowing up plays early. The motor and fiery demeanor reflects his strong on-field personality and leadership.
Effective working off blocks at the point of attack, Davis-Gaither aggressively disengages with timing, bringing a physical game overall with more than enough strength in his 215lb frame to operate around the line of scrimmage. He picks his way through traffic to position himself to make plays and finishes emphatically as a tackler.
While maybe not as freakish an athlete, tentative similarities could be drawn to the style of play witnessed in Chargers playmaker Derwin James, with a versatile physical game that should be applicable to any defensive scheme. With a strong pre-draft process, a late Day 2 pick is not beyond Davis-Gather.
When Jim Nagy and his Senior Bowl team released their preseason watch list, two Red Wolves receivers were featured. Not included was Bayless, who is arguably emerging as not only the top playmaker on his team but one of the best next-level prospects from the Sun Belt. Through six weeks of the 2019 season, Bayless leads the FBS in receiving yards (843 at 19.16 per catch) and after Week 7 was tied-first in receiving TDs with 10 end zone scores, prior to this.
The traits and the film back up the impressive statistical production. The former 3-star recruit has a long, toned frame with the fluidity and speed to factor into the passing game from short targets to deep. Equally able to eat up yardage with good stride length as he is to execute sudden changes of direction with his short-area quickness, Bayless is able to win in multiple ways.
Good initial upfield acceleration takes advantage of off-man coverage, while he offers nice shake and hand swipes to deflect contact from press coverage. The positive athletic traits compliment sharp route running and positional awareness to aid in separation from defensive backs. Bayless regularly impresses not only with great hands but with his body control and adjustments as the football arrives.
In addition to finding wins against Sun Belt opposition, Bayless looked the part against a higher competition level in a matchup against the Georgia Bulldogs. There are shades of the skills and body type of Cowboys’ breakout receiver Michael Gallup in the play of Omar Bayless, who ought to be climbing draft boards.
In a list which includes Tulane and two of the service schools, to rank sixth nationally in rushing yards per game is fully reflective of the talent and depth of the Ragin’ Cajuns running game and backs. Louisiana have three legitimate pro prospects all sharing time in the backfield, including dynamic senior Raymond Calais and bruising junior Trey Ragas. The one that stood out the most for projecting to the next level, however, was fellow junior Elijah Mitchell.
It’s easy to foresee scouts being excited about the combination of measurables, with Mitchell appearing to tick off the boxes in terms of the size, power and athleticism trifecta. The upfield burst and overall straight-line speed for his 221lb frame is immediately evident and results in regular chunk-yardage gains, taking full advantage when space opens up in front of him.
While he makes the most of open run lanes, that’s not to say that he doesn’t impress at the line and in traffic. Mitchell flashes the ability to pick his way between the tackles with nice footwork and reactionary shifts. He brings bang behind his pads, lowers his shoulder into tackles, and regularly breaks through tackle attempts.
The effort is fantastic, finishing every run falling forward and driving for maximum yardage. His style isn’t overly subtle or complex but it certainly is effective. He may not be at an elite level in creating outside of structure but executes well and generally makes the right decisions. Through the mid-point of the season he’s hit the end zone nine times while averaging nearly 6 yards a rush attempt (after Week 7).
The junior hasn’t been able to show much in the passing game this year but was productive with his chances in 2018; hopefully there are more opportunities to showcase that area of his game going forward. He could well be returning for his senior season but if not, will enter without much tread on the tires thanks to the shared backfield but plenty of strong film.
The first film that the majority of scouts will turn to when studying Vildor (and talented teammates Monquavion Brinson and Jessie Liptrot) will be against LSU, Joe Burrow and one of the most explosive and talented offenses nationally. It therefore helps that Vildor had a strong showing in the early season non-conference matchup that also drew high praise from Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron post-game.
It says a lot about the confidence and mental composure of Vildor that he did not looked phased at all lined up on an island opposite the likes of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Playing with vision and anticipation, along with positional discipline and reactions, he’s rarely caught out. Game film watched against conference foes such as Louisiana and Coastal Carolina suggests that he puts in the same preparation regardless of opposition.
Despite the relatively small listed size, Vildor looks stoutly built for his frame and with positive athletic traits. Showing good fluidity and depth in his backpedal, the senior corner flips his hips cleanly and transitions smoothly into his run without dropping out of phase with his receiving assignment. The reactions and footwork minimize separation given up as receivers break their routes, with short area burst to keep tight.
After 42 tackles, 11 pass breakups and 4 picks in 2018, the numbers are going to be significantly lower by the end of his senior year, in large part to being challenged less by QBs, reflecting the respect he garners from the opposition. When given the chance though, the Eagles DB flashes translatable ball skills as well as the physicality and commitment to the tackle in run support. Vildor ought to be a Day 3 lock next April.
As talented as the trio of Cajun tailbacks are, they are aided by one of the better offensive lines in the Sun Belt. Senior right guard Kevin Dotson could get some looks from the NFL, but fellow senior Robert Hunt looks the more intriguing prospect. With starting experience at both tackle spots as well as inside at guard, the potential to provide depth at multiple spots on the O-line can only help his chances of being drafted.
Hunt has the measurables to continue outside at tackle at the next level. He brings the extension and punch to go with his length and reach to gain traction on first contact at the point of attack. Playing with good form maintained throughout his blocks, he keeps a wide base with good pad level and is rarely knocked off balance. Powerful in straight-line situations, he keeps square and effectively absorbs the bull-rush.
While his game is typified by the control and consistent technique, there’s no lack of aggression as a run blocker, relishing the frequent opportunities to blow open holes in the run game, putting defenders in reverse. With above-average movement for his size, Hunt is out of his stance and onto the second level quickly, looking the part finding blocks in space.
Every team is looking for more talent to add to their offensive line, and Hunt offers the length and movement to contribute outside at tackle, and the functional strength to handle interior power.
The Panthers created the biggest shock of the first full opening weekend of the 2019 season by beating Tennessee on the road and have built on that in the first half of the year. After only two wins in 2018, Georgia State have already doubled that mark at 4-2, with a 2-1 conference record to this point.
An improved offensive line has been a key part of the success, with the unit led by experienced senior left tackle Hunter Atkinson. More of a developmental prospect than Hunt above, Atkinson is a former high school tight end who has maintained his athleticism with the added weight required for the trenches.
While the physicality he plays with is appreciated, there’s currently question marks in his core strength and ability to anchor consistently, and can be walked back into the pocket at times. There looks to be plenty room to add further bulk to his frame however, and a couple years in an NFL strength and conditioning program could lead to the emergence of a potential pro starter.
Atkinson is nimble and light on his feet, able to mirror pass rushers and handle second-phase counters. Quickly out of his stance with a smooth kick slide, the Panthers left tackle handles speed rushes well, riding edge rushers beyond the pocket. He’s able to effectively release out in front of boundary plays as a lead blocker, working on the second level and beyond. Atkinson is a project, but one with upside worthy of a late round flyer.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
While Elijah Mitchell got the attention here, App State’s junior running back Darrynton Evans could be another candidate to leave the Sun Belt early for the pros. A lean and explosive back, Evans is a lively runner who has put up the numbers so far this season. He currently ranks tenth among running backs in rush yards per game and fifth among RBs in rushing touchdowns with nine.
The previously mentioned Raymond Calais of Louisiana and South Alabama’s Tra Minter both offer versatility as change-of-pace running backs who can make a roster with the aid of their returning abilities on special teams. Both found a spot on the preseason Senior Bowl watch list and both offer a dynamic game that can find a role on the back end of NFL rosters. Unfortunately, another back in Troy’s BJ Smith was lost to a knee injury and plans to return in 2020.
Two linebackers with standout film and potential Day 3 candidates, Texas State’s Bryan London II and Louisiana’s Jacques Boudreaux are names to know. Boudreaux has range and a non-stop motor, effective in pursuit. London is a little stiff-hipped but reads the game well, is tough between the tackles and dangerous working downhill.
As mentioned earlier, Arkansas State have several receiving prospects, and while 6’4” Dahu Green has been hampered by injuries, the athletic 6’0” 215lb Kirk Merritt is performing solidly. With previous stops at Oregon and Texas A&M, including some off-field issues at the latter, Merritt has found some stability in his two years with the Red Wolves.
Merritt’s role is often to run after the catch on short targets around the line of scrimmage but might be able to show more at an All-Star game appearance.
Several of the prospects discussed in this article have helped themselves with strong showings against elite opposition; Texas State right tackle Aaron Brewer is another with a positive showing against the SEC’s Texas A&M. Despite a small listed weight of 270lbs, Brewer has surprising strength that held up against the Aggies. Playing with polished technique and form, an effective anchor and quickness in space, he has starting experience at tackle, guard and center.
The Sun Belt features a draftable kicking prospect in Georgia Southern’s Tyler Bass, who has converted every PAT in 2018 and 2019 so far and is a combined 31 of 36 on field goals in that time. His career long is a modest 48 yards, but his consistency is worth a look at a time when reliable kickers are tough to come by in the pros.
The Sun Belt was a blast to go through the film of all ten teams, and there are many others who could earn a shot in the pros. From Coastal Carolina’s Clemson transfer Sterling Johnson on the defensive line, Troy’s high IQ quarterback Kaleb Barker, App State linebacker Jordan Fehr, to Louisiana’s underrated do-it-all full back Nick Ralston, there’s a lot of talent on show. Be sure to catch a few games this season!