NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - JANUARY

By Rebecca Rennie

After a break, Small School Scouting returns! We will soon be working towards final scouting reports and building the big board. For now though, we enter the crucial All-Star season followed by the Combine and Pro Days. All five prospects in this article will be attending various All-Star events. Learn more about these talented names-to-know from outside the bigger schools:

COLE STRANGE

Photo Credit: Chattanooga Athletics

Multiple game films are essential as part of the overall evaluation of an NFL Draft prospect. That said, Chattanooga guard Cole Strange’s showing against Kentucky must be among the best individual performances from a prospect in the 2022 class. Facing some physically imposing SEC talent up front on the Wildcats’ D-line, Strange not only held up but excelled in his execution and work at the point of attack. The 6th-year interior offensive lineman was a significant part of the Mocs threatening an upset for much of the early season non-con encounter.

The wider scope of his overall film archive is no less impressive. The former 2-star 250lb defensive end recruit out of high school has developed into an ascending O-line prospect. Currently remaining relatively under-the-radar, Strange is one of five FCS offensive lineman attending the upcoming Senior Bowl. He will have every opportunity of emerging from Mobile as a more prominently discussed name for the middle rounds.

Despite potentially room for additional bulk to his frame, Strange’s strength stands out. Also utilizing good arm length, he routinely holds his ground when challenged by the bull rush. More often, Strange is creating backward movement himself as he raises anchors and drives back opponents to open running lanes. The small-school lineman consistently takes the initiative out of his stance, attacking into the opening exchanges at the point-of-attack.

With fantastic movement, Strange is explosive and light on his feet, resulting in highlight-worthy lead blocks as a pulling guard. With a mauler mentality and nasty on-field demeanor, the film is littered with scattered opposition finished to the turf, or nowhere to be seen having been driven out of view. There are moments of narrowing his base and raising pad level but generally is in control throughout.

The unrelenting aggression rarely comes at a cost, either. In pass protection, Strange typically sets an effective wide, sturdy base. With control and balance, he maintains form and leverage as he sustains blocks. The quick movement and agility allow him to adjust, recover and reset his feet when handling counters and blitz pickups.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Strange has been All-Conference academically each season in college. By all accounts, the work ethic and drive are fully present to take coaching and excel. Chattanooga have gone five years without a draft pick; that almost assuredly ends with Cole Strange in 2022.

CHRIS OLADOKUN

Photo Credit: Dave Eggen / Inertia

The All-Star circuit is fully underway, with a litany of less-heralded quarterbacks vying to make an impact at various events. There’s no Trey Lance among the small school QBs for 2022, unfortunately. However, an array of potential pro passers from the small school ranks are a worthy challenge to work through and rank at this stage. Sceptical during passive viewing through the season, Oladokun was surprisingly intriguing on closer study recently. The athletic and much-travelled prospect will attend the NFLPA Bowl in late January.

Flashing but often frustrating, Oladokun frequently struggled through stops at South Florida initially then later at Samford. Looking for one last opportunity, he landed with FCS title contenders South Dakota State. Reportedly emerging early as a locker room leader, he was praised for his maturity, work ethic and with quickly assimilating the offense with his work in the film room. The result was the best year of his college career in his sixth season.

Taking in the key matchup with eventual national champions North Dakota State, Oladokun was near-perfect. His understanding of the offense, comfort and control was evident. Showing ability to work through his progressions, he also handled some diverse blitzes with poise and in finding his checkdowns. His mobility and fast release allowed him to smoothly handle pressure, escape and extend plays. With a flair for the dramatic, he can take risks but frequently pulls off some impressive playmaking out of structure.

Frustratingly, other performances were less impressive than the outing versus the Bison. Showings such as against South Dakota highlighted some of the inconsistencies. A highly commendable aspect of Oladokun’s game is his determination to keep his eyes downfield when leaving the pocket to find a pass, despite his dangerous abilities as a runner. Against the Coyotes, his scrambles outside the pocket often ended with questionable choices throwing into heavy coverage. Two of his seven interceptions on the season were conceded during the loss to the Jackrabbits’ in-state rivals.

While the film is far from perfect, there is plenty to like about Oladokun as a developmental QB prospect. The ball comes out with easy velocity from a compact release from a variety of angles and platforms. His movement to extend plays and create as a runner are applicable to many offenses prevalent in the pros today. The ball placement and touch are generally reliable to short and intermediate areas, with the ability to challenge downfield also. Despite some notable negative examples, overall, there is evidence of a good mental process that could become more consistent.

GREGORY JUNIOR

Photo Credit: Gregory Junior via Twitter

Of the 2022 Senior Bowl attendees, the least recognizable name for most will be Ouachita Baptist corner Gregory Junior. Film study of the Division 2 prospect was positive and provided a good baseline for his abilities. However, a strong week in Mobile against better opposition would greatly elevate his draft stock. Some struggles would be expected, but progress through the week while looking the part physically would provide encouragement.

With reported mid-4.4 speed, that quickness shows up on film. A well-rounded athlete, loose hips and an overall fluidity of movement stands out early in watching Junior. A lean but long frame includes apparent good arm length to go with his mobility and range. Comfortable in his backpedal with complimentary foot quickness, he transitions and opens his stride well to keep in phase with speedy receivers. Maintaining contact well at the top of routes, his quick reactions and explosiveness as he breaks regularly minimizes separation when faced with changes of direction.

In addition to his athletic pluses, the physical style is noteworthy. The hand use is constant, immediately off the snap, while battling for position downfield, and at the catch point. Pass interference flags have resultingly been drawn, arguably unfairly at times. In one key matchup watched against fellow pro prospect L’liott Curry of Henderson State, Junior was flagged multiple times during the contest. The majority of those penalties appeared harsh. It would not surprise if scouts watching were not particularly deterred by what they observed in those instances.

On the subject of the L’liott Curry matchup, Junior frequently is tasked with following the opponent’s best receiver. Comfortable on left and right sides, to field and boundary positions, and with the reactions and burst to handle two-way-go responsibilities from the slot, he is versatile and adaptable. At the catch point, the D2 defensive back looks instinctive with nice timing as he high-points. He only has one career interception but to his credit is not targeted often at his level.

Overall, Junior’s general coverage technique and positioning is rough around the edges. While he has the footwork and closing speed, he can be caught out on comebacks occasionally. As a tackler, the execution and wrap-up technique can be a little sloppy, but the effort is certainly there at least. The Tigers cornerback likely projects as a developmental prospect. However, while he sharpens his game, he has favorable traits to contribute on special teams units in the meantime. For now, though, his pre-draft process over the next few months will be one to watch.

CORDELL VOLSON

Photo Credit: Tim Sanger

Several top small school prospects played at their best during the FCS Playoffs tournament. East Tennessee State running back Quay Holmes’ performance against Kennesaw State stood out in particular. Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen was also exceptional against South Dakota State in the semi-final. The performance that personally stood out as much as any though, was Bison right tackle Cordell Volson on the biggest stage of the championship game. North Dakota State’s dominant performance began up-front with their offensive line, particularly with Volson.

With the potential to have left for the draft prior to this season, Volson’s game has arguably benefited by returning. The opinion here was slightly underwhelmed by game film from previous seasons. Though not a top-level athlete at the position, he appears to have improved his footwork and overall movement into a smoother operation overall. That contributes towards a higher grading now, following the 2021 season. The coordination and execution are further appreciated with the more film watched.

Building on the above, two things in particular stand out from Volson’s play. Firstly, the Bison lineman’s experience and football IQ are evident in the snap-to-snap consistency. His execution of the offensive scheme with timing and positioning, particularly in his run blocking, is admirable. Secondly is his unrelenting aggressiveness. Volson is one of the toughest blockers from the FCS level in recent years. He thrives on dominating physically, challenging at the point of attack, with a non-stop motor throughout. As physical as he is, there is no sacrifice of form or technique, maintaining his control while mauling overmatched defenders.

The successful playoff run also saw Volson demonstrate his inside-outside versatility. While primarily a tackle, he played the majority of the semi-final contest with James Madison at the right guard position. Though well-coordinated, Volson is not the most explosive mover as an edge protector. On some draft boards, it would not surprise if Volson was projected as an interior prospect, despite more than enough length for tackle. Either way, the potential to contribute at multiple positions along the line only aids his appeal. The experienced and consistent O-lineman will be attending the upcoming Shrine Bowl event.

BENTON WHITLEY

Photo Credit: Holy Cross Athletics

The Crusaders’ outstanding 2021 included a 9-2 regular season, Patriot League title and trip to the playoffs. With most not expecting much from them in the post-season, they narrowly edged out Sacred Heart in the opening round before nearly shocking Villanova the following week. Junior linebacker Jacob Dobbs received most of the headlines on a talented defense as a Buck Buchanan finalist. Meanwhile, senior edge defender Benton Whitley has been effective in his own right and an under-the-radar draft prospect.

While not going to the Senior or Shrine Bowls, Whitley landed a nice spot at the upcoming NFPLA Bowl. The three-time All-Patriot League selection finished 2021 with 49 tackles, 11.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The numbers may not be eye-opening, but the Holy Cross Edge’s influence exceeds the statistical output. Additionally, he might not have standout length and size in his frame (measurements-pending) but maximizes his impact elsewhere.

Whitley plays with impressive leverage, power and aggression at the point of attack. Featuring the always-desirable wrestling background, that is evident in his polished upper body technique. His 2016 high school wrestling record finished at 49-1, including a state title. Whitley gets consistently good extension with an impactful punch on first contact. The hands land accurately and will violently work off contact with swipes and rips.

The Crusaders defender plays with good movement, footwork and short-area quickness. There are numerous examples on film of effective initial burst, lateral shifts and stunts. His closing speed results in finishing off backside pursuits and in making plays out with the tackle box. Whitley is a forceful finisher who utilizes his momentum in his physical takedowns. Though a relatively longer shot to be drafted, it would not surprise to see him impress in camp given the opportunity. His strength, motor, technique and toughness could translate well.

Feature Image Credit: Chattanooga Athletics

Rebecca Rennie

rebecca rennie

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.

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