NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - WEEK 1
By Rebecca Rennie
College football is back! Which means small school scouting at The Touchdown returns also. It’s a niche area of interest, but every year there are talented prospects drafted from the smaller schools from the FCS and below. Many others make final rosters and practice squads. We’ll keep you up-to-date with under-the-radar prospects to learn more about. Previously, this has been done by conferences and divisions. However, this year it will be roughly five names that could be from any school around the country. Let’s get started!
Week 1 of the 2021 season saw some impressive performances and many shock wins from FCS schools over FBS opposition. Western Illinois did not achieve victory in a 31-21 loss to Ball State to add to the list of upsets. However, redshirt senior receiver Dennis Houston had a monster statistical performance against last season’s MAC champions. Houston totalled 12 catches for 237 yards (19.8 yards average) and 2 touchdowns.
Houston’s versatility as a playmaker was on full show throughout the contest. A 48-yard first quarter reception saw him take a step advantage on the DB on a deep post route. On the opening Leathernecks play of the second half, Houston turned upfield on a short reception to shake a tackle attempt and run the length of the sideline 75 yards for a score. A fourth quarter red zone TD demonstrated good strength and sharp route running on a comeback to create an opening.
Those big plays certainly padded out the stat sheet. That said, much of the encouragement that came from the performance was based around some of the more routine receptions executed around those highlight moments. The safe hands over the middle while taking a hit. The chain-moving underneath and intermediate plays. High pointing and taking ownership at the catch point on sideline grabs. Fighting for extra yards after contact, breaking tackles and off-ball blocking. Overall, the well-rounded game on display suggested a potentially translatable game for the next level.
The Western Illinois playmaker isn’t the biggest target but looks the part with a muscular well-built frame. Notable throughout the Ball State contest were the impressive releases and acceleration off the line. Though not a true blazer, Houston looks a sufficient athlete with good feet and smooth movement. Maintaining his speed while breaking his routes aid in separating from coverage. The overall physical attributes contribute towards the ability to be a factor short and over the middle, in addition to deeper shots downfield.
Houston plays with an alpha mentality. This is evident in how he takes ownership of his route paths, makes himself difficult to disrupt off his intended movements, and in challenging at the catch point. He uses his hands well from press coverage and brings it as a blocker off the ball. He combines toughness with focus when catching in traffic and taking a hit.
After 43 receptions in only six games last season, he’s off to another good start to 2021. It doesn’t hurt to have a solid quarterback in fellow senior Connor Sampson distributing the ball, either. He’ll have plenty more good opponents through the Mountain Valley Conference schedule. However, it doesn’t hurt to put up a big showing in the Leathernecks’ only FBS contest this season.
Jacksonville State feature several interesting NFL Draft prospects this season. While quarterback Zerrick Cooper gets much of the intention, Coleman arguably holds higher intrigue. The Wednesday night game against UAB was a frustrating one on both sides of the ball for the Gamecocks in a 31-0 loss. Still, Coleman put up a solid stat line for his individual efforts. The senior edge defender put up 8 tackles (though only 1 solo), 0.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks.
A toolsy EDGE with developmental potential, Coleman totalled 54 tackles, 12 TFLs, 9 sacks and 13 QB hurries last season. Despite the good numbers, it was noticeable on previous film that there were missed opportunities also. In contrast to expectation given his ideal length, too often he doesn’t wrap up tackles effectively to complete otherwise good plays. In the first quarter versus UAB, Coleman did a fantastic job splitting a double team and close quickly for early pressure. However, he allowed the scrambling QB to slip from his grasp.
There is no doubt though, that the ceiling is very high for the JSU defender with more consistency and refinement. His combination of length, athleticism and agility is uncommon, not just at the FCS level. Also evident on the UAB film was his movement and fluidity, comfortably dropping and playing in space. He lines up in multiple spots across the front of the defense, primarily standing up from a 2-point stance.
There’s no question that the Gamecocks defender is very raw in terms of his form, leverage, rush technique and finishing. He needs to learn how to more effectively apply himself at the point of attack, set up his rushes, timing and combinations. Run defence is a work-in-progress, as is learning to disengage once established on blocks.
Despite that, he wins frequently to cause problems in the backfield and compile good production. The 2021 second team All-American (STATS) gets a lot of wins through being more physically gifted than those around him. He can be slippery through gaps and creates pressure while splitting double teams. The energy rep-to-rep is great, aiding his dangerous closing speed and stride length. There is work required, but the upside is enticing. After an entertaining 2020 meeting, a rematch with Florida State is up next for Coleman and Jacksonville State.
Reportedly asked about the potential of transferring up to an FCS school for 2021, it apparently wasn’t considered by Jones. Noted by the broadcast team handling the Arizona State contest, the massive tackle loves where he is with Southern Utah. Paraphrasing, Jones explained that they were the ones to take a chance on him and returned that loyalty. The NFL is well aware of his unmissable presence on the Thunderbirds offensive line. Expect Jones to be a candidate for the post-season Senior Bowl event before the draft.
Much of Jones’ best opportunities to impress during this season have already been completed. Playing during Week 0, SUU played back-to-back FBS opposition in San Jose State followed by Arizona State in Week 1. The first saw some struggles for Jones in a tricky matchup against Cade Hall and a solid Spartans DL group. Needing to work on his anchor, extension and balance to maximize his frame and strength, Jones allowed defenders into his chest at times. As a result, and despite his size, he was worked backwards occasionally.
Also apparent on the SJSU film were some issues handling inside counters. Jones was a touch late reacting and adjusting to second phase moves, allowing pass rushers to work off him at the point of attack and disengage. With all that said, it was an overall positive appearance and ultimately, he did not concede much to the pass rush. Talented senior Cade Hall in particular was noticeably quiet throughout.
Against the Sun Devils, there were similar challenging reps. This time however, a couple of them were punished. Early on, Jones gave up the outside pressure that led to the resulting interception. Whilst acknowledging that holds happen on a large number of plays, Jones was none-the-less fortunate not to be flagged multiple times, particularly during the first half. He still had some excellent moments against ASU, including a number of powerful finishes to the turf in the run game.
Outside off the above notes, there is undeniable upside with the Thunderbirds offensive tackle. The size is imposing, with a broad frame and length. It’s obvious immediately how impressive his quickness and footwork are at that size. His initial releases into his kick slide are an effective set up for each rep. He makes for an intimidating figure out in front on the second level seeking out blocks. When his inconsistent extension and hand placement are correct, the results can be emphatic. There is plenty to work on with technique and sustaining blocks, but he should be a coveted developmental prospect.
Several top division schools had nervy close calls against small school opposition to open the season. Kansas have had their difficulties recently, regardless of level, and so many predicted South Dakota to have a chance against the Jayhawks. So it proved, ultimately taking a late touchdown to overcome the Coyotes 17-14. South Dakota linebacker Jack Cochrane was a constant influence in limiting the offense for new Kansas coach Lance Leipold.
Cochrane’s active performance resulted in 13 tackles (7 solo), 2.5 tackles for loss and 1 pass breakup. His second quarter was particularly strong. The off-ball linebacker showed his quick diagnosis and reactions to angle to the sideline on a 3rd & 5. The open-field tackle for loss forced the punt and change of possession. With a minute to halftime and Kansas deep in the red zone, Cochrane shot a gap through into the backfield for another TFL. He almost made a game-clinching interception in the final minutes on his pass breakup. Unfortunate not to come down with the ball, it was an admittedly difficult play to make.
An experienced starter at his level, it shows in the execution. It will be interesting to see how he tests as an athlete. Cochrane plays quick and shows decent sideline range, is smooth moving in all directions and makes an impact in coverage. His active game is certainly helped with his excellent football IQ. His pre-snap and post-snap work showcase his eyes and awareness, instincts, read and reactions. He plays with consistent positioning, discipline and decision-making. That said, he’s not immune to the occasional bad angle towards the ball carrier that eliminates him on the play.
It’s not a surprise to see high school wrestling in his background. Cochrane plays with toughness and physicality. He displays good hands working at the point of attack, stacking and shedding blocks fairly well. Overall, the Coyotes defender navigates through traffic effectively to show up on time. With a special teams background as well, he has the right traits to potentially contribute there at the next level. After triple-digit tackles during his last full season in 2019, Cochrane is poised for another productive year.
Arguably the best-known FCS running back for the 2022 NFL draft goes to North Carolina A&T’s Jah-Maine Martin. He was significantly outshined by another senior RB prospect on the other sideline, however. Devin Wynn is an intriguing pro prospect in his own right and demonstrated why in the Paladins 29-18 victory over the Aggies.
Wynn had a solid day on the ground, with 75 yards on 18 carries (4.2 average). Some lateral runs to the sidelines didn’t pay off and hurt the average, but Wynn impressed between the tackles. His cuts were on point to hit the holes, while not messing about in heading north, showing excellent burst. However, the primary takeaway from his performance was as a receiver. The relatively smaller back would likely project best to a role that utilizes him in the passing game, and it’s an area in which he thrives.
Wynn stood out as a pass catcher, not simply out the backfield, but frequently lining up at slot receiver. Two of his biggest plays on the afternoon came from the slot to the QB’s left. Wynn caught the opening touchdown early in the opening quarter, finding space in the end zone. Early in the second quarter, he caught a short pass over the middle, followed by a spin move to evade a tackle and gain additional yardage on the run. Later, Wynn took off deep down the field and drew a pass interference flag that wasn’t included in the stat sheet. As a receiver, he added 55 yards and 1 TD on five catches. That brought his yardage total to 130 yards on the day.
Wynn’s most dominant season to date came in 2019. The versatile playmaker totalled 1,323 offensive yards and 16 touchdowns as a runner and receiver. While not the biggest, it’s clear that Wynn relishes the physical elements of the game. The Paladins back is constantly fired up, vocal and emotional in all the right ways. The energetic, high-motor offensive weapon gives his all as a blocker, including in space from his slot position.
Feature Image Credit: Furman Athletics.