NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - WEEK 10
By Rebecca Rennie
While it would be a stretch to ever refer to these articles as short or punchy, it was attempted to reign in the write-ups this week to be slightly more concise. Work commitments could limit the frequency and length of articles for the next while, making briefer articles a necessity. Hopefully the format is still informative, perhaps some might even prefer it! We are featuring more impressive prospects this week, worthy of knowing for the 2022 NFL draft class. There appears to be more offensive prospects than defensive this year, and we again focus on that side of the ball.
As both the season and scouting progresses, the more impressive this FCS class of wide receivers appears. Standouts such as Christian Watson, Dennis Houston and Isaiah Weston have been discussed multiple times here this year. Idaho State’s Tanner Conner is not only among the top tier of receiving talent but one of the better FCS prospects for 2022, regardless of position. A fantastic combination of size, strength and speed, the track hurdler is an exceptional athlete for his frame with appealing positional versatility.
Conner had the opportunity to showcase his abilities against one of the best teams in the country last Saturday. The offense invariably struggled to sustain drives against the BYU Cougars, limiting chances to make plays, but Conner still flashed his skillset and traits. The Bengals playmaker turned 4 receptions into 81 yards at over 20 yards per catch. It could have been more with a long catch and run called back due to a penalty.
Among the notable plays made versus the Cougars was some strong blocking. Conner has been discussed as a potential versatile offensive weapon when projecting to the NFL level. His build and athleticism could see reps at receiver, tight end and full back in the pros. He was involved as a blocker on Idaho State’s late third quarter touchdown run and several other off-ball assignments during the contest.
In addition to height and bulk, Conner appears to have long arms for his frame. His catch radius offers an impressive target window on jump balls. He uses his strength to his advantage in establishing position and forcing his route path as he releases. His BYU outing also demonstrated the ability after the catch. Conner takes on contact and breaks tackle for additional yardage with the ball in his hands.
The Bengals receiver has areas to improve on, notably with some footwork. Conner could be more efficient in some of his breaks, at the top of routes and on comebacks. A little wasted motion over short areas was noted on occasion that could be tightened up. Other elements to his route execution impress, however. His hands are a factor in some early wins off the line before accelerating away from press coverage. The speed at his size to separate is uncommon in players of his build. Conner is not overly well known at this stage but could be more discussed soon. There’s every chance of Senior Bowl and Combine invites and a strong chance to be a Day 3 draft selection.
Another week and another talented FCS offensive lineman to discuss. Zakelj is a long-established favorite here, however. The Fordham left tackle has been on the radar for several years and feels like one of the more under-rated prospects in this class. The Rams 41-20 win over Georgetown last weekend was just the latest dominant outing for the senior lineman. In addition to his commanding performances at this level, he frequently overpowered Nebraska defenders in a key matchup for his evaluation earlier this season.
The pre-draft process will be intriguing in terms of measurables. Zakelj has a mostly ideal frame with a powerful 6’6 broad build and stout base. On film, however, his arms don’t appear to be the longest and some official numbers will be of interest. Zakelj has the outstanding film and execution alongside many positive traits for playing tackle at the next level. He could get consideration at guard also. His anchor, toughness, aggression and mauling run blocking would translate fantastically to the interior if required, for instance. Either way, expect Zakelj to potentially offer coveted inside-outside versatility at multiple spots on the offensive line.
The aforementioned physicality immediately stands out from the Rams O-lineman. Zakelj is on the offensive in the opening phase out of his stance. He is quick to engage with a forceful punch, taking the initiative at the point of attack. He does so while remaining in control throughout each rep. Zakelj has excellent upper body technique with good hand placement that consistently sustains blocks. The core strength is complimented by controlled footwork, form and balance. The lower half execution results in reliable pass protection and rarely losing ground to maintain pocket integrity.
There is little to fault him with in regards to technique and execution. There are occasions when speed off the edge can catch Zakelj out early. The majority of situations see him do enough to work pass rushers to a wide enough angle to minimize pressure. His width, power and coordination make it difficult to soften the edge against him to limit angles to the quarterback. Ideal anticipation, reactions and overall smart play result in rarely conceding pressure. Zakelj is another who is hopefully invited to a premier All-Star event to further his draft stock.
After discussing a top prospect from the Bengals earlier, we return to the state of Idaho to focus on a defender from their in-state rivals. Vandals linebacker Tre Walker is closing out a highly productive college career. That included compiling 138 tackles during a monster 2019 season and averaging 13.5 tackles over a shortened 4-game spring season. That contributed toward a place on the Senior Bowl Watch List and highlighted as The Touchdown’s FCS linebacker to watch in pre-season.
At his best, Walker is a highly active energetic defender who is consistently around the action. A 16-tackle outing against Big Ten opponents Indiana and 18 stops against Portland State are among his statistical outputs in 2021. This past weekend’s 42-24 win over Southern Utah saw Walker add a further 12 tackles to his numbers on the season. Perhaps more importantly however, was that he showcased his abilities in space against the Thunderbirds.
The senior linebacker added a pair of pass breakups, including a key 3rd down red zone stop early in the second quarter. Over the course of the game, Walker impressed with a number of open-field tackles, breaking down well in space. He dropped smoothly into shallow zones and displayed nice sideline pursuit. Frequently apparent in his game films, Walker again looked dangerous working downhill, pressuring the backfield and closing quickly on ball carriers.
Walker has nice short area burst and a high motor attacking style that can create disruption. The short but stocky linebacker bring intensity and a bulldozing style as he attempts to force his way through traffic toward the action. At times, he can abandon position and offer running lanes in the space vacated. Some false steps can require a recovery phase to rectify positioning and angles. While the Southern Utah performance was among his better showings in space, his overall abilities to contribute defending the pass are difficult to determine against greater competition. Hopefully Walker is another to receive an invite to a pre-draft all-star event to provide that answer.
Further offensive line attention is required, with Carter a must to include this week. The Southern left tackle was recently announced as an early invite to the high-profile East-West Shrine Bowl. That was followed by a premier matchup against some of the best opposition he will face this season. Florida A&M features some strong defensive talent, including one of the top pass rushers in the FCS.
Rattlers EDGE Isaiah Land has piled up 20.5 TFLs and 14 sacks on the season. His play has put him in contention for this year’s Buck Buchanan Award. However, Carter arguably got the better of the contest when the two went head-to-head. Land made plays, including 2 sacks, but most of his success came while attacking the right tackle. FAMU’s pass rusher took on Carter early in the game but quickly switched over for the majority of the remaining snaps.
The physical traits with Carter are evident early into watching film. In addition to being well built with a powerful build, it is his quickness that stands out in particular. Carter has desirable explosiveness releasing from his stance and foot quickness to keep pace and frame defenders. He can achieve angles difficult for most and pulls impressively from the left to lead block on runs to the right sideline. The combination of his movement and power at the point of attack results in some devastating run blocking success, including on the second level. He has the strength to overpower, drive and create backward movement.
While the size, strength and agility are positives, there are technical improvements required. For example, while foot speed is a plus, the footwork itself can be inefficient at times. Carter can be inconsistent setting his base and anchor that can lead to being knocked off balance occasionally. The hands can get a little erratic in their placement and in sustaining effective contact throughout reps. That said, when his punch lands though, he can control the action with ease. Carter gets his coordination and technique correct often and to great effect. Doing so more consistently will unlock the full potential, however. Despite that, it’s undeniable how rare he is beaten at the FCS level regardless.
Carter’s size is more prototypical of an interior lineman. That said, his movement and quickness could allow the opportunity to remain outside. Official arm length measurements may factor for some teams as to where he will project to play. There is potential for Carter to offer cover across the line, adding to his value. The East-West Shrine event will be a crucial week against better competition. The tools are certainly there to work with and develop with a higher ceiling than many better-known small school prospects.
An all-purpose yardage monster, Washington showcased again why he’s among the most dynamic playmakers in the FCS against The Citadel. Doing all his damage in the opening half, the Bulldogs redshirt senior had modest offensive numbers that were much better taken into context. A big lead, coupled with The Citadel’s long second half drives, limited opportunities later in the game. His 3 receptions went for 52 yards (17.3 average) that saw him work superbly after the catch. Despite his slightly built frame, he plays bigger and with an edge, driving into contact for extra yardage.
He added 1 carry for just 5 yards that should have gone for a loss. Washington duked and cut his way to positive yardage that again showcased his shifty short-area quickness. The highlight of the contest came in the return game, however. Surrounded quickly by Citadel players, he made several miss immediately before bursting through the last line for a 68-yard punt return touchdown. It was his second punt return touchdown of the season and his fourth in the past three seasons.
His abilities as a returner on special teams are the primary asset that could give Washington an NFL look. Few of his size make a pro roster, made further difficult by playing at a smaller school. There is no questioning Washington’s positives, however. His explosiveness and vertical ability increase his catch radius. He excels in space and after the catch. The elusive receiver has fantastic positional awareness and football IQ with the toughness to match.
Though he failed to bring in a deep target against The Citadel, he has shown a downfield threat with straight line speed and ball tracking ability. His combination of footwork and reactions are reminiscent of a running back skill set. The versatility to contribute from the slot, underneath, downfield, from the backfield and on special teams aids his potential. While he didn’t quite put up the same ridiculous college numbers, a success story such as New Orleans Saints receiver and returner Deonte Harris is someone for Washington to attempt to emulate.
Feature Image Credit: UAB Athletics.