NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - WEEK 2
By Rebecca Rennie
Small School Scouting at The Touchdown continues! We’re bringing you more under-the-radar names from outside the big schools to know for the 2022 NFL Draft. This week’s look at small school prospects features many of the better-known names from the FCS. Among them are some outstanding performances but also some less convincing ones. Let’s get started!
Week 1 was packed with action and shocking results, including many at the hands of FCS schools. There was not the same level of drama in Week 2, but Jacksonville State provided another huge result for the small schools. The almost unfathomable nature of the last-second victory was even more unexpected after the Gamecocks were shut out 31-0 against UAB the previous week. That felt like a missed opportunity for JSU quarterback Zerrick Cooper to showcase himself to scouts.
Despite an underwhelming box score, there were better flashes in this performance. For a transfer from Clemson, it must have been even sweeter to have been achieved against a former ACC rival. It feels like an ideal moment to feature and profile a player who is among the better-known FCS prospects at the most sought-after position. In truth, however, many of the issues from previous game film continue to be prominent through two games in 2021. Personally, there are a couple other FCS-level quarterbacks who are rated higher.
The redshirt senior QB cut a frustrated figure in the scoreless outing against the Blazers in their opening game. Arguably, there’s not an ideal compilation of talent around him to best highlight his potential. There was more success against FSU, fortunately. A late-first quarter to early second quarter 15-play touchdown drive was well executed in giving Jacksonville State a 7-0 lead. Fortunate not to be intercepted, a few errant throws went unpunished during the close contest. There’s no shying away from the 44% completions either, though a few drops did not help matters. That last throw, though:
Cooper has been on the draft scouting radar for several years by this point. The tools have been obvious throughout his time starting for the Gamecocks, after brief flashes during his stay with Clemson. The outstanding physical traits include a stout build, good mobility and a strong arm to challenge downfield.
He shows a quick process from a clean pocket, stepping into his throws smoothly, followed by an efficient release. Some of the intermediate lasers are near-impossible to defend when on target. Whether it’s his ability to scramble or the powerful running style, his mobility is always a consideration factor for defenses.
The frustrating counterbalance has been the inconsistency of ball placement and decision-making questions. Often able to find sideline throws to the outside shoulder and hit receivers in stride on deep targets, Cooper can make any throw. Frequently though, the ball is put in harms way or routine passes become awkward for receivers to adjust to.
Many of the problems stem from pressure situations and having his rhythm disrupted. While his movement can be a plus, the decisions and the accuracy on the run can be up-and-down. It’s reasonable to remain sceptical to his potential. Hopefully, the energizing win over the Seminoles kick-starts a strong final season for Cooper. He’ll remain an intriguing developmental prospect entering the pre-draft process.
In contrast to Cooper above, Durant is a locked-on personal favorite in this draft class. There was never any threat of an upset as Clemson comfortably put away South Carolina State 49-3. That included a 35-0 lead mid-way through the second quarter. Despite the one-sided contest, Durant took full advantage of the elite competition. Looking the part among the top-level athletes on the Tigers offense, Durant stood out snap-to-snap in what should be the first game film used by scouts. They ought to be unanimously impressed.
The outstanding stat line of 2 pass breakups and 2 interceptions are reflective of his coverage and playmaking abilities. These were not garbage time plays against backups either. Both breakups and one interception came against DJ Uiagalelei and the starters. His instincts and reads were on show early, halfway through the first quarter. Jumping on a quick out to the right, his PBU was not far from being a pick 6 the other way.
Though not the biggest, his second breakup came against emerging big-bodied receiver Joseph Ngata in Q2. Staying tight with fantastic timing, he broke up the play with good hands, without risking pass interference. His first interception involved good reactions to claim a tipped pass for the turnover. The second was far more aesthetically pleasing. The fingertip catch at full stretch on a downfield target showed off his ability to track the ball deep as well as his phenomenal ball skills.
On those key plays and throughout his coverage reps, Durant displayed fantastic overall movement and agility. With a spring in his step, he has effortless movement in all directions and in his transitions. The foot quickness, backpedal, hips, changes of direction and all-round explosiveness are readily apparent. Add in his anticipation and awareness, he is consistently sticky in coverage, keeping in phase, including as receivers break their routes.
While slightly built and not the most physically imposing corner, he’s not lacking length to a detrimental level. He makes up for modest core strength by playing up to physical challenges as a tough and competitive playmaker. His athleticism and burst compliment the energy and ferocity he plays with. The Bulldogs corner looks the part both from the slot and outside. He’s reliable in open-field tackling situations, committed and wrapping up well. There’s plenty talent in the FCS ranks again this season, and Durant deserves to be discussed among the best.
PIERRE STRONG JR.
As expected, South Dakota State dominated an overmatched Lindenwood in Week 2. Strong only needed seven rushes to compile his 110 yards and 1 touchdown in an easy outing. The 68-yard carry that contributed much of that yardage saw him weave his way through a myriad of mystified Lions defenders.
Featuring Strong here, however, is as much to do with his previous performance in the Jackrabbits’ dismantling of Colorado State in the opener, having gotten around to watching that game later in the week. The senior back looked outstanding against the Rams. On 13 rushes, he totalled 138 yards (10.6 average) and 2 touchdowns.
Strong has been one of the more impressive runners in the FCS throughout his college career. The consistency, toughness, decision-making and production has warranted NFL consideration. Perhaps it was an oversight on the part of this writer, but he arguably has entered this season looking more explosive than previously credited for. The short-area quickness and burst are maximizing each well-timed cut and available opening.
Listed at weights ranging from 200lbs to 210lbs, the SDSU ball carrier is well-built and plays physical between the tackles. Grinding out yards, he shows impressive balance to work off contact and break tackles. Driving his feet, he grinds for extra yards, throwing in an effective stiff arm when required. A reliable processor with excellent vision, he rarely misses an opportunity and can create when play structure breaks down. Once free, he has the quickness to exploit space and work on the second level. Though there are differences, many of the abilities mentioned above were appealing positives seen in Damien Harris’ college film.
A comfortable receiver and a competent pass protector, he checks off boxes as a well-rounded RB. Accumulating a good share of career touches, he could be set for another 1,000-yard rushing season. Fortunately, he is splitting time with another talented back in sophomore Isaiah Davis. Our pre-season positional previews mentioned NCA&T’s Jah-Maine Martin as a small school running back to watch. He’s certainly talented, but not featuring Pierre Strong was an oversight. The Jackrabbit standout has to be considered the front runner among FCS backs for the 2022 draft.
These early season matchups of Power 5 schools against FCS opposition are not universally loved by college football fans. However, they are essential viewing for checking out small school prospects against an overall greater level of competition. After a meeting with MAC school Toledo, Norfolk State took on Wake Forest in Week 2. An interesting first quarter ultimately gave way to a comfortable 41-16 Demon Deacons victory.
It was an interesting if inconclusive outing for redshirt senior edge defender De’Shaan Dixon. A Senior Bowl watchlist prospect, he clearly has tools and traits worthy of a look at the next level. He had moments in both games to start the year but only 7 tackles and one QB hurry to show. Typically a stand-up edge, Dixon has good length with a lean and flexible frame. It is noted that he will also move inside on occasion. With the right application of his reach and agility, he can threaten as an outside rusher.
Currently, and against better opposition, he’s too often neutralized on single blocks. The Spartans rusher is still learning how to effectively shed blocks once established on contact. He shows modest power at the point of attack currently. Finding second-phase counters and combination rush moves might allow him to create more consistent pressure. Generally playing quite upright and narrow, the pad level and leverage can be to his disadvantage. Adding that to the underwhelming power, he can be controlled, including in the run game.
All that said, there’s clearly some upside to work with. With improved technique, he has potential to find wins off the edge and angle into the backfield. The movement and upfield burst are encouraging. There is certainly no question over the excellent effort and motor on show each rep. When the initial rush is unsuccessful, Dixon continues to keep fighting with his hands and looking for opportunities late. The lateral range to the sidelines is apparent, closing well on ball carriers. That backs up his impressive total of 61 tackles in 2019. Dixon is a work-in-progress but has developmental upside that could draw NFL interest.
One of the more dominant performers on the week, Dai’Jean Dixon was a monster throughout Nicholls’ contest with FBS opponents Louisiana. The Colonels came close to another small school upset in a narrow 27-24 loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Dixon was practically uncoverable all game in compiling 14 catches for 198 yards (14.14 average) and 2 touchdowns.
Dixon features such a deceptively languid style that belies his timing and route-running prowess. His ability to find space in zones and work open between defenders was masterful all night. His impact was felt at every level, on deep sideline targets to underneath completions and yards-after-catch runs. It was clear that Nicholls QB Lindsey Scott Jr. was looking to Dixon almost every third down. That didn’t mean that the Cajuns could do much about it, as he converted again and again.
Dixon became a discussed name following the announcement of his name among the Combine invites for the previous draft class. He went on to continue playing in the Spring season and ultimately returning for one more year this fall. His 2019 season included over 1,000 yards, over 19 yards-per-catch and 8 touchdowns. Dixon had an uncharacteristic drop against Louisiana but overall has consistently reliable hands.
The Colonels receiver has a long, lean frame and is a smooth mover. The route running and positional awareness referenced earlier are among the standout traits evident on film. He compliments that with focus and toughness in contested situations. Dixon demonstrates impressive spatial awareness as he navigates space and sets up coverage. He shows excellent subtlety and timing as he sells his routes. There’s natural savvy in working through traffic over the middle of the field.
Dixon has had some off-field situations in his past that will be queried and vetted but coaches have generally spoken highly of his character. While a fluid mover, Dixon might not be ideally explosive overall. That said, his long strides and solid footwork assist in his releases and breaks. Testing numbers will be interesting to see, and hopefully he receives another Combine invite early in 2022.
Feature Image Credit: Inertia Sports Media / Dave Eggen.