NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - WEEK 6
By Rebecca Rennie
After a couple weeks away due to illness, Small School Scouting is able to resume! The four FCS prospects featured below are building or adding to their impressive resumés for an NFL opportunity. Continuing to profile some intriguing quarterback prospects from this level, we begin with another candidate for the post-season All-Star circuit. A dominant defensive lineman, dynamic pass catcher and explosive linebacker complete the quartet for Week 6. Let’s get started!
Depending on your perspective, the top of the quarterback class is a fascinating story to watch unfold or disappointingly underwhelming. The FCS options won’t provide the answer but offers several very interesting late round to UDFA possibilities. Among them, Zerrick Cooper has long been on the radar but is unconvincing. Eric Barriere is a favorite here, though NFL opinions on him are uncertain. After watching the past two Southeastern Louisiana games, Arkansas transfer Cole Kelley has become of growing interest, personally.
A couple things stand out in the initial stages of watching the reigning Walter Payton Award winner. The rare physical size for the position is an unavoidable first impression. That is somewhat contrasted by throwing mechanics and arm strength that doesn’t quite match up. However, the more time spent watching how Kelley executes, the appreciation of his process and mental game quickly begins to swing the balance positively. The Lions QB has clearly developed with increased experience and within a system that allows him to thrive.
Locking eyes on first reads or funnelling the ball to a favorite target are not issues identifiable in Kelley’s game. Spreading the ball around to a large variety of targets, the experienced starter distributes the ball around impressively to whoever is open. He shows he has a handle on his pre-snap reads, making adjustments as he interprets the defense. A reliable decision maker, he consistently recognizes favorable matchups.
This past week against Nicholls, that passing proficiency led to huge numbers. Kelley totalled 406 yards at over 76% completions and 5 passing touchdowns. In fact, the accurate passer has not fallen below 73% completion rate this season, despite some drops by his receivers.
Also on show against Nicholls was his threat as a runner. Kelley is far from explosive but is physical and tough carrying the ball. His 55 rush yards included several key 4th-down conversions and 2 rushing touchdowns. The former Razorback is relatively slow on the move overall and may struggle to evade pressure in the pocket. While he excels from a clean pocket, it’s notable that the process of dropping back, setting his feet and stepping into his throws is a relatively slower process overall.
As a passer, Kelley’s release is also fairly time-consuming and elongated. Not featuring the strongest of arms, his passes don’t feature ideal velocity. That said, the ball placement for the most part is excellent. Kelley shows nice touch on his throws, along with timing and anticipation to hit in stride. When he is off-target, he tends to throw behind his receiver a little too often. That occurred a handful of times against Nicholls, including on a pick six. Overall though, Kelley’s progression in football IQ and execution could elevate him in this draft class.
At this time of the season, outstanding in-conference matchups are headlining each week. In addition to being an excellent FCS contest, Northern Iowa at North Dakota State is guaranteed to showcase a number of NFL Draft talents each season. Both programs have proved a source of impressive prospects in recent years. NDSU secured a 34-20 win, pulling away in the second half after a close opening. Among the standout performances in front of plenty pro scouts, Brinkman caught the eye throughout.
A stat line of 6 tackles including 0.5 tackles for loss doesn’t leap off the page. However, that doesn’t begin to quantify the impact the senior defensive lineman had in the trenches. It was notable that the Bison targeted Brinkman with double-team attention most snaps, and it was easy to understand why. It seemed almost every time he was left on a single block, the Panthers defender was creating havoc.
Midway through the second quarter, Brinkman knocked back the guard immediately off the snap, shed the block and forcefully took down the running back for minimal gain on a 3rd and 5. That forced a field goal attempt that North Dakota State would miss. Later the same quarter on 1st-&-goal, Brinkman again destroyed his block en route to the backfield, taking down the runner. NDSU were ultimately kept out of the end zone and forced to kick the field goal. Multiple times throughout the game, desperation holds were committed on Brinkman that went uncalled following early beats.
The UNI defensive lineman features more of a short and stockier body type. He can surprise though with impressive quickness out of his stance and short-area upfield burst. Making use of leverage, he consistently raises anchors with a nasty bull rush. The resulting movement regularly breaks the pocket, leading to early backfield pressure. A good initial punch is followed by fast and aggressive hand use to work off contact. The extra attention referenced earlier does not always shut down his efforts either. Brinkman often finds ways to disengage and split double teams at this level.
Making an impact against both the pass and run, the Panthers standout has a well-rounded skillset. Smartly executed rush plans are evident to set up and disengage at the point of attack. Patience and force are used in equal measure to position himself against the run. He offers inside-outside versatility to attack from different allignments across the defensive front. In one of the higher profile games of his season and reportedly on the radar of the NFL personnel in attendance, Brinkman had a positive day for his NFL Draft stock.
In truth, a full article could have been written on prospects from the UNI versus NDSU game alone. Watson felt like a must to include from the winning Bison side of the contest. One of the most dynamic receiver prospects in the entire 2022 class, not solely from the FCS, the senior put together one of the more impressive performances of his college career. On just 5 receptions, Watson compiled 163 receiving yards (32.6 average) and a touchdown. A threat out of the backfield, he added 18 yards on a pair of rushing attempts.
The performance came a week after a combination of play calling and offensive execution resulted in no touches for Watson. The Bison ensured that would not be the case early on, targeting him on a short out immediately. One highlight saw Watson outrun the secondary with ease on a deep-bomb 85-yard touchdown catch-and-run during the opening quarter. Other additions to his yardage total including finding space over the deep middle and taking a handoff 14 yards up the left sideline. Not all about the flashy highlights though, Watson also made some effective blocks downfield for his teammates.
The explosive playmaker has excellent size with a long and lean frame. Adding in the agility, fluidity and elite speed creates a combination of physical traits that should be highly coveted. Watson’s versatility cannot be overstated. While long-limbed, he shows good change of direction and footwork as a route runner. Impactful to all field levels, his yards-after-catch ability makes him a factor on shorter targets. Working over the middle of the field, his toughness shows up in taking hits and contact without dropping his focus.
It would be harsh not to also give a shout out to Northern Iowa’s Isaiah Weston also. This matchup featured two of the best at the position on the same field. The Panthers receiver was a monster in his own right last Saturday. Weston dominated with 181 yards and a touchdown on 5 catches and a ridiculous 36.2 yards per catch average. It could have been well over 200 yards if not for a couple early misfires from his quarterback. Weston got behind the NDSU secondary multiple times prior to his first big receptione
Dominating on the stat sheet will aid in garnering attention at the lower levels. Few defenders are doing so more emphatically this season that Jackson State’s James Houston. A transfer from the Florida Gators, Houston has 7.5 sacks through the first 5 games of 2021. His eye-opening numbers against Alabama A&M included 6 tackles with 2 TFLs, 1 sack and a forced fumble. He added 2 fumble recoveries for 110 return yards and a touchdown. Houston was a big part of Tigers shutting down Aqeel Glass and the Bulldogs offense in the 61-15 crushing win.
Houston did much of his damage very early in the contest. He was in on the first two plays of the game, showing his explosiveness and closing speed from the start. Shortly after, he easily dismissed the blocks of the tight end and running back to deflect the ball out of Glass’ hand for a fumble. Recovering the fumble himself, he returned the ball all the way for the defensive score. More than just about quickness, Houston destroyed the right guard early in the 3rd quarter. The bull rush put the O-lineman on skates into his own backfield.
At under six foot, Houston surprises offensive linemen with his ability to create movement. Utilizing his leverage, he gets under the pads and applies good core strength to win at the point of attack. Though shorter in build, the Power-5 transfer appears to have long arms for his frame that provides better reach than expected. He may not have a prototype pass rusher build but it’s tough to argue with the athleticism and quickness. His speed and range to the sidelines provides traits for off-ball contributions. He is stout and powerful for his frame, not unlike a physical running back in his build.
The first-phase pass rushes often put him on the front foot, attacking the body or outside shoulder quickly off the snap. The hands bring violence and fast combination rush moves to unbalance the opposition. Tricky to establish an initial block, he achieves many of his wins in the opening exchanges.
Spending the majority of his time in college with the Gators, he made some impact in a more limited role. While not a starter during his time in the SEC, he contributed as a key special teams player. It was a positive to see that he continues to feature on special teams with Jackson State, despite now being one of the defensive stars. That bodes well for his potential pro opportunities, as he will likely require to solidify a core special teams role as part of making a roster. Houston has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting players to watch in the FCS in 2021.
James Houston gets JSU on the board 1st after scooping a fumble and taking it 67 yards for a TD.— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) October 9, 2021
Jackson St 7
Alabama A&M 0 1st
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Feature Image Credit: Tim Sanger