NFL DRAFT 2022: SMALL SCHOOL SCOUTING - WEEK 7
By Rebecca Rennie
Another week of great conference matchups provides more crucial film of talented FCS prospects to delve into! This edition is led by the front-runner to be the first small school player off the board. Next up is a contender for the open competition of best FCS linebacker. A strong corner class gets some further focus with a first watch of a high-potential DB from the NEC. We return to the O-Line to round out our quartet with a less-heralded MVFC tackle prospect. Lets get started!
This felt like the ideal time to profile arguably the best FCS prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft class. Within reason, Penning appeared a near-lock entering this season to be an early round pick, even if he were to put together an inconsistent year. In terms of traits and upside, the Panthers left tackle has unquestioned first round potential. That said, the performance the previous weekend against North Dakota State was a difficult one to say the least. Penning was frequently off-target with his hands and struggled to sustain blocks throughout. He resorted to holding multiple times, even if mostly going uncalled.
There was therefore high intrigue to see how he would respond in the follow-up performance against a good South Dakota team this past Saturday. The Coyotes were excellent in a relatively comfortable 34-21 win. Despite being on the defeated side, Penning performed strongly from an individual perspective. He gave the impression that he was out to make a point, playing with an edge from start to finish. Penning was hyper-aggressive throughout, finishing practically every block to the turf or throwing in an extra shove or two at the end of each rep.
The physical traits are close to the ideal combination looked for. The frame features outstanding length and well-distributed bulk, core strength and stout base. That build is joined alongside impressive footwork, agility and overall athleticism at that size. When establishing good contact, the backwards movement he can create as an overpowering force is rare. Attempts at destabilizing his anchor through straight-line attacks are mostly futile.
When at his best in pass protection, he efficiently releases from his stance and uses his quickness, stride length and extension to handle speed off the edge. Already difficult to work around through his sheer size, the footwork and balance adds to the challenge. Penning is able to reset and redirect sharply, just requiring doing so more consistently. That also applies to his initial punch, which when applied well, can rock back defenders and instantly derail rush attempts.
Where he tends to run into issues is with the aforementioned upper body technique. When watching Penning’s film from previous seasons, there was a tendency to lunge into contact and some lapses in leverage. This year, the primary concern is hand placement and maintaining control. Too often, opposing pass rushers have found success disengaging from blocks. Penning can be left scrambling to recover. The South Dakota performance was a significant improvement this past week on that front.
Either way, he has all the tools and all the potential to improve with coaching at the next level. Acknowledging some areas to work on does not mean that he is unworthy of the hype he has received. At his best, Penning is a dominating force and offers a physical profile that few can boast. In addition to being frequently destructive in his run blocking through his imposing power, he shows intelligent dictating of movement with directional blocking. How he performs at his likely Senior Bowl appearance will be fascinating.
It’s unclear at this stage whether there will be a prospect drafted among the 2022 class of FCS linebackers. As scouting has progressed so far this season however, several names in this group are growing in intrigue with each passing week. Referring back to the South Dakota vs UNI game above, one personal favorite in the Coyotes Jack Cochrane had another big performance, including two interceptions. Jackson State’s edge rusher James Houston is producing incredibly and could have an off-ball future. Others such as Idaho’s Tre Walker and Montana’s Jace Lewis are on the radar as well.
It would not surprise though, if Montana State’s Troy Andersen found a route to the pros and a lengthy career. With a lean and long-limbed frame, Andersen combines it with good coverage range and closing speed. The Bobcats linebacker gets easy depth backward and quickly covers to the sidelines with long strides. The apparent arm length is put to good use as a tackler. Andersen shows some of the better wrap-up technique among FCS linebackers watched in recent draft cycles. He consistently hits ideal targets zones to bring down ball carriers and typically makes plays in space effectively.
The quickness to close and reliability to finish as a tackler work in his favor as a dangerous blitzer. A highly experienced player at this stage of his college career, it shows in his smart timing and disguise. The past two contests have seen Andersen make full use of openings to get into the backfield against both Cal Poly and most recently against Weber State. On the first Weber play of the second half, Andersen went untouched to the QB for a simple sack. Not the most challenging play to make, but he finds a way to make a couple key plays most weeks.
Speaking to his playmaking ability, Andersen showed up again shortly after on the same drive. In a case of “right place, right time,” the Bobcats ‘backer found the football on a QB fumble. Catching the ball out of the air for the recovery and turnover, it was a timely play in a tensely poised 7-7 game. In addition to his fumble recovery, Andersen added 10 total tackles on the night in an all-action outing. While talented regardless, it stands out how much his outstanding energy and hustle aids his ability to be active around the ball constantly.
Andersen has an appealing blend of athleticism, motor and football IQ to be effective to multiple levels of the field. With significant time at running back and QB in college, the two-way player has been a success on both sides of the ball. He is a comfortable mover forward, backward and laterally. While certainly quick to close, there’s also good patience and control in his initial movements off the snap. He shows active eyes and generally good pre-snap reads. The Montana State defender can make an impact against both the run and pass. He ought to have the ideal skills and mindset to be effective on special teams at the pro level.
In terms of concerns, knee surgery on an injury suffered in 2019 is noteworthy for his medicals. There are moments when Andersen shows some struggles stacking and shedding blocks. Through the games watched to this point, he can be occasionally overmatched at the point of attack and at times can get a little lost in traffic. When able to make full use of his extension, he can control and work off contact nicely, which is promising to see in this area. Right now, Andersen feels a little under-the-radar and under-rated in this linebacker class. If drafted late or an undrafted free agent, he could surprise in training camp with the right opportunity.
We’re going to file this review under a heading along the lines of “need to see more, but highly intrigued”. The initial opinion in limiting viewing, however, is that McKenzie has the potential to be a big-time player in this very good FCS draft class. Merrimack had a couple prospects that drew interest last draft cycle. Offensive lineman Samuel Cooper was a part of the All-Star circuit through the pre-draft process. Meanwhile, another member of the secondary, safety Jovan Grant, was picked up by the Rams as a free agent post-draft.
Depending on how the remainder of the season and the build-up to the draft goes, McKenzie could find greater success. Prior to the 2022 season, the Warriors corner featured on the Senior Bowl Watch List. His latest performance against Long Island saw the playmaker add two pass breakups during the comfortable 43-5 victory. That brings his total to 7 PBUs through seven games on the season so far. Built similarly to a safety, the physical defensive back has added 2.5 tackles for loss.
Against LIU, McKenzie made his first breakup early in the second quarter. Lining up over the slot receiver, he closed quickly on a slant pass to force the incompletion. The next play was made shortly after the start of the fourth quarter. Matching up outside this time, the Sharks receiver ran a 7-yard dig. With both players hand-fighting throughout, McKenzie stayed tight to do enough to see the ball hit the turf.
Given some short drives and with McKenzie rotating out of several series, there were limited snaps to view. Even so, there were flashes of his potential deployment in both man and zone concepts. Unsurprisingly given his frame, McKenzie applies himself well from press coverage. He proves capable of a jolting jab off the release and will fight for position using his strength. In zone, there were a couple examples of passing off receivers and balancing eyes between QB and assignments. after this first viewing of McKenzie, there’s definitely enthusiasm to watch a lot more of Merrimack’s games.
The technical application and refinement in coverage can improve. He appeared to react a step late at the top of routes once or twice. Though capable of regaining position with impressive recovery speed, he can occasionally give up separation 1-on-1. The Warriors DB is willing to be physical as a tackler, as hoped for from a corner of his size. Again though, he can improve his technique to do so more consistently. Overall, there’s no question that McKenzie has an impressive combination of size and athleticism to be a worthy developmental prospect. A 75-yard punt return touchdown in 2019 is another nice indicator of what his physical abilities can provide.
The depth of this year’s FCS offensive line class is fantastic again. In addition to Penning above, we’ve previous profiled a number of others so far this season. Southern Utah’s Braxton Jones is another inconsistent but toolsy tackle. Fordham’s Nick Zakelj has been a personal favorite for several years now. We have written about some interesting longshot options such as Bethune-Cookman’s Jamal Savage and Chattanooga’s McClendon Curtis. There are many others too such as NDSU’s Cordell Volson as another well-known prospect.
The latest one to receive a watch through is North Dakota left tackle Matt Waletzko. As with UNI’s Penning, he found himself on the losing side last Saturday, 28-31 to Southern Illinois. Also reflective on Penning, Waletzko didn’t look overly convincing against NDSU when last watching his film this season. However, this second viewing led to an improved overall opinion as the profile notes begin to flesh out further.
Another who received the Senior Bowl Watch List preseason recognition, he has interesting traits to work with. His length is fantastic and generally takes advantage with good extension and initial punch. What really stood out from the narrow loss to the Salukis was the aggressive application during the contest. Whether in pass protection or run blocking, Waletzko was a consistent initiator in the opening phases of each rep. There was movement created to open running lanes. He controlled the action on single blocks, while picking up late pressure with good recognition.
The impressive length compensates well, but the Fighting Hawks lineman might have some athletic limitations. At times, Waletzko can look a little tight-hipped and less fluid that ideal in his changes of direction. The footwork is reasonable in his kick slide but can get a touch flat-footed and lose some balance. There is a tendency for his form to degrade slightly as reps progress, to bend at the waist and drop in coordination. Listed around 305lbs, his weigh-in will be interesting but could have room to add more bulk. Fortunately, his strength at the point of attack looks ideal to hold up.
An experienced player, Waletzko has been starting since his freshman year, outside of a season-ending injury midway through 2019. It shows in his impressive awareness and overall intelligent play. The UND tackle is rarely beaten thanks to his smart play and reliable execution. There might be some questions over his movement and ceiling but there is also plenty to bank on. The application of his length, core strength and aggressive play style provides a nice floor to work with.
Feature Image Credit: Montana State University Athletics.