SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROPSECTS: MISSOURI VALLEY
By Rebecca Rennie
In a new series, Rebecca takes a look at the best Group of Five and FCS prospects to know for the 2020 draft. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine! We begin with one of the deepest leagues in FCS, the Missouri Valley Conference.
With seven national titles in the last eight seasons, the North Dakota State Bison headline the conference, and their combined 95-17 score lines through two weeks of 2019 looks ominous once again for the rest of the FCS.
A loaded defense is led by Cox, who quickly stands out on film as clearly being at another level compared with those surrounding him in terms of his physical traits, athleticism and skill set.
With a long, lean frame and easy, fluid movement, Cox roams the field with range at all three levels, primarily as an off-ball LB and big nickel as part of a highly versatile deployment. The 2018 MVFC defensive player of the year is utilized between the tackles, pressuring the backfield, working out to the sidelines and lining up in coverage.
Making full use of his long strides and impressive wingspan, the athletic defender can stick with running backs and tight ends in space and at the catch point, get vertical as the ball arrives, and wrap up tackles in space. Delayed ventures into the backfield often yields results with his ability to close on ball carriers in a flash.
Doing all the above consistently is a big question mark however, with a motor that runs as cold as it does hot. Cox gives the impression that he knows he’s at a level beyond most of those he competes and plays with, often playing casually and with a lack of energy, taking too many plays off.
At times there’s a clear reluctance to commit to tackles or pursue, and a regular lack of physicality at the point of attack sees him anonymous in plays too often for a player of his abilities. There’s NFL starter potential that likely sees the redshirt junior declare early, but the above issues could keep him on the draft board until Day 3.
The 2018 Walter Payton Award finalist (given to the best offensive player in FCS) has greatly outperformed his 2-star recruiting rating and could be the best out of several potential NFL prospects on the Redbirds roster.
While not overly explosive in short areas, that can occasionally result in being corralled behind the line of scrimmage, Robinson has impressive speed for his sturdy frame. Light on his feet with effective lateral mobility, his size and skill combination could translate well behind a more talented NFL-caliber offensive line.
A power-through-contact runner, Robinson thrives on lowering his shoulder and driving for yards after contact, and once free on the second level is tough to bring down, particularly at top speed.
The violence on the boundary to finish runs typifies his physical style, though one that doesn’t rely on just one of power or quickness but an appealing combination of the two.
As with many listed in this article, standing out at an All-Star week (he is currently on the Senior Bowl watch list) could be key to whether he earns a late selection in the draft.
The list of accolades is extensive for the all-action linebacker who has been a stud starter since his instant-impact redshirt freshman season in 2016, compiling tackle numbers of 132, 127 and 105 over his three full seasons so far for the Jackrabbits.
The combination of experience, production and high character will tick off plenty of boxes typically looked for in a smaller school prospect. He is off to another strong start in his final collegiate season that included 11 tackles in the narrow opening loss to Minnesota recently.
Showing quickness working downhill, laterally and backwards, Rozeboom is consistently around the football as his gaudy numbers suggest. Unlike Jabril Cox listed above, the redshirt senior’s motor is non-stop, playing with a fantastic energy that resonates with his teammates around him.
While that aids his playmaking abilities, closer inspection of his game reveals some wasted motion, inefficient angles and rounded paths while redirecting. While that may not hurt his game too much at this level, it could hold him back more so as a pro, should he fail to sharpen up some of the finer points of his game.
His commitment to the cause as a physical tackler and his obvious love of the game will greatly aid his chances, however.
Unfortunately, the standout tight end suffered a significant injury in the recent overtime loss to Iowa State that saw his left arm put in a sling and reported to be out a while.
Here’s hoping he’s able to make a return later in the year or at the Senior Bowl (another featuring on the pre-season watch list), as Moore is one of the more talented small school prospects in this senior class.
Arriving at Northern Iowa as a 215lb wide receiver, Moore’s commitment to his conversion into a true hybrid TE has seen him bulk up to nearly 250lbs in order to take on the inline blocking responsibilities of his expanded role. Similarly to Rozeboom above, Moore’s work ethic has received a great deal of praise from his coaches and is obvious on film.
Excellent hands as a receiver highlights his skill set as a reliable target in contested situations and an imposing presence after the catch, where he might be at his best, breaking tackles and finishing runs.
Though working hard at his route running precision, some choppy footwork hinders him out of his breaks, and his modest burst along with his shorter frame could see his overall measurables limit his draft stock.
While Moore is putting in the work to improve as a blocker, his form and technique are still lacking that sees him overextend into contact with inconsistent hand placement to negate some of his power.
The combination of position and last name is indeed no coincidence, with Chase being the nephew of the (arguably) future hall-of-fame kicker, currently of the Indianapolis Colts.
While bloodlines alone do not merit a job in the pros, it certainly draws attention from scouts, and the early signs were certainly positive in converting 13 of 14 field goal attempts in 2017 as a sophomore, including not missing beyond 40 yards.
A disappointing junior season followed, however, only making 14 of 21 attempts, in addition to missing 5 extra points and some issues keeping his kick-offs inbounds.
Through two games of his senior season he is yet to miss a kick, a positive sign, though it should be noted that those kicks comprise of eight extra points and a single field goal attempt of 22 yards.
There’s certainly no shortage of pressure on him for the remainder of the season, unfairly or not. Such is the life of a kicker, regardless of last name.
In terms of upside, Griffith might have as much as anyone on this list, but as intriguing as that potential is, it’s currently a significant distance away for the time being.
Given his obvious physical advantages, the initial inclination was to look into how a player of his build, wingspan and athleticism landed at Indiana State. The answer likely lies in the fact that he only played one year of high school football as a senior that may have led to being under-recruited.
There’s no getting around the fact that his film is rather messy currently. The rawness in his game is immediately apparent with his reps littered with false steps, late reactions rather than anticipating.
Most notable is some struggles working at the point of attack in terms of form and leverage, and overall with some struggles working off blocks.
He has the physical traits to win at the point of attack, if he can learn how to better use the extension in his long arms and make the most of his natural core strength. In addition, Griffith is frustratingly inconsistent wrapping up tackles, failing to bring down the ball carrier when in position to do so far too often.
There’s plenty time between now and the draft, though, and his workouts and likely All-Star game appearance could up his stock significantly in the pre-draft process.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
The most exciting prospect in this conference might not actually be listed here, as redshirt sophomore receiver Dante Hendrix might be a long shot to declare for the draft this early. Still, the 6ft 2, 195lb Indiana State wideout flashed on film with his athleticism, along with his sharp and instinctive route running and positioning.
There will be those that consider Southern Illinois’s Nigel Kilby as the superior tight end prospect over Briley Moore, in part due to his length advantage at 6ft 7.
However, his film was disappointing, with no energy or urgency about his play, and appearing to want nothing to do with any form of contact either from press coverage when running routes, and certainly not as a blocker. He has some decent straight-line speed and hands and the catch point, but didn’t really excite.
More impressive on the Southern Illinois roster was safety Jeremy Chinn, who stood out for his exceptionally disciplined play with excellent decision making, positioning, angles and tackling technique, in addition to his ability to make plays on the ball at the catch point.
It appears though on film that a relative lack of quickness and range could hurt him when facing elite athletes at the NFL level.
Memphis transfer Brady Davis is the most intriguing QB prospect in the conference, but the Illinois State passer is wildly inconsistent.
There’s plenty of zip on his passes with a fast release, and mobility to escape the pocket, but his accuracy and decision making go out the window under pressure, while his footwork and coordination issues compound the erratic play.
North Dakota State edge defender Derrek Tuszka stands out for his length and relentless effort. The senior looked the part in the 2019 opener versus Butler, flashing polished upper body technique, overall hand use and placement, and second-phase counters.
He does his best work attacking into the body and working off contact as opposed to winning through speed and bend consistently off the edge. He could have late-round potential.
CFB/NFL DRAFT analyst
Rebecca is an NFL Draft analyst focusing primarily on the FCS and Group of Five conferences, and a fan of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanford Cardinal. You can find her other articles here and follow on Twitter @bex_r86.