SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSpECTS: BIG SKY
By Rebecca Rennie
Continuing to look for standout NFL 2020 draft prospects in the FCS and Group of Five, Rebecca’s attention turns to the Big Sky Conference, where there are several quarterbacks of particular interest to headline the group. Get an early start on some of the best small school draft prospects to know!
The Big Sky vs Missouri Valley Challenge Series has set up some outstanding matchups between two of the most talented conferences in FCS football. With potential NFL talent on both rosters, plenty of scouts will have been in attendance as Northern Arizona were defeated 40-27 by Illinois State in Week 4.
Case Cookus had an eventful showcase that included four touchdown throws but also a pair of picks; the second double INT game of his season so far. It was a performance that highlighted much of the intrigue around his skill set, but also some of the concerns in his play.
The senior QB has good size, notable athleticism on the run, and a strong arm. His mobility allows Cookus to roll out of the pocket and buy time, in addition to burning defenses that don’t account for him in the run game. While his deep ball accuracy is inconsistent (much like his ball placement overall can be) he is more than able to launch downfield with relative ease, often with spectacular results.
The mechanics as a passer aren’t ideal, with a fairly lengthy release that factors into some accuracy issues. Inconsistent footwork can affect throws that can make his receivers work to bring in passes outside their frame, including on shorter targets.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to Cookus’ game for the next level is his questionable progression work and overall reading of defenses. Cookus tends to lock onto his first read, stare down his target to telegraph his intentions, and release the ball into coverage when there’s no play available to be made.
Compared with the other two quarterbacks featured below, Cookus’ game appears less polished with less high-level football IQ being applied pre and post-snap. However, the Lumberjacks’ QB might have the highest upside of the trio physically and from an arm-talent perspective, that might make him worth risking a draft pick investment on him earlier.
Medicals will be crucial for Cookus’ draft stock, with two season-ending injuries in 2016 and 2018, including a broken collarbone on his throwing side.
Also facing a tough task in the conference crossover series were UC Davis, who fell to a narrow 27-16 defeat to 7-time FCS champs North Dakota State last weekend. The Aggies were set to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but a red zone interception, followed by another pick on a tip play the very next possession killed the hopes for UC Davis and Jake Meier.
Despite the two late interceptions, Maier put together a mostly composed and disciplined performance against the Bison that typifies many of his plus traits. Unlike Cookus above, Maier lacks the big-time arm desired to stretch the field at the pro level, combined with a smaller frame to give overall measurables that won’t appeal to some NFL teams.
However, where Maier excels over Cookus is in the mental side of the game. The senior shows good poise in the pocket, surveys the field and makes adjustments at the line based on the defense he sees. Not limited to first reads or one side of the field, Maier moves through his progressions quickly, displaying the field vision to work left to right, downfield and short.
So often an issue with quarterbacks out of college, Maier has better footwork and overall technical base than most. Smooth and polished in his drops, The Aggies’ QB steps into his throws well, complimenting his compact throwing motion and fast overall release. The experienced passer delivers strikes quickly, including getting rid of the ball to his hot reads in the face of pressure.
Maier’s decision-making is not free of scrutiny, as he is willing to take chances into coverage and throw the ball up for grabs while taking a hit. Overall though, this is a smart and savvy prospect who could hang around in the league for a long time given the right situation, even if the upside may not offer the same ceiling as others at the position.
Though the quarterback prospects in the Big Sky draw much of the attention, the highest drafted player from the conference may ultimately be Taumoepeau. He’s missed some time early this season with hamstring tightness but took advantage of an SEC matchup against Arkansas to start the season, flashing his abilities.
Featuring sharp execution in everything he does, Taumoepeau may not have the length and reach of some big-bodied tight ends but is versatile in his usage. The Vikings will line him up both inline and in the backfield, as well as playing slot receiver and even outside receiver on occasion.
He may not be overly explosive, but is a very smooth athlete, aided by good footwork and minimal wasted motion in his route breaks. His route running is backed up by clever use of his broad frame with his positioning and boxing out covering defenders; thriving over the middle of the field.
Taumoepeau’s great hands result in few plays being left on the field. He shows impressive concentration in traffic, tracking the ball through a sea of hands if necessary. As a blocker, he squares up well at the point of attack, and plays with consistent form, width and pad level to anchor down or create movement.
After a solid start in the opening two games, he hopefully will return soon to finish out his final collegiate season strong as he works toward a likely mid-to-early Day 3 pick.
Ideally, an FCS prospect with aspirations of reaching the NFL ought to stand out pretty quickly on film from those around him, often through dynamic athletic traits or physical measurables. For Williams, it’s the latter. After serving an LDS mission back in 2013, it’s a good thing that he’s physically ready to compete in the pros, as he’ll be an older prospect as a 25-year-old rookie by the time he hits an NFL field.
He brings experience to go with his age, having started the majority of games since his true freshman season. Williams has never been the type to pile up the QB takedowns – he failed to register a single sack in his 2018 junior season and entered his final year with just 7.5 in his three collegiate seasons.
The big defensive lineman is on his way to rectifying those numbers with three sacks through three games in 2019, all coming in his most recent outing against FBS opposition Nevada. He’ll be looking for more consistent output than single-game bursts as the season progresses.
Williams brings solid reactions off the snap at his size, and comes battling with active hands, regularly getting full extension to maximize his length and reach. He does tend to jump upright with high pad level and a fairly narrow base though. A little bit stiff, his ability to maintain his power and control at the point is further hampered by some inconsistent footwork and balance.
The Wildcats’ D-lineman has a useful swipe move among his solid repertoire of rush moves but lacks ideal bend and flexibility to take full advantage of wins after contact. Modest ability to redirect as he changes directions makes inside counter moves limited in their success. He’s constantly working though with violent hands and a strong motor that also shows up in pursuit.
As problematic as Case Cookus’ injury history is as discussed above, Jacob Knipp has somehow had even worse fortune with his durability. Three consecutive season-ending injuries, all early into each season and all to the same non-throwing shoulder, has seen Knipp’s college career extend into a 6th season this year.
Credit to the resiliency and competitiveness to keep working through rehab and returning. The one thing Knipp seems certain not to receive any red flags on will be his impeccable character and toughness.
It’s been a difficult start to the season for Knipp and the Bears, with a stat sheet through four games that includes only 55.7% completions with 1 TD to 2 INTs, with the team stuck at 0-4 on the year. If Knipp can complete the full season however, that in itself would be something of a win from a personal perspective.
Partly why we are this deep into the article without already discussing Knipp while the two other quarterbacks take prominent position at the beginning of the piece, is that injury history. Difficulty in finding sufficient amounts of film on the Northern Colorado prospect also factors in, and that prevents me from assigning any form of draft grade at this point until more footage can be watched.
All of which is frustrating, as the flashes seen suggest a creative playmaker who combines many of the plus traits of Cookus and Maier. Knipp has mobility and the ability to extend plays, while hitting some highlight throws downfield from off-base platforms. There is ability to take advantage of space and coverage assignments on all three levels of the field to take the best matchups available.
While he may not get drafted due to his medical history, he hopefully lands at a post-season All-Star game to showcase himself for a shot in camp as a free agent at the very least.
A former Washington 3-star recruit, Sterk barely played in three seasons with the Huskies but made an impact quickly with Montana State. His first season with the Bobcats in 2018 included 8.5 sacks, and he has already hit that mark through just four games this season, as part of 11 TFLs so far.
His frame and production could see him turn a position on the Senior Bowl Watch List into a full invite by the end of the season. He is another who stands out immediately on film for his size and length. All that said, there’s reason to question whether that impact can translate to the NFL.
Sterk has decent initial reactions off the snap and overall quickness to his game. He extends well with his wingspan advantage and gets many of his wins by controlling the action early through his long reach, much like Jonah Williams above. Where he struggles consistently however, is with his balance and form. His footwork in particular frequently lets him down too often.
While he can utilize a good rip move to turn the corner successfully, he might lack the flexibility to win regularly against more talented offensive linemen. If he can improve his footwork and form though he has ways of winning, bringing high effort and some violence at the point of attack.
There’s certainly no denying the results at the FCS level either, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that he hasn’t played a great deal over his time in college. There’s upside worth investing in.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
As the pre-season Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and a pre-season FCS 1st team All-American, Montana linebacker Dante Olson was worthy of a close look, and has his fans in the draft community. His production has been outstanding, including leading the FCS in tackles per game in 2018 as a junior.
That said, it’s difficult to project Olson to replicate that production and impact at the next level. A bit stiff and tight in his movements, Olson is not the best athlete with modest range and quickness that might limit him outside the tackles and in space.
Potentially the best prospect watched, Portland State left tackle Korbin Sorensen is only a junior but will be on the radar for 2021 as a possible mid-round prospect, with the desired measurables, movement off the edge and strong base. His blitz recognition and adjustments also impress.
Just hovering outside the top prospects discussed in detail, 6’2, 220lb Mitch Gueller was great to break down on film. The preseason All-American wide receiver from Idaho State may lack explosive traits, but is fearless over the middle with safe hands, catching well outside his frame, along with good positional awareness to locate space. A former baseball 1st round pick, Gueller will turn 26 as a rookie, which might keep him from being drafted.
Another personal favorite at WR was Jerry Louie-McGee of Montana, who is undersized at 5’9”, 180lbs, but has the short-area quickness and soft hands to succeed as a slot receiver. A dangerous playmaker with the ball in his hands, he could help his roster chances further as a returner on special teams.
Returning to Idaho State, safety Adkin Aguirre is a blast to watch play. Despite a smaller frame at 5’9, 190”, he rallies to the football and gets stuck into piles to help finish plays, while sacrificing his body into solo tackles in the open field. He might be quicker than fast but appears to have solid range and brings a fiery demeanor and energy that stands out.