SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: Colonial athletic
By Rebecca Rennie
In our continuing series, Rebecca takes a look at the best Group of Five and FCS prospects to know for the 2020 draft. Next up is the CAA, one of the strongest conferences in the FCS in 2019. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine!
It’s been a rough start to the season for the 1-4 Rams, who have lost all three conference games to date. Two were by four points or less, and the other to Delaware went to triple overtime. One bright spot is that they not only have arguably the best NFL Draft prospect in the CAA, but the highest graded so far in this series through three FCS conferences (including the Missouri Valley and Big Sky).
While not all football fans get excited about great offensive line play, there’s no hesitation with leading off a prospect article by featuring a future interior lineman when the film is this good. Murphy is currently lining up outside at left tackle for Rhode Island and has started at every position other than right guard during college but is most likely playing inside at the next level, despite solid arm length for his size.
There’s a pleasing contrast in the easy, comfortable manner in which Murphy executes in pass protection and the nasty aggression with which he finishes with as an imposing mauler in the run game.
Playing with an outstanding base, the 3-year full-time starter has near-flawless balance, control and coordination. When combined with good movement for his broad frame and excellent vision to handle counters and late blitzes, Murphy is rarely beaten, regardless of facing speed or power attacks. His hand placement is deliberate and dependable, to go with the anchor and core strength to absorb at the point of attack.
The run blocking execution is no less impressive. Murphy proficiently and purposefully works and directs defenders out of frame, controlling the action. Other times, Murphy is blowing the doors open with pure power and drive, more often-than-not finishing the unfortunate defender into the turf.
Though the URI O-lineman is dominating against a modest competition level relative to some draft prospects, he ought to have a chance to prove himself at an All-Star game post-season. A strong performance there might see him as the next small school offensive lineman to hear his name on Day 2 of the draft, even if Day 3 could be more likely.
Willoughby may or may not be on the radar of NFL teams, but few players stood out more while watching CAA film than the defensive lineman reportedly known as the heart and soul of the Elon defense.
In addition to his shorter stocky frame, the production numbers don’t leap off the page either, with 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks through six games this season. However, watching the action reveals greater impact and disruption than the numbers often reflect, and over 6 tackles per game is certainly a healthy number from the D-line as well.
The shorter listed height feels a non-issue also, with Willoughby appearing to have long arms for his frame, giving him more than enough reach along with favorable leverage and pad level. He is fully capable of keeping blockers off his frame and dictating movement after contact.
Quickly releasing out of his stance off the snap, Willoughby brings an intensity as a highly aggressive player with a relentless motor. The upper body technique not only features fast and violent hands but excellent polish too. A wide variety of well-executed rush moves include rips and swims to disengage from contact, and taking advantage of over-zealous O-linemen with his push-pull technique.
His stout base and low center aids him in working off blocks in the run game to position himself to make plays on the ball carrier. Bringing force and good wrap-up technique, Willoughby is a reliable finisher. He’s well built at a listed 273lbs but moves well in space and in pursuit outside the tackle box.
Searching for mentions in the media relating to any NFL interest didn’t return anything specific, but Willoughby appears to have solid physical traits, well-developed technique and an undeniable competitiveness. Against better opposition in Wake Forest earlier this season, Willoughby stood out throughout, constantly making his presence felt (even if he couldn’t avert the TD in this clip). Here’s hoping scouts have seen the same.
The Dukes D is loaded, and features multiple intriguing prospects for the next level, including another featured later in this article. Robinson is a worthy contender to top that list and was the only James Madison senior to make the pre-season Senior Bowl watch list even with missing all of 2018 with a non-contact foot injury.
Despite a smaller frame, it’s quickly evident that Robinson plays bigger than that size listing. Highly competitive from tight coverage, the senior corner gives as much as he gets in hand fighting, while battling for position downfield, and at the catch point. There’s no hesitation getting stuck into run support either, so often frustratingly lacking in many corner prospects.
Rather than size, where the questions may come regarding his skillset is Robinson’s top-end speed. The season opener versus Power 5 competition in West Virginia saw the Dukes CB beaten over the top on a touchdown and was also left trailing on multiple other occasions in that contest.
That said, context is important, as it was his first game back from a significant foot injury. As the 2019 season has progressed, Robinson has missed more time on the field, including not playing at all versus Chattanooga and Stony Brook recently. Ultimately, it looks as if proving his speed in pre-draft athletic testing and his health in his medicals will be most critical as to whether the talented corner gets drafted.
Hopefully there won’t be red flags, as there’s plenty more to like in his game. Short-area quickness is not in question, with fluidity in his transitions and changes of direction on route breaks, with minimal wasted motion in his footwork. His reactions, redirecting and click & close ability make separation often tricky to achieve against the sticky cornerback. An excellent playmaker with ball skills, Robinson claimed 7 interceptions during his last full season played in 2017.
In a draft year that features plenty of smaller school quarterback prospects, Flacco will be among those drawing interest. On his third college team, it’s been an eventful journey to this point for a player who will be 25 years old during his potential rookie NFL season.
After two seasons primarily as a backup at Western Michigan followed by a year not playing at Rutgers, Flacco is completing his second season with Towson. In addition, Flacco plays for the Tigers’ baseball team and was selected by the Phillies in Round 32 of the MLB draft out of high school.
Though not the biggest for the position, the Tigers QB does offer duel threat ability and some positive arm traits. Flacco has the mobility to scramble and extend plays, and to run the ball himself if space opens up. The velocity on his passes is maintained when throwing on the move and from off-platform.
That said, many of his off-target throws, of which he has his fair share, are a result of footwork and a lack of coordination between upper and lower body. His progression work is very much a work in progress, too often hesitating and looking a little frantic if his first read is unavailable. His decision-making under pressure is arguably of greatest concern which too often leads to disastrous results.
Flacco is not the only former Rutgers Scarlet Knights player to find success in the CAA, and Carter looks the more exciting NFL prospect of the two. Another key member of this impressive JMU defense, Carter has been a big factor in the Dukes starting 5-1 this year, looking to knock off the undefeated 6-0 Villanova Wildcats in a huge clash this weekend.
The senior wins with quickness and explosion that results in a highly active and disruptive game. The combination of a non-stop motor and lightning fast hands can result in some instantaneous beats of offensive lineman, as West Virginia’s left tackle found out in the example below. Whether executing a blur of a swim move or using his good reach and leverage to take control at the point, Carter needs to be accounted for every snap.
There ought to be some inside-outside versatility to make use of Carter’s speed and power from the interior on passing downs as well as off the edge. Despite his high-energy style, there’s flashes of discipline setting the edge in the run game, timing his disengagements, and to force the action inside into the arms of teammates.
Carter reportedly comes across very passionately in interviews regarding his goals and his love of the game. Everything about his play on the field suggests someone with the work ethic and ultra-competitive drive that should give him a great chance to make a roster with the right opportunity.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
The CAA has several other cornerback prospects who might earn a look from NFL teams. New Hampshire’s Prince Smith Jr. has fantastic footwork and instincts in man coverage, though is another whose lack of ideal measurables and speed could hurt his chances.
At 6’0”, 200lbs Elon’s Daniel Reid-Bennett has size and flashes ball skills, though some late reactions and inconsistent reads can see him give up some easy completions. Manny Patterson of Maine is fired up and emotionally engaged at all times, with no shortage of physicality. He’s another with size/speed questions and stiff hips, but his instincts and ball skills could compensate.
In addition to Willoughby and Carter, Richmond’s Maurice Jackson and Stony Brook’s Sam Kamara offer some of the same plus traits at similar builds. Jackson excels post-contact to stack and shed blocks, while Kamara brings violence and active hands, including bringing the same energy late in the Utah State game this season despite the contest being an early blowout.
Rhode Island wide receiver Aaron Parker is dominating the CAA receiving stats and has some traits worthy of a look in the pros, with an athletic 6’2”, 208lb frame and a burst of acceleration that will translate. He’s very raw in other areas however, with work to be done as a route runner, some poor positional and field awareness, and inconsistent timing at the catch point. The hands a generally good but is not immune to concentration drops.
Unfortunately, one of the best prospects in the CAA, Towson running back Shane Simpson, was lost early on this season to a devastating knee injury. Whether the redshirt senior applies for a sixth year of eligibility or leaves college, it’s a tough blow to take. Hopefully he makes a full recovery and gets a shot as a free agent once healthy.