SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: FCS CHAMPIONSHIP SPECIAL
By Rebecca Rennie
There was drama along the way, but ultimately the top two teams at the FCS level will meet for the 2020 title. Both North Dakota State and James Madison feature some outstanding talent, that will likely see several taken in the NFL Draft. Here, we pick out some of the names to watch this weekend and over the next few months on route to the draft!
Aiding the potential quality on this championship matchup is the QB talent on each team. Both the Bison and Dukes had some relative uncertainty at the position entering the year. While Trey Lance has flourished as a freshman first-time starter, DiNucci has improved significantly as a senior from his play in 2018.
The transfer from Pitt was a solid starter as a junior but was prone to errors. He certainly wasn’t a prospect firmly on the radar of NFL teams. After a fantastic final year though, that has seen his ability to make big plays improve, his propensity for baffling mistakes reduced and more consistency in general in terms of ball placement, DiNucci has become a bigger factor in wins for James Madison this year.
The Dukes quarterback has eyes only on the title game in Frisco at this time. However, a big performance in his last outing will be positive momentum on what could be a path toward a late draft selection and a chance to make an NFL roster in a developmental or backup capacity.
DiNucci is of a relatively smaller size at the position but has enough physical attributes for the next level. He shows decent zip on his generally tight spirals from a fast release, providing catchable passes that arrive on time. He also regularly shows off sufficient mobility that is generally desired from QB prospects in most systems currently.
DiNucci can take advantage of space to tuck the ball and run, on broken plays or designed runs. Many of his mistakes come from throwing questionable passes out of structure, but when he’s keeping the ball himself, he can make positive gains. A tough runner, DiNucci can take some ill-advised hits at times. As much as the competitiveness is fantastic, learning to slide more would be better for his long-term durability.
As a passer, DiNucci looks the part from a clean pocket. His polished footwork is evident in his drops and as he steps into his throws consistently. Staring down receivers and locking onto first reads, a common issue among young quarterbacks, is applicable to DiNucci also. He does flash enough progression work though and is trending positively in that area over the last couple seasons. A common feature of the Duke senior’s play is throwing from multiple arm angles and platforms.
The progress over his college career is encouraging when considering the James Madison QB for the next level. His fundamentals are good but proving his football IQ and reading of coverages will be key to earning a late draft pick or making an impact in a training camp.
In his first snap of the season in the opener versus Butler, Tuszka set the tone for his senior year. Executing perfectly on a push-pull manouver to disengage from his opponent on the O-line, he speared the running back into the infield dirt of the Target Field baseball home of the Minnesota Twins for a tackle for loss (video below).
North Dakota State features difference makers on each level of their talented defense, with their senior edge rusher Tuszka making a frequent impact in the backfield. His consistency snap-to-snap can improve, but the threat is always there to get home on any play. After the championship game against the Dukes, the Bison standout will be competing at the upcoming East-West Shrine event.
Tuszka flashes 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 truly explosive speed and bend consistently off the edge.
He uses his ideal length well, along with a strong motor, helping to compensate for modest explosive traits that likely limits his upside. His run game features a strong motor in pursuit, good wrap-up technique and hits with force.
Writing about Carter earlier in the season as part of The Touchdown’s feature on CAA prospects, the Rutgers transfer was already making a significant impact. That only continued through the season, putting up a monster senior year.
Carter has piled up 59 tackles with a massive 25.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks and a further 13 QB hurries. With consistent pressure beyond even those numbers, he has been a disruptive force all year long.
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 results in some instantaneous beats of offensive lineman. 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 his speed and power from the interior on passing downs as well as off the edge. Despite Carter’s 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. His frame is likely close to maxed out but is built for the pro level. He could be a Day 3 steal.
Cox will unquestionably be the most talented prospect on the field, with the highest upside as a pro. He stands out early and often as being on another level in terms of his physical traits, athleticism and overall skill set.
He has impressed at times on route to 84 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and an interception. That said, he has also been inconsistent, at times underwhelming and underperformed.
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, big nickel and off the edge 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. Cox has a motor that runs as cold as it does hot. He can give 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. An occasional 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. He’s only a junior, so there is the option of returning for another season. It would not surprise to see him take his pro-ready skill set to the NFL after the title game though.
OTHER PROSPECTS FROM JAMES MADISON
Brandon Polk (#3): Many of the top talents on show this weekend began their career in the FBS and at Power 5 schools. One of the most dynamic threats on the field will be Dukes receiver Polk, a Penn State transfer. His slight frame at 5’9”, 175lbs and small target window are not ideal. However, he’s a explosive athlete who can work himself open, stretch the field, and make plays after the catch.
John Daka (#7): As good as Carter is off one edge, he is one half of a devastating pass rush tandem alongside fellow senior Daka. At 6’3”, 227lbs, he isn’t the biggest but has the quickness and flexibility to turn the corner effectively. The motor is non-stop. His mobility can aid him in dropping back to work in space and play in pursuit versus the run, but the pressure he creates in the backfield is his calling card. He impresses more with every game watched this year.
Dylan Stapleton (#84): One of the more under-rated pro prospects in this FCS championship game, Stapleton could be a key playmaker for the Dukes. Ideally built at 6’5” and 242lbs, the Slippery Rock transfer is a smooth route runner. Catching cleanly in stride, he’s effective on underneath targets and stretching the seam. Though capable as a blocker also, he could make an appealing receiving tight end prospect.
OTHER PROSPECTS FROM NORTH DAKOTA STATE
Ben Ellefson (#82): He won’t make as notable an impact as Stapleton in the box score, but Ellefson is a factor in the Bison run game. Part of the upcoming East-West Shrine week, he’s clearly on NFL radars, despite a low-ceiling skill set. Ellefson is polished and consistent, playing with awareness and recognition as both a receiver and blocker.
Zack Johnson (#68): It feels as though Johnson has been around for the entirety of the North Dakota State dynasty. The redshirt senior has starting experience both inside and outside, currently starting at guard in his final year. Though he has an ideal frame at 6’6” and 315lbs, he can underwhelm in terms of the power and punch he brings at the point of attack.
James Hendricks (#6): The converted QB has found a home at safety for the Bison. With 9 interceptions over the past two seasons, his fantastic IQ and recognition leads to impactful plays against the pass. If DiNucci takes some chances downfield, Hendricks could make him pay. Ultimately, the playmaking safety likely lacks the physical traits for the pros, with modest size and athleticism. His limited range and burst put a cap on his ceiling.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: JMUSports
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.