SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: IVY LEAGUE
By Rebecca Rennie
Our next stop through the FCS conferences takes us to the Ivy League in search of under-the-radar NFL Draft prospects. Get a head start on the small school prospects to know in the 2020 draft class!
The rosters for the various post-season, pre-draft All-Star games are starting to come together. Despite only being the starter for one season, Princeton quarterback Davidson showed enough in 2019 to earn a spot at the upcoming East-West Shrine week. His prototype frame and strong arm provide the physical traits that remain appealing in the eyes of many pro scouts.
The Tigers impressed through much of the 2019 season, rolling to a 7-0 start before a faltering finish saw them close the year at 8-2. Davidson’s numbers trended similarly. Completing 66.8% of his passes for 20 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, his stats were aided by a 7 TD outlier vs Bucknell early in the year. He struggled down the stretch with a 2:4 TD to INT ratio through the final 4 games.
When provided with time in a clean pocket, Davidson distributes the ball well to every level of the field. His strong arm stands out to hit on impressive throws. He displays good ball placement and the timing to hit in stride within favourable windows. He can generate good velocity through his upper body when unable to fully step into some throws.
Davidson’s throwing motion itself isn’t overly compact however, and his general mental processing speed can be a little slower than ideal. Very much a statue in the pocket, his tendency to hold onto the ball a bit too long sees him take too many hits and sacks. That may in part factor in O-line protection but regardless, Davidson’s notable lack of mobility won’t see him evade pressure often.
Unsurprisingly, given his minimal experience as a starter, the Tigers QB shows some questionable decision making. The viability of some of his attempts into double coverage raises concerns over his reading of the defense and his willingness to disengage from his primary receiver. Working through his progressions is either not present or slow, giving rushers that extra time required to get home.
While Davidson ticks off some traditional boxes, his significant lack of mobility to buy time, overall pocket presence and processing speed suggests a longer-term developmental project with a potentially low ceiling as the pay-off. That said, his ideal frame, good mechanics and arm strength are appealing base traits. A strong week at the East-West Shrine event could ease some of the doubts and questions raised above.
While Davidson is the Ivy League quarterback that appears to have more of the NFL’s attention, there’s arguably more to like about the leader of the 2019 co-champions and offensive player of the year in the conference. Whereas Davidson is methodical and deliberate, Rawlings is dynamic, lively and inspiring.
The measurables are more modest for the Yale QB. Where Rawlings impresses is with his instinctive vision and anticipation as a passer that sees him throw receivers open, rather than having to see them already open. His quick decision-making, timing and ball placement maximizes on opportunities and gets the most out of a talented group of offensive weapons at his disposal.
Rawlings doesn’t have the strongest of arms and a slightly more elongated release. He takes some chances downfield that he can get away with in the FCS, but may be picked off more frequently at the next level with his modest arm strength to zip balls into tight windows.
Where the Bulldogs playmaker does offer plus physical traits is as an athlete. Rawlings stands out for his mobility to not only take off and run when the play breaks down, but to buy time, exit the pocket and throw on the move. His escapability is fantastic, but so is his ability to keep his eyes downfield and find late passes outside of play structure, again reflecting his instincts and reads.
Whether Rawlings gets the right opportunity at the NFL level is far from certain. That said, he has that moxy, confidence and indefinable edge to his game some have and some just do not. He’s a fantastic competitor and leader with a winning mentality. Rawlings may not be the most technically conventional, but he makes things happens, unafraid to step up and make a game his.
The Big Green came so close to a perfect season and an outright Ivy League title. An unexpected home slip-up late in the year to Cornell was gutting for Dartmouth. Still, the team closed out a fantastic season as co-champs with Yale and a 9-1 record. Defensive star Isiah Swann could not be faulted in the Cornell loss, with a superb performance that included a pick 6 and a further 5 pass breakups in that single outing.
Those numbers are a small sample of an overall career that has been among the most productive in recent times by a defensive back in not just the Ivy League but the FCS. With 17 career interceptions and 4 career pick 6’s, Swann has closed out a hugely impactful college tenure.
Given some of the numbers, Swann unsurprisingly excels at the catch point with his receiver-like ball skills. He regularly displays great timing in his leaps and knack for positioning himself favorably relative to the receiver. As much a part in his success is his high football IQ, anticipation and reading of quarterbacks. His route recognition aids him in keeping in close contact with receivers despite some footwork limitations.
Speaking of which, there are some areas in which Swann is lacking, that might make replicating his success difficult at the pro level. Swann shows decent straight-line speed, but his footwork and backpedal are average. He is also a little tight hipped in his movements and transitions. He could offer separation at the top of routes, particularly when requiring to click and close, such as on comeback routes.
With that in mind, alongside his positive traits in his mental game and quick read and react abilities, Swann may fit best in zonal assignments over man coverage. Freeing up his abilities to break on the ball and come up with the spectacular plays at catch point for breakups and turnovers could see him continue to be an impactful contributor in the right system.
There is a lot of under-rated small school receiver talent in this upcoming 2020 draft class, but Shohfi looks certain to be a personal favorite. It’s difficult to assess at this point whether NFL scouts share that interest. There’s so much to like about the Yale team captain though, coming off his best season as a senior. Shohfi finished 2019 with 62 receptions in 9 games, for 1012 yards at over 16 yards per catch. His 11 touchdowns included 10 receiving scores and one punt return TD.
Dependability is a fitting term for the Bulldogs receiver. Shohfi displays outstanding hands to come down with the routine plays and the spectacular highlight grabs in equal measures. The key traits that go into that reliability beyond the final action of securing the ball are all present.
Shohfi tracks the ball well, shows timing and focus at the catch point, and regularly makes instinctive adjustments to the ball. Cleanly catching outside of his frame, he high points with great timing, and has the focus and toughness under pressure to win out in contested situations. The body control and positional awareness to come down with catches on the sidelines and in the back of the end zone sees few opportunities missed by a foot hitting out of bounds.
Though not the biggest, the Yale senior has a stout frame and well-rounded athleticism. A smooth runner, Shohfi has enough quickness to factor on multiple levels of the defense as a versatile target. With a natural feel for space and position, alongside skilled route execution, he’s able to work himself open in various ways. He could make teams regret passing on him should he go undrafted.
Unlike JP Shohfi, Penn defensive lineman Prince Emili is not officially a captain for his team, but is reportedly a strong and vocal leader regardless. He speaks volumes with his on-field play as well, with a level of intensity that leaps off the screen. The 1st team All-Ivy League selection was a standout performer on a team that struggled early this season before rallying to a 5-5 overall record.
Emili’s size doesn’t project as ideal for either the interior defensive line or as an edge defender. However, his combination of power and quickness allows him to be effective at either spot. He should be considered a potentially versatile depth player rather than the negative connotations of being a “tweener” prospect.
Whatever questions there may be regarding his frame and length, Emili is chiselled and muscular with enough core strength behind his impactful punches and drives, in addition to his ability to anchor and hold position.
The intensity and ferocious motor are obvious early on in his film study. Not only does the Quakers senior bring the juice in the initial phase of each snap, he is regularly chasing down ball carriers to the sidelines in pursuit, often making forceful hits through his momentum.
He has the ability to bull rush, close the pocket and create backfield disruption. Knocking O-linemen off balance, working off contact and driving gaps puts him in position for QB sacks and hits.
He might be at his best playing against the run though. Piling up tackles (65 in 2019) and TFLs (14), Emili is able to shed blocks emphatically at times, disengaging from blockers to force his way into positions to bring down ball carriers. His previously referenced habits of getting outside the tackles and chasing to the edges adds to his effectiveness.
Entering the season with high expectations, it was a disappointing year for the 3-7 Columbia Lions. While not the way that star edge rusher DeLorenzi would have liked to finish off his college career, he did hit a personal goal by breaking the school career sack record. The edge rusher totalled 22 over his time in New York City.
After 10 sacks as a junior in 2018, his numbers as a senior read as slightly underwhelming, with 25 tackles, 7 TFLs and 5 sacks. Fighting through several injuries over the course of the season factor into that, however. The constant pressure and disruption evident on his film also shows a far greater impact than the numbers suggest. The explosive speed rusher regularly hurried quarterbacks into poor throws and aiding teammates to make plays. Those aren’t going to register on his own box score.
The former high school wrestler wins with a wicked first step. His overall explosiveness and speed is backed by a motor that keeps offensive tackles under pressure constantly to try and contain the dynamic playmaker. His fast, educated hands deliver well-timed swipes and rips to deflect contact. That aids him as he dips and bends around the corner with natural leverage and flexibility. His speed rush with a rip move as he turns the corner is very much his go-to attack.
While his energy and motor at the point of attack and hustle in general can lead to making second effort plays, his lack of ideal length and bulk can see him controlled at times when his initial upfield burst doesn’t yield success. His ability to chase down ball carriers in space and commitment into tackles can see him make plays on the second level and to the sidelines, however.
That could be a key ability for his chances at the pro level. While he’ll surely be used as a situational edge rusher if he were to make an NFL roster, he could also be considered for a partial conversion to playing some off-ball linebacker as well. DeLorenzi’s burst to chase laterally could lend itself to that role, while continuing to use his explosive rush skills off the edge.
The lone Ivy League win for the Brown Bears came against fellow strugglers Columbia in the penultimate conference game. There were bright spots to the season though, including an entertaining offensive performance from transfer QB EJ Perry. He set an Ivy League record for total offensive yards in a single season. They could also have a fringe draft prospect on defense in interior lineman Michael Hoecht.
With a solid combination of size and athleticism, Hoecht doesn’t have any one elite trait but does everything competently with a well-rounded physical skill set. The Brown senior has nice quickness from his stance, aiding his initial upfield burst through good reactions off the snap. He bring energy to every rep.
Often making use of an effective swim move, he has positive upper body technique and quick powerful hands. Whether getting effective extension into the chest of opposing lineman, or evading contact with his rush moves, his technical refinement could translate to continuing to get interior pressure in the pros. His well-timed push-pull technique also sees good results as he works against a single blocker.
While he holds up well at the point of attack, there are his share of stalemates. Hoecht does not consistently dominate the relatively lesser competition level faced. His statistical production has been decent, totalling 42 tackles, 9 TFLs and 4 sacks as a senior, along with 7 recorded QB hurries. There may not be an excitingly high ceiling with Hoecht, but there’s a technically polished, well-rounded player in the Bears D-lineman with good measurables.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
Though his constant use in backfield sweep handoffs and quick bubble screens felt like it became very predictable for opposing defences, Dartmouth receiver Drew Estrada continued to make plays for the co-champions. The 6’0”, 184lb playmaker was everywhere for the Big Green. He contributed as a receiver, rusher, trick-play passer, kick and punt returner. A shifty athlete with good hands and savvy play, he impresses working in space after the catch. He could surprise as a projection to the slot.
Once recruited as a preferred walk on at the likes of Notre Dame and Ohio State, Niko Lalos is another Dartmouth prospect to keep an eye on. With good size at 6’4”, 260lbs along with good power, toughness and lower-body athleticism, the Taekwondo black belt and high school basketball star has solid measurables to earn a shot in camp. A pick 6 touchdown off Kevin Anderson against Princeton was a highlight moment in his impressive senior season.
Yale offensive guard Dieter Eiselen plays with a mean streak as a run blocker that should get him noticed. The 6’3”, 302lb interior lineman may play aggressive, but shows control in pass protection. Eiselen plays with a sound base and knee bend to anchor effectively. His background in weightlifting reflects in his play, holding up well at the point of attack.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: Princeton Athletics
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.