SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: OHIO VALLEY
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 OVC, which has been highly unpredictable this season but features plenty of talent. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine!
To say that it’s been a chaotic start to conference play in the OVC would be an understatement. Much of the shake-up and relative parity has come at the hands of an up-and-down Austin Peay team that sit with a 5-3 record overall, 3-1 in conference. The Governors have defeated the two preseason media poll favorites in Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri, and yet has lost to struggling Tennessee State (1-3, 2-6) along with two non-conference defeats.
The same variation could be applied to the individual production of Kentel Williams. Peay’s star running back has had some huge performances such as his 173 rushing yards (7.2 per carry) and 2 TDs against Jacksonville State, yet has averaged below 4 yards per carry on three other occasions as part of some inconsistent numbers overall. Williams has been hobbled by a lower body injury that caused him to miss the Southeast Missouri game and likely factors into his last couple modest performances.
With that said, Williams frequently flashes on film in a manner that has to deserve a look from NFL teams and draws a late round draft grade here. The smaller-framed back is an exciting, shifty, lively runner who stands out for his short-area quickness, lateral cuts and overall elusiveness. The burst of speed aids him as he hits the holes heading north and in making defenders miss in the open field. His top speed may not be elite but fits the description of “quicker-than-fast”.
While his relatively slighter frame and shifty style might suggest otherwise, the toughness and physicality are outstanding. There are multiple examples on film of Williams delivering a hit with a lowering of the shoulder that catches an unexpecting defender off-guard if they aren’t ready for it. The 190lb playmaker doesn’t go down easily under first contact and breaks tackles regularly.
As effective as Williams is laterally, there can be a little too much dancing in the backfield, but generally recognises when to head upfield. There’s anticipatory recognition of holes opening up and reliable overall vision. Adding in his good fundamentals in the passing game, there’s an overall skill set that fits a role in the current NFL. Williams hopefully gets an opportunity to prove that either late on Day 3 of the draft or as a free agent.
After five straight conference titles, Jacksonville State are under threat of failing to win the OVC for the first time since 2013. Sitting in the middle of the pack with a 3-2 conference record, the Gamecocks have costly defeats to SEMO and Austin Peay on record. The situation could have been more dire had they allowed Murray State to complete a second-half comeback in the most recent 14-12 result over the Racers.
Much of the reasoning behind being preseason favorites for another title was based around some standout upperclassmen talent, including several seniors on the NFL radar. The most talented of that group might be safety Marlon Bridges, a preseason first team All-American and Senior Bowl watch list player.
It’s easy to see the appeal for the next level given some of the base measurables and traits. With effective movement and range in all directions, strong ball skills and impactful tackling ability, Bridges has the abilities to play and potentially eventually start in the pros. Aggressive working downhill, he will take off early to lay out a ball carrier on the second level. A hard hitter, it’s no surprise to see him total 3 forced fumbles so far this season.
That said, there were a lot of concerns when watching Bridges on film. While he’ll take chances downhill, too often he is sacrificing angles and running lanes that have resulted in big gains against the Gamecocks. As good as the ball skills can be at the catch point, he can be beaten comfortably early off the snap, left trailing and unable to recover.
More worrisome is the work-rate and overall motor, which too often appears to be lacking. At times, Bridges doesn’t seem to be too bothered to hustle and finish plays, and to hang back where possible to avoid getting involved in pursuit. There’s a general low energy demeanor in his play. The end result is a bit of an uneasy gut feeling about his effort level that holds back what could otherwise be a higher grade. Bridges feels like a high-ceiling-low-floor risky prospect.
Despite the disappointing win-loss record referenced above, the Tigers were a surprisingly enjoyable watch during film study with more intriguing potential prospects than expected among the senior group of players. The unquestioned star of the show, however, was the electric and undersized offensive weapon in Chris Rowland.
Highly versatile in his deployment throughout the offense and on special teams, the easy comparisons to other smaller playmakers such as Jakeem Grant of the Miami Dolphins are valid to make. His draft stock is very much on the rise thanks to a productive senior season that has including 82 receptions in 8 games for 1,134 yards and 5 TDs, in addition to impactful carries as a runner and a kick return touchdown on special teams.
An outstanding athlete, Rowland appears to have legitimate NFL-caliber burst and speed. Capable of some devastating jump cuts and shifts to evade would-be tacklers, the explosive Rowland can turn on the jets once loose in the open field and tear it up for huge gains and home-run hits. Creative play callers ought to love the potential ways to utilize his ability and get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways.
Beyond the dynamic traits, the Tigers’ senior has all the fundamentals as a receiver with great hands, tracking the ball effectively, and good feel for the position and where the space is. The good instincts as a runner take over after the catch. The smaller frame will presumably eliminate Rowland from the draft board of some teams, but he could prove to be a bargain for someone given an opportunity and might even make an appearance in the latter stages of the draft.
Winners of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS, have had modest to minimal impact in the NFL in recent years. Perhaps the most successful of the last few years was former North Dakota State linebacker and San Diego Charger Kyle Emanuel, who decided to retire from football in 2018.
Winner as a junior last season after totalling a massive 168 tackles on the year, Redhawks linebacker Zach Hall will look to buck that trend of success at the pro level. His physical traits in terms of size and athleticism are average at best which will limit his upside potential. As Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy mentioned in a Tweet to start the season, Hall proving himself in space and coverage along with on special teams will be crucial to making a roster.
He may not be explosive in his movements, but as Hall’s stats suggest, he is around the action consistently in large part due to his reads and decisiveness, earning himself a head start on most plays due to his strong instincts. The speed may not be elite, but he moves efficiently in all directions with clean footwork. Effective angles to ballcarriers minimize errors and big plays.
Playing with a bit of a mean streak, Hall doesn’t miss many tackles when in position. He consistently gets into those positions through positive play at the point of attack, getting the most out of his extension and punch, stacking and shedding effectively as he works off blocks, and fighting through congestion between the tackles. As a 4-year starter, his experience, leadership and motor are all parts of his high character and intangibles that compensates for some underwhelming measurables.
There’s certainly a stark contrast between the two prospects featured here from Tennessee State. While receiver Chris Rowland is diminutive relative to most in the NFL, Brown looks the part immediately and clearly stands out on film as being on a different level to most of those around him on the field at the FCS level. Given his background as a 4-star recruit for the Alabama Crimson Tide prior to transferring to the Tigers, that is not surprising.
Much of the interest for the pros will be based on potential rather than what he’s shown up to this point. After three mostly anonymous seasons in Tuscaloosa and two seasons with Tennessee State that has included missed time (including with a shoulder injury this 2019 mid-season), he’s not put a great deal on film. The impact on the stat sheet has also been minimal, with just 1 TFL and zero sacks in his 5 games played this season.
With imposing size, particularly given that he often rushes upright from a two-point stance, Brown combines that with natural power and impressive straight-line speed that can be seen in pursuit. When able to attain favourable contact and leverage, he can dominate on first contact, un-balance offensive linemen and walk back the opposition into the pocket.
The issue currently, however, is that his technique is very raw and inconsistent, regularly playing with ineffective pad level and coordination. He doesn’t bring much of a rush plan or a well-developed repertoire of rush moves, relying on dominating physically to get by. Given his lack of impact in finishing plays, even that hasn’t really worked out either. As good as the quickness is in a straight line, he is a bit slower in terms of changing directions that can also be limiting.
There’s no doubt that Brown has the size and strength to hold up at the point of attack at the NFL level, which can allow him to make the back end of a roster as a backup or rotational front seven player. He requires a lot of technical development to be able to contribution though, and even then, is unlikely to ever be a consistent disruptor and pass rusher.
Piling up 17 touchdown receptions in a single season and earning the nickname of “Baby Julio” will grab the attention, as Pearson did in 2018 to earn FCS 1st team All-American recognition. In truth, his size isn’t in reality Julio-esque, and appears on film to be a little leaner and below his listed size. In addition, the redshirt senior receiver lacks explosion with underwhelming top speed.
Pearson isn’t notably dynamic in and out of breaks and at the top of his routes, which tend to be more rounded than sharp. The lack of suddenness could make separation difficult to regularly generate at the next level.
While that’s mostly negative discussion through the first couple paragraphs, there’s still plenty worthy of a look, even if it seems more likely to be as an undrafted free agent. He uses his still good-sized frame positively in positioning himself as the ball arrives and high points effectively with good timing going vertical.
Pearson catches consistently including in stride and in contested situations, and overall shows savvy in his execution and a good feel for space. The undeniable production speaks to his ability to play smart and get the most out of his skill set. He currently has totalled another 11 TD catches on 43 receptions for 723 yards (16.8 average) after 9 games so far this season. His community work has also received awards and recognition, speaking to his personality and character; always a plus in a fringe prospect.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
As mentioned above the Tennessee State Tigers had more prospects than expected. Offensive Guard Lachavious Simmons has good size at 6’5”, 315lbs and is one of the nastier blockers watched in the FCS this season. He loves to drive and finish in the run game and moves well enough in space, reflective of his noted passion for the game that comes with a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality.
Also on the Tigers, cornerback Dajour Nesbeth could earn looks through his good-sized frame of 6’0”, 190lbs. With solid athleticism and long strides to handle deep targets, the measurables are good enough if a team wants to take a look in camp. He does have issues keeping tight and in phase in coverage however and is beaten for position more often than ideal. He could be an interesting developmental prospect.
While watching Zach Hall, his Southeast Missouri teammate Justin Swift continually flashed and drew the attention. The edge rusher and linebacker hybrid plays with fantastic energy and a spring in his step, with enough burst and speed to function effectively. Size will hurt his chances at just under 6’0” and 229lbs, but the preseason 1st team All-OVC defender could be worth a look.
Eastern Kentucky’s Aaron Patrick is one of the more disruptive defensive stars in the OVC. Through eight games, the 6’4”, 238lb EDGE has totalled 10 TFLs and 6 sacks as part of his impactful play. He didn’t jump off the screen though, in terms of NFL athleticism, in addition to very raw technique for the high school tight end who is still developing on the defensive side of the ball.
Austin Peay offensive lineman Kyle Anderton has been a rock this season for the Governors, primarily playing outside at tackle but filling in at center in several games this year. The Vanderbilt transfer looked better on the interior from an NFL perspective, and is as tough as it gets battling in the trenches. Though a little tight and lacking an ideal athletic profile, he anchors well with a reliable base.