By Chris Tripodi and Matt Caraccio
On July 1st, Conference USA once again fell victim to realignment. With mainstays such as East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane all joining The American Athletic Conference (AAC), Conference USA begins this season amidst change. Unfortunate as this may sound, there is plenty to be excited about for 2015 and the future.
This fall Conference USA will be welcoming Old Dominion University and Western Kentucky University – two programs ready to compete. Western Kentucky University has been on a coaching carousel lately, with three head coaches in the last three years. Saying goodbye to head coach Bobby Petrino last year, the Hilltoppers will welcome newly appointed head coach, Jeff Brohm this fall. Coach Brohm will take over a team that went 8-4 in the Sunbelt Conference and produced two players selected in last year’s NFL draft. Old Dominion, a startup program in 2009 will join CUSA under guidance of head coach Bobby Wilder. The Monarchs are no pushovers sporting a 7–0 record against FCS teams last year as a member of Colonial Athletic Association. The Monarchs will be returning 17 starters and look ready to compete at the next level.
New programs aside, Conference USA will maintain all of the teams, save one (Tulane), that produced 8 players selected in last years NFL Draft. The talent pool going into this year’s draft is far from barren. Let’s take a closer look at some of the players that you should know going into this season.
1. CB Bryce Callahan, Rice
Overshadowed by Philip Gaines last year, Bryce Callahan will finally get his opportunity to star this fall. Standing 5’10”, 180lbs Callahan is a talented young cornerback. A 2nd team all-conference selection last year, Callahan recorded 34 tackles (3 for a loss), 3 INTs and 10 pass-break-ups. An excellent defender in man coverage, Callahan consistently stays low in his backpedal and has the ability to flip his hips without losing speed. On intermediate and short passes, Callahan changes direction at speed and rarely allows the receiver any separation. On deep passing plays, Callahan tracks the ball well in the air and shows the ability to break up plays with regularity. It would be nice to see Callahan covert several of his pass-break-ups into interceptions this year. In space, Callahan is an average tackler. Specifically on obvious running downs, Callahan had trouble shedding the blocks and tackling in space. It is important to keep in mind however; the Owl’s defensive scheme does not call upon Callahan to be the primary force player on most plays. Ultimately Callahan seems to possess good strength and I am confident he can improve his tackling at the next level.
Bryce Callahan profiles well as a nickel cornerback at the next level. His excellent instincts in coverage combined with his impressive athletic ability could make him a nuisance for slot receivers. Callahan could be one of the late round steals in this year’s draft.
2. CB D’Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic
An All-Conference USA First Team performer last season, Smith is easily the Owls’ best defensive player. Ranking second in the nation with seven interceptions and third in pass break-ups, the senior corner was named to the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list and is firmly on the NFL Draft radar. Listed at 5-11, 190, Smith has decent size and showed the ability to stick in downfield coverage last season, especially against Auburn’s Sammy Coates, who stands 6-2. Coates had three catches in the game, but none when covered by Smith. The Florida Atlantic star has the recovery speed to make up ground when beat and shows a willingness to come up hard against the run, making tackles around the line of scrimmage.
Combining those skills with his production and obvious ball skills, Smith is an intriguing prospect to watch for Florida Atlantic in 2014. He’s already draftable, but could play himself into a late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick with another standout season.
3. WR Jordon Taylor, Rice
Jordon Taylor is a 6’5”, 210lb prospect that is flying under the radar. A 2nd team all-conference selection; Taylor tallied 55 receptions for 848 yards and 8 TDs last year (15.4 yrds/rec). In a primarily ground oriented Rice offense, Taylor was the clear go to receiver whenever Rice needed a big play to move the chains. At the snap, Taylor has a good burst off the line of scrimmage rarely taking extra steps. As Taylor enters the vertical stem of his route he maintains good leverage and adequate acceleration. On short and intermediate routes Taylor has difficulty making cuts at speed, but he is adept at using his excellent size and impressive catch radius to win in tight coverage. In addition, Taylor combines his excellent size and strong hands to adjust to poorly thrown passes. On deep passes down the field Taylor exhibits deceptive speed. A true long strider, Taylor has the speed to threaten defenses vertically. After the catch Taylor is tough to bring down, although not elusive. A powerful runner after the catch, Taylor uses his size to get extra yards. He runs with good leverage and frequently delivers powerful blows to would be tacklers.
As offenses in the NFL become more pass oriented, players with Taylor’s skill set become more desirable. Jordon Taylor has the size and receiving ability to be a potential mismatch, especially in short yardage/red zone situations. Taylor can be an excellent weapon for any team willing to explore his specialized skill set.
4. DE James Rouse, Marshall
After playing just three games in 2011 before a season-ending back injury and missing the entire 2012 season with a torn Achilles, Rouse came back strong to lead Marshall with 14 tackles for loss and earn All-Conference USA First Team honors. His quickness off the snap is impressive and his burst makes him extremely effective shooting gaps inside. Listed at just 268 pounds, Rouse played tackle for the Thundering Herd after gaining 30 pounds to prepare for his move inside, but his quickness didn’t suffer. Despite being light for the inside, Rouse holds his ground well against double teams, uses his hands well to leverage his way through blocks and collapses the pocket consistently.
Granted a sixth year of eligibility due to his injury woes, Conference USA’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year will look to stay on the field and build off last season’s success. An underrated prospect due to his problems staying healthy, Rouse can join the mid-to-late Day 3 discussion if he puts together another great season. With a 6-5 frame that can add weight, he could be an option for 4-3 teams at defensive end.
5. QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall
Cato has been Marshall’s starting quarterback since his freshman year and was named Conference USA’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year, matching the honor bestowed on teammate Rouse. He has thrown for over 8,000 yards in the past two seasons and is even receiving some Heisman hype. While those hopes are a longshot, Cato does show some NFL skills despite standing just 6-0, 188. Cato does a great job moving both inside and outside of the pocket and keeps his head up and away from the rush, looking to throw on the run before taking off. He shows excellent touch on short and intermediate passes but has a tendency to lean back when he throws, causing passes to fall short of their intended target.
Cato needs to work on his footwork on the move, as many of his passes sail high or skip along the ground. That’s a problem for Cato in general, and even when he’s confined to the pocket his accuracy is erratic. These deficiencies and his lack of size make him more of a priority free agent at this time, but if he cleans up his fundamentals he could be in for a huge season. His ceiling seems to be that of Seneca Wallace.
6. OG Cyril Lemon, North Texas
At 6’3, 304lbs Cyril Lemon has excellent size for the position. Lemon is one of the only players in the country to have started every game since their freshman year and be an all conference selection three years running (1st team all-conference last year). With an athletic build, Lemon is an even cut player with good upper and lower body strength. Lemon sits well in his stance but a slight stagger raises some concerns about his flexibility. At the snap, Lemon demonstrates excellent initial quickness. In the running game, Lemon is effective but not over powering. At times Lemon will fall off blocks and bend at the waist, but when Lemon does make good contact he can gain ground against any defender. As a pulling guard, Lemon is very effective at getting to the point of attack quickly, while constantly moving his feet throughout his block. In pass protection Lemon has trouble anchoring against defenders. Lemon has a tendency to catch the defender rather than battle for good hand position. As a result, Lemon ultimately limits the potential power he can harness from his lower body. Lemon is a work in progress when attempting to mirror pass rushers. Although he possesses the requisite lateral agility to be very effective, Lemon has difficulty staying with defenders.
Cyril Lemon is a player with tremendous potential. A blend of superb natural athleticism and power, Lemon is an excellent project at the next level. Lemon’s size and athleticism make him the perfect project for an offensive line guru.
7. OG Mason Y’Barbo, North Texas
At 6’2”, 307lbs Y’Barbo has good size for the position. A 2nd team all-conference selection last year, Y’Bardo is a player worth watching this fall. Sporting a stockier build, Y’Barbo sits well in his stance with good flexion in both his knees and ankles. At the snap, Y’Barbo shows good initial quickness getting off the line of scrimmage. In the run game, Y’Barbo engages defenders with good leverage and frequently makes first contact with the defender. Once contact is made Y’Barbo is adept at getting his arms extended but his lack of hip roll undermines his potential power. When pulling Y’Barbo takes good angles on defenders and seems to adjust well on the move. While there were times when Y’Barbo bends at the waist when blocking at the next level, overall, he maintains good balance while driving through the numbers of the opponent. In pass protection Y’Barbo sets quickly, but seems to lack the lateral agility necessary to mirror blockers consistently.
Mason Y’Barbo has the initial quickness and raw technique to make him an interesting offensive line prospect. With an improved strength and conditioning program Y’Barbo could surprise at the next level. At this point Y’Barbo has the raw materials to potentially provide quality depth for a team at the next level.
8. WR William Dukes, Florida Atlantic
An All-Conference USA Second Team performer in his junior season, Dukes was just 21 yards short of 1,000 on 63 catches for the season. At 6-4, Dukes shows the ability to high point the ball in the air and makes catches away from his body. The ball seems to stick in his hands on both short and deep passes and he was very consistent, catching at least five passes in all but one game last season. Despite a lanky 190-pound frame, Dukes shows toughness fighting through contact and pass interference. He combines that toughness with good body control and sideline awareness to contort for the ball and keep his feet in bounds.
Dukes isn’t a burner and takes time to accelerate to full speed, but his size allows him to get downfield and make plays with the ball in the air. He’s another prospect who doesn’t come with a draftable grade, yet his height could intrigue teams as a free agent.
9. C/OG Paulo Melendez, UTEP
Paulo Melendez participated in 23 games at center the last two years. Last year Melendez started 12 games at center and was one of the bright spots along the offensive line. Melendez is a 6’3”, 305lb athlete with potential. With functional athleticism for the position, Melendez sits well in stance exhibiting good flexibility through the knees and ankles. At the snap Melendez shows good burst, but he has a tendency to get too up-right leaving himself vulnerable to the bull rush on passing downs. Once set in his stance however, Melendez is solid in pass protection with good balance and lateral agility. Melendez also has good instincts for the position, flashing good recovery quickness against a variety of stunts. In the running game Melendez plays with good strength and good leverage. Against Texas A&M last year, Melendez played his opponents to a stalemate.
Paulo Melendez is a player worth keeping an eye on this year. There is speculation that the Miners will be moving Melendez to guard this fall. While the move to guard may ultimately be the correct one, Melendez has enough potential as a center to merit more than just a cursory glance by teams at the next level.
10. WR Tommy Shuler, Marshall
Shuler has put up outstanding numbers playing with high school teammate Cato, catching over 100 passes in consecutive seasons. Shuler added a career-high 10 touchdowns last season, but at 5-7, 190 with limited speed, he doesn’t rate very highly on many NFL Draft boards. While he is an extremely reliable possession receiver with sure hands underneath and good route-running ability, Shuler’s lack of speed and pedestrian ability to attack balls in the air is likely to keep him out of the 2015 draft. He is a tough and catches the ball well in traffic while showing nice extension when on the ground, but those skills only allow him to make catches that receivers a few inches taller make with ease.
Shuler shows nice awareness on the sideline and the ability to work back to his quarterback, but needs to work on adjusting to passes in intermediate zones. He will occasionally hear footsteps from safeties that cause him to short arm catches, something he can’t afford to do at his size. Shuler is an excellent college player, but isn’t likely to make a big impact in the NFL. A team may give him a camp shot due to his production, though.