Small-School College Football Stars with Huge NFL Potential
Casual college football fans might not watch a single Wyoming game this season, but NFL scouts will be catching all of the Cowboys action possible to determine whether quarterback Josh Allen is worth the No. 1 overall pick in either of the next two years.
If we've learned anything from the NFL draft in recent years, it's that you don't have to play at Alabama or USC to get noticed. If you have the talent to play in the league, the league will find you.
North Dakota State's Carson Wentz was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft. He was one of four 2016 first-round picks from Group of Five or FCS schools.
Allen and SMU's Courtland Sutton ought to be first-round picks in 2018, and there are a handful of other small-school stars who could join them.
And while there's no chance he'll be a first-round pick, we've even listed a punter from the MAC who could be a beast in the NFL for a long time.
Nick DeLuca, Linebacker, North Dakota State
2016 Stats: 26 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception (TD)
Though Nick DeLuca was the leading tackler in North Dakota State's upset of Iowa, those season-long statistics aren't noteworthy.
That's because a shoulder injury robbed him of all but three games of what was supposed to be his final year in college. Following season-ending surgery, he was granted a medical-hardship waiver to return for one more year, in which DeLuca and the Bison hope he returns to 2015 form.
NDSU's middle linebacker had 135 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles two seasons ago in the process of leading the Bison to their fifth consecutive FCS playoff championship.
Following that campaign, DeLuca was one of 51 players—and the only one from a FCS school—named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker.
P.J. Hall, Defensive Tackle, Sam Houston State
2016 Stats: 56 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks, three forced fumbles
At 6'1" and 280 pounds, P.J. Hall is quite a few steak dinners away from fitting the conventional mold of a nose tackle in the NFL. But this bowling ball of a pass-rusher has been wreaking havoc on the Southland Conference over the past three years.
Hall was named the 2016 Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year, but he was actually better in previous seasons. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, he had 93 tackles, 12 sacks and five blocked kicks. He also had five blocks the following year, along with a pair of interceptions.
All told, Hall recorded 36 sacks, eight forced fumbles, three interceptions and 10 blocked kicks in his first three seasons with the Bearkats.
It would be nice to see what he can do against FBS offensive linesmen, but Hall is well on pace to break the FCS record for career sacks. According to Fox Sports, that title currently belongs to Southern Utah's James Cowser with 43.
Joe Davidson, Punter, Bowling Green
2016 Stats: 61 punts, 45.8 yards per punt, 19 punts of at least 50 yards
If you weren't expecting to see a punter on the list, join the club. However, it's not often that you find one built like NBA star Kawhi Leonard.
Most punters in the NFL don't even look like football players. Of the three pro leaders in yards per punt in 2016—Pat McAfee, Andy Lee and Marquette King—the biggest and baddest of the bunch is Lee at 6'0" and 205 pounds.
Bowling Green's Joe Davidson is a 6'7", 228-pound giant with a foot that effectively functions as a kettlebell at the end of a long pendulum.
The longest punt in the NFL this past season was 78 yards, accomplished by both Johnny Hekker and Brad Nortman. Davidson had punts of 79 yards and 82 yards in consecutive weeks against Ohio and Toledo. Nearly one-third of his boots went for at least 50 yards. In seven of 12 games, his longest punt went at least 60 yards.
It has been 22 years since a punter was taken in the first or second round of the NFL draft. Over the last four years, there have been a grand total of seven punters drafted. In other words, don't expect to hear Davidson's name called during the first two days of the 2018 draft.
But, whether it's as a late-round flier or as an undrafted free agent, some team is going to be thrilled when it signs this punter trapped in a power forward's body.
Darius Leonard, Linebacker, South Carolina State
2016 Stats: 124 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions
It's almost impossible to make a positive impression on defense when you're on the wrong end of a 59-0 beatdown, but South Carolina State's Darius Leonard found a way.
In that blowout loss to Clemson—in which they played just 12-minute quarters in the second half—Leonard recorded 19 total tackles and a blocked field goal.
A few weeks later in a 14-9 win over Howard, he had 14 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a 64-yard score.
The then-junior linebacker was named the 2016 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, marking the fourth consecutive year that a defender from S.C. State won the award. Joe Thomas won it in 2013 before becoming a starting linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave received the honor in both 2014 and 2015 before being selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Add in safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Antonio Hamilton and there are four defensive Bulldogs in the NFL. This 6'3", 220-pound tackling machine appears to be well on his way to expanding that club to five members.
Dallas Goedert, Tight End, South Dakota State
2016 Stats: 92 receptions, 1,293 yards, 11 TD
South Dakota State has one of the best receiving tandems at either the FCS or FBS level.
Along with the above numbers posted by tight end Dallas Goedert, wide receiver Jake Wieneke has recorded at least 70 catches, 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of the past three seasons. Either one could have a nice future in the NFL.
But it's Goedert who stands out as the more likely star. In addition to measurements (6'5", 250 lbs) identical to those of former NFL great Tony Gonzalez, Goedert put himself on the national radar with this one-handed grab that went viral in September.
It was after that play when Goedert started to put on a show, though. That highlight-reel catch was one of just four for 52 yards that he had against Drake, but he had at least 100 receiving yards in each of his next seven games. That stretch included a 204-yard, four-touchdown game against Western Illinois in early October.
"I want to make as many plays as I can to help us (win a national championship)" Goedert told Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader a few days after the spectacular catch. "I want to be all-conference again, I want to be an All-American, and someday I'd like to play at the next level. I just have to keep coming out and proving it on the field."
Jaylon Ferguson, Defensive End, Louisiana Tech
2016 Stats: 49 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered
"Louisiana Tech" and "defensive dominance" didn't exactly go hand-in-hand last season. The Bulldogs gave up at least 35 points in seven games and only held two opponents to 20 points or fewer.
But they did have one ace up their sleeve in edge-rusher Jaylon Ferguson. The 6'5", 255-pound defensive end almost led the nation in sacks, averaging better than one per game.
Ferguson put on a backfield-penetrating clinic in November. In three consecutive games against North Texas, UTSA and Southern Miss, he had a combined 7.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles.
Now a redshirt junior at the forefront of every opposing offensive coordinator's scouting report, what will he do for an encore?
Louisiana Tech has a big Week 2 showdown with Mississippi State and dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald. If Ferguson can single-handedly hold him in check, it would be the start of a meteoric rise up the 2018 draft board.
Courtland Sutton, Wide Receiver, SMU
2016 Stats: 76 receptions, 1,246 yards, 10 TD
SMU's passing offense in 2016 was less than impressive. Its quarterbacks combined to throw 17 interceptions, finishing in a tie for fifth-most in the nation. Its 54.4 completion percentage wasn't much better, coming in 107th place.
But the one bright spot in that passing game over the past two seasons has been 6'4" wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Sutton had 862 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The next three Mustangs in the pecking order combined for just 765 yards and eight scores. It was more of the same this past season, as he accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's total receiving yards and 10 of its 22 touchdowns.
SMU's offense revolves around him, opposing teams know it, and he still puts up big numbers. In consecutive mid-November games against East Carolina and South Florida, Sutton had a combined 25 receptions for 418 yards and four scores.
It has gotten to the point where even if Sutton is being double-teamed, QB Ben Hicks just throws the ball his way and hopes for the best. But Sutton is so talented that Hicks was often rewarded for that faith.
SMU currently has wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and Aldrick Robinson in the NFL. Give it one more year and Sutton will be joining them, possibly as a first-round draft pick.
Josh Allen, Quarterback, Wyoming
2016 Stats: 3,203 passing yards, 56.0 completion percentage, 28 TD, 15 INT, 144.9 Rating; 512 rushing yards, seven TD
A broken collarbone limited Josh Allen to just six pass attempts in 2015, but he exploded on to the national radar (and NFL draft boards) while winning eight games with a Wyoming team that went 2-10 the previous year.
This big, pro-style quarterback is loaded with potential and has NFL executives already salivating about the day he is available to be drafted.
Despite troublesome numbers in completion percentage and interceptions, B/R's Matt Miller had the 6'5" redshirt sophomore pegged as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft in early January—prior to Allen's decision to return for one more year (maybe two?) with the Cowboys.
Rather than signing up to hold a clipboard on the sideline, perhaps Allen just wanted to prove he can win games by himself. His top three targets from 2016 (Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and Jacob Hollister) all graduated, and stud running back Brian Hill (1,860 yards, 22 TD) opted to take his talents to the NFL draft. If Wyoming wins eight or more games again this year, he could go down in college football lore as a legend.
Allen already has NFL-ready physical tools that are second-to-none. He has a cannon for an arm and the mobility to make things happen with his legs, when necessary. If he can show some serious improvement in decision-making as a junior, he could follow in the footsteps of Carson Wentz by immediately becoming a starter in the NFL after being drafted early on Day 1.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.