Wednesday, August 13, 2014

C-USA Conference Preview: Top Senior Prospects for 2015 NFL Draft

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.

Read more at Optimum Scouting

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