2015 NFL draft primer: The best prospects from smaller conferences
College football fall practices are underway from coast to coast, with the regular season set to begin in earnest on Aug. 28 (preceded by an Abilene Christian-Georgia Southern teaser on Aug. 27).
So it is high time to wrap up our 2015 NFL draft primers, and we do so here by picking out two prospects each from Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Independent schools.
• Rakeem Cato, Marshall: His sophomore year in 2012 was one for the ages -- Cato led Division I in completions (406) and attempts (584), with a sparkling 69.5 completion percentage helping him fire 37 touchdowns. Though his passing numbers were down almost across the board last season, aside from two more touchdowns through the air, Cato showed far more prowess on the ground (3.0 yards per carry, six touchdowns).
That's all well and good in the Thundering Herd's high-paced attack. Will it work at the next level? There are plenty of skeptics. Cato's size (6-foot-0) certainly will not work in his favor, and he's far from polished as a passer. On the flip side, NFL.com draft guru Gil Brandt compared him last season to Russell Wilson; CBSSports' Dane Brugler called him a "smaller, less refined Teddy Bridgewater." Tajh Boyd is another potential comparison here, both in good ways and bad.
• D'Joun Smith, CB, Florida Atlantic: The 5-11, 190-pound defensive back picked off seven passes and broke up another 20 in 2013, so there should be little questioning his ability to make plays on the football. Smith brings some speed to the table as well -- probably in the 4.4 range. That's really where Smith makes his living right now, as opposed to as a dominant press-coverage corner. Even without that overly physical element, there is plenty on paper for Smith to warrant an NFL shot.
• Titus Davis, WR, Central Michigan: Davis (6-2, 190) dabbled with the thought of leaving for the NFL early before opting to play out his senior season. Good luck to the MAC defenses tasked with stopping him.
Davis caught 61 passes for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He was extremely consistent for the Chippewas, posting six games with more than 100 yards and eight games with five-plus catches. Davis also has scored exactly eight touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. There will be faster prospects in the 2014 draft, but raw speed doesn't quantify how dangerous Davis can be with the ball -- he posted a 97-yard score last year and has averaged 18.9 yards per catch over his career. If he can take even more advantage of his height this year, NFL teams will have to pay attention.
• Junior Sylvestre, LB, Toledo: Is Sylvestre primed to be this year's Khalil Mack? That may be setting the bar too high, even though the Rockets linebacker is coming off a season in which he posted 118 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. Prior to the 2013 season, the Toledo Blade reported that Sylvestre (6-0, 222) had run a 4.41 40. He'll have to live off that speed and athleticism in the NFL, because his size likely will drop him down some draft boards, but Sylvestre is a potential three-down pro.
• Devante Davis, WR, UNLV: Another receiver who bypassed a shot at the 2013 draft for one more college season, Davis should be the star of UNLV's attack. The 6-3 threat has more than 2,100 yards receiving to his credit over the past two years, with 14 touchdowns in 2013. Davis does better work with his size than the aforementioned Titus Davis, flashing potential as a red-zone threat in the NFL. So far, he has been far from limited to that area of the field, showing enough route-running ability to create space and strong enough hands to make grabs when he is more boxed in.
• Derron Smith, S, Fresno State: Expect NFL scouts to be all over Smith over the coming months. The Fresno State star fits the mold for what teams all over the league are seeking at the safety position, at least in terms of how he plays the game. At 5-11, 200, Smith leaves a little to be desired physically, which might ultimately hurt his draft stock. But he plays bigger than that, showing no fear challenging the run in the box or lowering his shoulder downfield. Smith can play pretty much all over the secondary and may be versatile enough to carve out a Jimmie Ward-like future as a slot corner early and a longtime starter at safety down the road.
• Terrence Jones, OT, Troy: Want to see an impressive feat? Fire up this video of the 6-3, 322-pound Jones squatting 810 pounds during a team workout. That's the equivalent of about two and a half defensive linemen.
In light of that showcase, it goes without saying that Jones' NFL resume starts with his phenomenal strength. Now a senior, Jones has been starting at right tackle for the Trojans since he was a redshirt freshman in 2011. Because of his ability to unload power, Jones might project better as an NFL guard than he does as a tackle -- he may not have the footwork to stay outside once he gets to the pros.
• Qushaun Lee, LB, Arkansas State: Overlook the 5-10, 225-pound linebacker at your own risk. Lee has averaged 117 tackles over the past two seasons, a healthy portion of them delivered in emphatic fashion by the hard-charging linebacker. The combination of his limited frame and penchant for throwing his body around might make it tough to get through a 16-game NFL schedule unscathed, but it has not held him back so far in college. If nothing else, Lee has a future as a potential standout on special teams.
• Christian Lombard, G, Notre Dame: The Irish's O-line produced a pair of 2013 draft picks in Zack Martin (Round 1, Cowboys) and Chris Watt (Round 3, Chargers). Lombard could join them in short order, assuming he can stay healthy -- he missed spring practice after wrist surgery and sat out six games in 2013 with a back injury. The wrist, at least, is of little concern for the moment, as Lombard was slotted back in at right guard when Notre Dame opened practice Monday.
As with Martin, Lombard offers positional versatility, having spent 2012 as a starter at right tackle before shifting to guard for 2013. The latter makes more sense moving forward.
• Alani Fua, LB, BYU: Arguably the man of the hour now for Brigham Young's defense, with Ziggy Ansah and Kyle Van Noy exiting (for Detroit) via the 2013 and '14 drafts, respectively. Standing 6-5 and (a generous) 228 pounds, Fua is not as physical as Van Noy, but he is faster and plays with a similar appetite for getting to the football. As a full-time starter for the first time last year, Fua posted 64 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions, one of which he took back 51 yards to the house.