Though the NFL draft is still months away, the college football season looms just around the corner. So, with that in mind, Audibles is taking a look at one intriguing draft prospect from each FBS team.
Thanks to Eric Fisher landing at No. 1 overall in the 2013 NFL draft, casual football fans are starting to learn what the insider community has known for years: The MAC is legit. Over the years, the conference has produced such talent as Ben Roethlisberger, Greg Jennings, T.J. Lang, Josh Cribbs, Julian Edelman and others. Victor Cruz, Bernard Pierce and Rod Streater, to name a few, also honed their games at schools that moved into the MAC after they left.
The MAC could storm the 2014 draft, too. The country was introduced to Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch during his team's BCS run last season ... and he may wind up the second-best QB in the league, behind Ohio's Tyler Tettleton. Add in other legit skill-position talent, such as Toledo's Bernard Reedy, Kent State's Dri Archer and Buffalo's Branden Oliver, and scouts should have plenty to chew on.
Oh, and there is a ton of talent on the other side of the ball, including at least one potential first-rounder, OLB Khalil Mack (we'll get to him).
This conference is as good a place as any to kick off our 2014 draft preview. And, with that, a look at one player per MAC team with a shot to hear his name called next May:
Akron: Moses McCray, DT.
The Zips have gone 3-33 over the past three seasons, so it makes sense that one of their top players would have come to them from another program. McCray comes to Akron from Florida State, where his career was derailed repeatedly by injuries -- he redshirted in 2010, missed several games in 2011, then earned a medical redshirt after missing 2012.
He's a big body at 6-foot-2, 318 pounds, capable of playing either 1-technique or 3-technique inside. McCray also moves better than you'd expect for a player of his size. If he could get through the 2013 season intact, McCray could provide some serious punch up front and be of interest to NFL teams looking for some extra beef along their defensive line.
Bowling Green: Jerry Gates, S.
As we saw in the 2013 draft with players like Jonathan Cyprien and D.J. Swearinger, NFL defenses are searching far and wide for multi-dimensional safeties who can cover and play in the box. Gates (aka "BooBoo") fits the bill. The 5-11, 213-pound senior racked up 73 tackles in 2011 as the team's "Rover" -- a hybrid safety/linebacker position -- and he's on the watch list for the Paul Hornung award, handed out to college football's most versatile athlete, this year as a safety.
In addition to playing all over the field on defense, Gates also racked up an impressive 981 kick-return yards in 2011 and has more than 1,700 total return yards in his career.
Buffalo: Khalil Mack, OLB.
Is Mack the most draftable prospect in this conference? He certainly has a strong case, coming off an honorable mention on SI's 2012 All-America Team. Mack, 6-3, 245, needs 19 tackles-for-loss in his senior season to set an NCAA record (he had 21 in 2012 and 20.5 in '11). He probably could have turned pro after his junior year and earned a Day Two selection. Another big year may push him into the first round.
Playing outside linebacker in the Bulls' 3-4 scheme, Mack has proven himself to be capable of getting to the QB (18 career sacks) or dropping into coverage. He could log heavy minutes as an NFL rookie in 2014, if he lands in the right system.
Kent State: Roosevelt Nix, DT.
The good folks over at Draft Breakdown have a couple of Nix's game films up, and he's well worth a watch. Even against Alabama in 2011, Nix's presence on the field is noticeable.
A three-time All-MAC performer, Nix is a bit of a curious draft case because of his size -- currently listed at 5-11, 260, though he's played in the 240s. That's mostly unusual because Kent State uses Nix as a defensive tackle. He is light for that position in the NFL, so teams will have to figure out if they can bulk him up or if he needs to move to a DE spot. With 52 career tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks, Nix has shown time and again that he's capable of wreaking havoc up front.
Massachusetts: Rob Blanchflower, TE.
The Minutemen are in just their second FBS season, so there's a clear dearth of talent here. The lone player from this program selected in the 2013 draft, RB Michael Cox, came off the board one pick before Mr. Irrelevant. And UMass may be shut out in the 2014 draft. The 6-4, 250-pound Blanchflower looks like the best hope. He caught 43 passes last season and can be an impact blocker, too.
Miami (Ohio): Josh Harvey, OT.
An absolute monster at 6-5, 355, Harvey started all 14 Redhawks games during his redshirt freshman season in 2010 and was in the starting lineup 11 times (three times at RT, eight times at LT) last season. His size alone should garner attention come draft time, especially if Harvey earns a Combine invite and impresses in strength drills.
The big issue here? He's currently penciled in as a backup. Miami will use Zach Lewis at right tackle (the blindside for intriguing southpaw QB Austin Boucher) and has Jeff Tanner ticketed for the left side.
Ohio: Travis Carrie, CB.
The folks in Athens are really excited to have Carrie back after he missed the 2012 season with a shoulder injury. That was an unfortunate setback, off an impressive 2011 in which Carrie picked off four passes, broke up 13 more and averaged 14.1 yards as a punt returner. Obviously, Carrie's athleticism is what puts him in the NFL draft conversation. Speed plus size is a terrific combination to have at cornerback, and Carrie really could rocket up draft boards if he returns as a lock-down defender again.
Ball State: Nathan Ollie, DT.
Ollie's teammate on the defensive line, Ohio State transfer Jonathan Newsome, probably will garner more attention heading into 2014. Ball State coach Pete Lembo spoke highly of the consistent Ollie, though, praising his locker-room presence (Ollie is a team captain) and describing him as a "low-maintenance" guy.
Lembo also admitted that Ollie needs to get stronger during his senior season and beyond. He's playing a DT role for the Cardinals at 6-1 and somewhere between 285 and 295 pounds, but he may not be bulky enough for a 1-technique spot in the pros or quick enough to kick out as a 3-4 DE. So, Ollie's No. 1 goal over the next eight months will be to pack on some pounds so he can be an anchor.
Central Michigan: Zurlon Tipton, RB.
Tipton benefited from running behind 2012 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher en route to a 1,500-yard season. He has the game to stay successful in 2013 sans Fisher's help. Tipton brings solid size to the table at 6-1 and around 220 pounds, but he still has the speed to turn the corner and pull away in the secondary. He also has shown nice vision out of the Central Michigan backfield, excelling as a one-cut runner.
While he may not be high on NFL radars yet, Tipton has all the attributes of a Day 3 pick who then surprises with his production as a rookie.
Eastern Michigan: Donald Coleman, S.
Another team that is a bit behind the 8-ball from a talent perspective, Eastern Michigan could start upwards of 15 non-seniors in 2013. The Eagles will need Coleman, in his second season here after transferring from North Carolina State, to be a leader in the secondary. The 6-0, 200-pound Coleman made 87 tackles last season and is capable of playing either strong or free safety.
Northern Illinois: Jimmie Ward, S.
Yep, another safety on the list. Ward could wind up being one of the top three or four strong safeties drafted, because he simply knows how to find the football. That's true both on defense, where the 5-11, 192-pound Ward has averaged 102 tackles over the past two seasons; and on special teams, where Ward has developed into one of the nation's best punt blockers.
The Huskies have used him all over the secondary, including at cornerback out wide and lined up over opposing tight ends. His coverage skills still need a lot of work, but Ward does not hesitate to take on blockers. Ward may have the highest upside of any player in the conference -- he's been very good in his Northern Illinois career, but it still seems like there's more untapped potential underneath the surface.
Toledo: Zac Kerin, C.
The Rockets' offense could be thrilling to watch, with mobile QB Terrance Owens and 2014 prospects David Fluellen and Bernard Reedy teaming up. Kerin, a 6-5, 300-pound Rimington Award candidate helps run the show from the center position. Toledo offensive coordinator Jason Candle and associate head coach Louis Ayeni both raved about Kerin's impact on their team's offense.
Kerin can mash up front, but Toledo also uses him as a pulling blocker frequently. Even with his NFL-ready size, Kerin can get outside the tackles and pave the way. Candle also noted Kerin's long arms, an attribute that NFL scouts will love and which could come in handy if a future move to guard is in order.
Western Michigan: Johnnie Simon, OLB.
Even though he plays at just shy of 200 pounds, Simon will see the bulk of his action at linebacker this season for the Broncos. He's more of a safety prospect for the NFL, and that's where he has played a great deal in the past for Western. Linebackers coach Tim McGarigle told SI that the Broncos do not really lock Simon into one specific position anymore, because he can match up with just about any personnel grouping thrown onto the field by opposing offenses. Like Ward at Northern Illinois, Simon knows how to find his way to the football -- he had 103 tackles last season and 114 the year before.