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. Read the previous posts here.
We're going to hear an awful lot about the Mountain West's quarterbacks over the coming months, and with good reason. San Jose State's David Fales could be a first-round prospect; Fresno State's Derek Carr likely will not be all that far behind, and some may make the argument that he's a better prospect than Fales; Nevada's Cody Fajardo, a junior, accounted for nearly 4,000 yards last season and comes from the same offense that produced Colin Kaepernick; Utah State's Chuckie Keeton and Wyoming's Brett Smith, also juniors, can run or throw, and perhaps may do both well enough to jump at the pros early.
There is talent elsewhere on the field, of course. In fact, the Mountain West may send multiple early-entrants to the draft -- Boise State junior DE Demarcus Lawrence and Fresno sophomore WR Davante Adams are legit, in addition to those three junior QBs.
This should be a conference that produces a lot of points (even with exciting defensive talent around), making it extremely fun to watch on a week-to-week basis.
And with that, a glance at one prospect per MWC team that could be donning an NFL uniform come 2014:
Air Force: Steffon Batts, CB.
Like its fellow service academies, Army and Navy, Air Force's draft history is rather sparse. No Falcons player has been selected since Bryce Fisher in 1999, and the current roster looks unprepared to break that drought. Batts, off a 77-tackle, two-interception season, may be the best of the bunch. And when we last saw him, he was one of the Air Force defenders being exposed by 6-foot-5 Rice WR Jordan Taylor in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Boise State: Matt Paradis, C.
That Paradis plays center makes him a natural candidate to be overlooked when we talk about the draft. The 6-3, 300-pound former defensive lineman is a legit candidate to hear his name called, though, possibly as early as Day 2. Paradis worked his way into the Boise State starting lineup in 2011, then locked down the job last season.
Intangibles? Check. Paradis was a walk-on who has worked his way up the ranks, and he was an Academic All-MWC selection last season. He's pretty adept on the football field, too, using his size well and showing that he knows how to utilize his hands to keep defenders in front of him.
Colorado State: Crockett Gilmore, TE.
How great is that name? Gilmore's cut from that Vance McDonald/Joseph Fauria mold, in that he has terrific size (6-6, 255) and the ability to move around his team's offensive formations, but his blocking probably will be viewed as a negative come the draft. Some of this will improve in time -- Gilmore only moved to tight end prior to the 2011 season, from his previous spot at DE.
One worry: It wasn't all his fault, but Gilmore's production fell way, way off from 2011 to '12. He went from 45 catches and four TDs as a sophomore to 19 grabs and two scores last season. He will need to be more consistent in his final go-round.
Fresno State: Isaiah Burse, WR.
Speed, speed, speed. Burse currently has a listed 40 time in the mid-4.4s, and that's probably no surprise to anyone who has watched him return kicks. Burse was the most prolific kick returner in the FBS two years ago (1,606 yards) and he averaged 22.4 yards per attempt last season. The 5-11 Burse's receiving totals also rose last season, with 57 catches and six touchdowns. NFL teams will want to see him hone his offensive game, particularly coming from an offense that can make things rather easy on its receivers. He's got the skills to crack a roster as a slot WR/special-teams ace.
Hawaii: John Hardy-Tuliau, S.
Hardy-Tuliau probably will have to earn his spot on an NFL roster via special teams, albeit in a different way than Burse. The 5-11, 180-pounder has been a decent starting safety for Hawaii over the past two seasons, though his size makes him a tough sell at that position in the pros. More likely, he'd have to play a nickel corner role, as he did in 2010. But Hardy-Tuliau will have to prove himself versatile enough to justify a roster spot. In reality, Hawaii easily could be shut out in the 2014 draft.
Nevada: Joel Bitonio, OT.
Hey, all those Nevada rushing yards don't happen by accident. The 6-4, 315-pound Bitonio has been a fixture in the Wolf Pack lineup for the past two seasons. Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote in May that Bitonio, "probably has the best combination of size, speed, athleticism and power of any Wolf Pack offensive lineman since Derek Kennard," who spent 11 seasons in the NFL, from 1986-96.
That Bitonio moves so well for his size means NFL teams could envision him as a left tackle at the next level, as well, as opposed to having to settle for a move to the right or guard. Can he get any better than he's been?
New Mexico: Darryl Johnson, OT
Lower on the MWC tackle totem pole than Bitonio, Johnson is a still-developing player -- he had just two years of high school football experience before joining the Lobos. He has played several spots on the line: guard, right tackle and left tackle, where he earned All-MWC honorable mention. The 6-4, 308-pounder has a lot of work to do to refine his game, and even the team's official website mentions that he must "continue along the same path of improvement ... in the weight room."
San Diego State: Nat Berhe, S.
Berhe plays the "Aztec" position for Rocky Long's defense at San Diego State, a variation of the "Lobo" spot Brian Urlacher played under Long. Berhe is a much different player than Urlacher, at 5-10 and 195 pounds, but he is not afraid to step up into the box, as he showed last season while compiling 94 tackles.
Like Hardy-Tuliau, Berhe is smaller than the ideal NFL safety, so he could stand to bulk up over the coming months. He does have 4.5 speed and a nose for the football, though, so he could pique the interest of an NFL team short of reliable players at safety.
San Jose State: Bene Benwikere, CB.
The Spartans' coaching staff is extremely high on Benwikere, and it's not hard to see why. He's big and athletic at 6-0, 192, and plays an aggressive game -- last season, Benwikere tallied seven picks and 7.5 tackles for loss, in addition to 67 total tackles.
He reminds me some of Desmond Trufant, whom the Falcons nabbed in Round 1 of the 2013 draft. They both use their athletic gifts to their advantage against talented receivers, though Benwikere lowers the boom better. Benwikere can be left on an island and asked to defend, but he also has the range to drop into a number of different coverages.
UNLV: Tim Cornett, RB.
Another team that could be hard-pressed to crack into the draft, UNLV may see its best hope in its productive running back. Cornett rushed for 1,200 yards on a putrid offense last season, plus came out of the backfield for 14 catches. He possesses decent size (6-0, 210) and is surprisingly quick-footed -- a lot of his yards came despite a distinct lack of obvious holes up front. Because of UNLV's blocking deficiencies, Cornett really has developed his vision and will wait on whatever little help he has from his O-line to develop before attempting to shoot into the second level.
Cornett will not enter 2013 on a ton of radars, but he has the potential to sneak into the mid-rounds.
Utah State: Tyler Larsen, C.
The big-ticket moment for the 6-3, 310-pound Larsen came early last season, when he matched up with Star Lotulelei in Utah State's 27-20 win over Utah. And Larsen stood his ground. Lotulelei did register a sack in that game, but the Aggies were able to win battles up front for most of the day, with Larsen helping to drive the bus.
How high could Larsen climb? Well, Travis Frederick's ascension into the first round this year should give hope to centers everywhere. Larsen is a sturdy blocker, and the Aggies' use of some zone-blocking will give NFL teams in any scheme tape to work off of here.
Wyoming: Robert Herron, WR.
Herron appeared to be headed toward a monster 2012 after a stellar opener at Texas. In that game, a 37-17 Wyoming loss, Herron had a pair of touchdown passes, including an 82-yarder in which he bounced off a couple of tacklers and outraced the Texas secondary; he also blew past the defense for a big gain out of Wyoming's end zone. A shin injury derailed the momentum, though. Herron missed four of the Cowboys' next five games and never really clicked again until a 187-yard, two-TD showing in the season finale vs. San Diego State. He could be in line for a huge 2013, if he stays healthy. Herron, 5-10 and 187 pounds, forces defenses to account for him because of his speed. He's not Marquise Goodwin in that respect, but if he gets to the combine, he may not be far off the 4.34 40 time of Tavon Austin or the 4.38 of Kenny Stills.