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Draft Watch, Week 1: Small school standouts step up

Posted Sep 2, 2014

They may look like mismatches on paper, but when FCS schools take on FBS juggernauts, it offers a chance for some unheralded draft prospects to seize the limelight and raise their stock.

David Johnson, Northern Iowa

NOTE: The college scouting departments of each team are hard at work on next year's draft. The cycle of player development and looking for the next generation of stars never ends. In that vein, I'll take a weekly look at some of the best performances from seniors who could be on NFL radars next spring.

From a draft-analysis perspective, the best part of the first month of college football season is the chance to see players from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and from conferences outside the "Power 5" in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) face a higher caliber of competition.

Games like this bring players to a wider audience than just the regional scouts who track them. One beneficiary of this on the Broncos is defensive end Quanterus Smith, whose three-sack game at the expense of Alabama offensive tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandijo in 2012 caused many to take a deeper look at him and his potential. His draft stock took a hit with the torn ACL he suffered later that year, but in 2014, here he is, ready to provide some additional speed to the Broncos' edge rush.

That's where we'll begin this weekly series, with an examination of some potential draft picks whose teams moved up in class this weekend, and how they fared.

… Northern Iowa running back David Johnson is a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder with power and speed that could thrust him into the middle rounds of next year's draft. It was the latter that was on display in the Panthers' 31-23 loss to cross-state foe Iowa, as he racked up 203 yards on five receptions, including 70 on a third-quarter touchdown that jumped off the screen.

On the touchdown play, Johnson streaks out of the backfield and easily blows past the linebacker in coverage, then splits the entire defense to run 58 yards after the catch for the score. Johnson has been timed with a 40-yard dash of 4.57 seconds, but looked as though he could trim at least a tenth of a second or more off that with acceleration like he showed Saturday.

… South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner (6 feet, 220 pounds) got off to a smashing start against Missouri, sprinting 75 yards on the Jackrabbits' first offensive play for a touchdown that completed an exchange of scores in the first 63 seconds. But remember that this was a Missouri defense that struggled against the run last year even with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam as the defensive ends. Mizzou's defensive ends and safeties were caught out of position, overplaying their hand after the shotgun snap bobbled off the quarterback and into Zenner's hands.

After Zenner sidestepped a defender, Zenner exploited Mizzou's aggression, and sprinted up the middle, out-running the defense for the score. d Zenner exploited it. Zenner found the going much rougher as the game progressed; he gained just 28 yards on his next 16 carries as the Tigers sold out to stop Zenner, knowing he was the Jackrabbits' only upset threat. But he was helpful in the passing game, catching seven passes for 41 yards. He also ran for another touchdown.

… Samford, of the FCS Southern Conference, was hammered 48-14 by TCU on Saturday, but in defeat, safety Jaquiski Tartt (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) turned in a virtuoso performance, and might have been the only thing separating the Bulldogs from surrendering 60 to the Horned Frogs. Tartt notched seven tackles and four assists, broke up a pass and showed excellent range under difficult circumstances.

Barring injury, Tartt will have another chance to test himself against a FCS team; Samford plays at Auburn on Nov. 22. Tartt is a mid-to-late-round prospect who was placed on the Senior Bowl's watch list. He might have positioned himself for a full-fledged invitation after that performance against the only FBS school on Samford's schedule.

… One of the most anticipated returns from injury this weekend was that of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), who played for the first time since tearing an anterior cruciate ligament last year. The mid-round prospect struggled to an 18-of-35 night (for 144 yards) and added just 12 yards on eight carries in the Aggies' 38-7 loss at Tennessee. Keeton was inaccurate, perhaps a result of needing to re-establish his fundamentals after the injury, and was not as explosive as before.

Keeton should improve over the course of the season, but will not face another defense with the speed and athleticism of Tennessee's. It was bad timing for Utah State and Keeton to play an SEC school this early in the schedule; the result for both parties two months later might have been much different.