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Media Days Marathon: Draft Questions From The Sun Belt

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Remember the name Andrew Jackson (4); the senior from Western Kentucky is the best inside linebacker prospect in the nation. Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images.
Remember the name Andrew Jackson (4); the senior from Western Kentucky is the best inside linebacker prospect in the nation. Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images.

Forty-five days before college football season kicks off, the Sun Belt had the spotlight to itself. One of the little guy conferences of major college football (a league which got a little littler earlier this month, a victim of realignment aftershocks), the Sun Belt on Monday had the distinction of holding the first football media day among FBS conferences.

And so we turn to the Sun Belt to kick off our series of media day reports. We’ll spend most of the rest of this month in a non-stop media day roundup, though our focus will be not on the things everyone else focuses on -- things like championships and bowl games and individual awards. Instead, we’ll look at every league through the lens of the 2014 NFL Draft. Each day, we’ll ask three questions about draftable prospects from whichever conference is holding its media day, so that NFL fans have a sense of whom they should be spending their Saturdays watching this fall.

Without further ado, we begin the Football.com Media Day Marathon with the Belt’s day in the sun.

1. Is Andrew Jackson the best inside linebacker in the country?

Yes.

Okay, maybe it’s not as clear-cut as that. But the short list, heading into the season, includes Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson, Stanford’s Shayne Skov, Alabama’s Trey DePriest, Michigan State’s Max Bullough and Jackson, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound wrecking ball who is as good as any of them. Anyone skeptical about his Sun Belt pedigree need only cue up the Alabama game from 2012 and watch him shoot the gaps against the best O-Line in the game to bring down Eddie Lacy at or behind the line of scrimmage twice in the first quarter. Over the last two seasons, he’s faced four SEC opponents: Kentucky twice and Alabama and LSU, each when they were ranked No. 1 in the nation. In those four games, Jackson racked up 35 tackles and 5 TFL. The Hilltoppers open this season with back-to-back SEC opponents: Kentucky at home and at Tennessee. Scouts will see everything they need to know as Jackson launches what should be a third-straight season of 100+ tackles and 17+ TFL.

2. Is Jackson the Hilltoppers’ only NFL prospect?

Usually, when someone mentions “Kentucky” and “Sanders” in the same sentence, they’re talking chicken. But last year, Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews did something only Barry Sanders had ever done before – gained more than 3,000 all-purpose yards in a single college season.

Sanders did it in 1988, his Heisman Trophy season. Andrews gained 3,161 total yards in 2012, his first season as WKU’s featured running back as well as its primary kick and punt returner. He finished the regular season with four straight games of 300-plus all-purpose yards, including back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances.

Those are really impressive numbers for a guy who doesn’t always make the first guy miss, who doesn’t break a lot of tackles, and who doesn’t show a breakaway gear. But he moves the chains, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’ll contribute on special teams. Andrews even lined up at quarterback for a few snaps in 2011.

Is he a potential Day 1 prospect like Jackson? No shot. But Andrews gives Western Kentucky a legitimate chance to have multiple players drafted for the first time since 2002.

3. Who among Sun Belt prospects has the chance for a breakout season?

I’d be interested to see whether Arkansas State senior Ryan Carrethers continues his development. He’s a 6-2, 310-pound defensive lineman, who saw action at both tackle and nose tackle; he was the league’s leading tackler among interior linemen (68 total).

Carrethers probably needs to become more disruptive than he’s shown to become a prospect in the eyes of the NFL. He’s not generated enough pressure in the pass rush, and he doesn’t create a ton of turnovers in the running game either. If he’s able to disengage from blocks quicker, he’ll be able to make initial contact with the ballcarrier more consistently, which could result in a few more fumbles caused or tackles for loss.

There’s little question about his athletic ability, as CBSSports.com’s Bruce Feldman ranked Carrethers 10th on his annual list of athletic “freaks.”