Preseason Top 5 NFL Draft Prospects: Conference USA
By David Seigerman
Conference USA has seen so much turnover in recent years, the league's logo should be a revolving door.
New this year are Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. Gone are East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane.
Such non-stop change must be tough on things like rivalry-building and schedule-making. It's a challenge for coaches, who have to acclimate to a different diet of conference opponents every season.
But in terms of evaluating prospects, nothing really changes. When you look at mid-major conferences (or "non-Big 5 leagues," as perhaps they are going by these days), you want to see the same thing: players who stand out against their level of competition, who demonstrate the physical tools and football acumen that will translate into NFL success. Playing in the MAC didn't keep the NFL from finding Eric Fisher or Khalil Mack, and none of the prospects in this year's iteration of Conference USA have to worry about going unnoticed.
In fact, there's a prospect or two that some scouts would be wise to go out of their way to check out.
1. Christian Covington, DT, Rice: You can read all about Covington's interesting backstory in the piece I wrote about him earlier this week. But he's more than just an intriguing character. He's the best prospect in Conference USA and may have the potential to be the league's best prospect in recent memory. Covington has shown remarkable quickness for an interior defensive lineman. Lining up in the A Gap between the guard and the center, he's had terrific success penetrating before a blocker can square him up. Covington (6-3, 295) won't draw too many comparisons to Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan, but he will draw the attention of a lot of defensive coaches who like quickness and solid pass rush instincts in their interior linemen.
2. D'Joun Smith, CB, Florida Atlantic: You want to know just how good a cornerback Smith has the potential to be? Circle Sept. 6th on your calendar and watch how he does against the best receiver he's likely to line up against in college: Alabama's Amari Cooper. Nobody in the country made more plays around the ball last year than Smith, who broke up 13 passes and intercepted seven others (including three against Tulane). Those stats are surely to come down this year; why would any QB in C-USA want to test a guy with ball skills like that? You can bet Alabama will, though, and it will be a benchmark game for Smith, one that all NFL coaches will watch over and over in evaluating his abilities against premier receivers. And against bigger receivers, too. Cooper isn't huge (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), but he has NFL size. And if there is a question about Smith, it would be his size: he's listed at 5-10, 190, though those measurements seem inflated. He's not done much in run support, so that's another area scouts would like to see him develop, especially if he projects to be more a slot corner at the next level.
3. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech: Bill Clinton was the Man From Hope. Well, Dixon -- another Arkansan -- is the Man From Strong. The kid who in 2011 set the state rushing record with 3,153 yards for Strong High has shown the same penchant for production in his first two college seasons. First, he set an NCAA freshman record with 27 rushing touchdowns (on 200 carries -- that's a TD every 7.4 carries). Then in 2013, he rushed for 200 yards in two of the eight games in which he was healthy. Dixon is a physical runner, who is as likely to throw a stiff arm or lower his shoulders to take out a defender as he is to simply run through an attempted arm tackle. That kind of hard running takes its toll on a back (he was limited last year by a couple of knee injuries), so it should surprise no one if Dixon decides to turn pro after his junior season.
4. Cam Thomas, CB, Western Kentucky: Thomas (6-1, 190) uses his length to be disruptive around the ball; he's led the Hilltoppers in passes defended each of the last two seasons and comes into 2014 with nine career interceptions -- impressive considering he didn't become a full-time starter until last season. Thomas' willingness in run support makes him candidate to play any scheme, though he's likely a better fit for a zone scheme. He may lack the agility and quickness to mirror receivers and be a lockdown corner in a man system.
5. Cyril Lemon, G, North Texas: No other active FBS player entering his senior season has started every game of his college career; Lemon has started all 37 games. No other active FBS player has been named all-conference three years in a row. Whether that speaks more to the mass exodus of underclassmen who populated the 2014 NFL Draft is a fair question. Still, there are few prospects in the senior class with the experience or consistency of performance that Lemon has demonstrated for the Mean Green. He's been an anchor for an offensive line that has allowed only 17 sacks over the past two seasons -- the lowest in the country over that time. It's likely the NFL would like to see him add a little bulk. Right now, Lemon is on the lean side (6-3, 304); Xavier Su'a-Filo was the first of 12 guards drafted in 2014, and he was the smallest at 6-4, 307.
David Seigerman's new book, "Under Pressure," co-authored with former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas, is available on Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere.