Weekend watching: MWC draft prospects

The Mountain West Championship features close to 10 players that have draftable grades assigned to them by lead NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. He breaks down the matchup and the players to watch that could be in the NFL draft next spring.

Below, I take a look at this week’s conference championship matchups from a draft perspective, examining the talent on those teams that are being analyzed by NFL teams, along with their current status on our NFL Draft 2015 Value Board:

Fresno State (6-6) at Boise State (10-2)

Statistically, this appears to be one of the more lopsided conference championship games played this season, with the .500 Bulldogs taking on one of the most explosive offenses in the collegiate ranks, armed with one of the game’s worst defenses. A victory by Boise State should earn the Broncos a berth in one of the “Group of Five” access bowls. This contest will be the second time the two teams will meet this year, as Boise State managed to hold on for a 37-27 victory on Oct. 17.

Boise State has won its last seven games, averaging 50.57 points during that span. Fresno State is just hoping for some consistency. It started the season losing the first three games before reeling off three-straight victories. The Bulldogs then went into another three-game tailspin before righting the ship and winning the final three contests on their 2014 schedule.

Statistically, this game features a Boise State team that ranked eighth in the nation in total offense (512.1 ypg), 18th in passing (288.5 ypg), 26th in rushing (223.6 ypg) and ninth in scoring (40.8 ppg). They also placed fourth nationally by completing 69.3 percent of their passes and by compiling 305 first downs, they took over the 11th spot in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.

The Broncos will encounter a Fresno State defense that has struggled as much as the Boise State offense was humming. Of the 125 major colleges, they finished 112th in total defense (allowed 465.3 yards per game), ranking 103rd in stopping the run (209.4 ypg), 97th vs. the pass (255.9 ypg) and 102nd in scoring (allowed 33.0 points per game).

Fresno State will not only need to contain the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year, tailback Jay Ajayi, from tearing up their suspect defensive front wall, but the Bulldogs must deal with a multi-talented mighty mite at quarterback – Grant Hedrick. When the senior passer lost his favorite target, Matt Miller, to ankle surgery in October, he was forced to find alternative targets.

Hedrick threw for 3,232 yards and 22 touchdowns while connecting on 71.5 percent of his passes (261 of 365), but his 13 interceptions saw the Broncos rank 91st among FBS teams in that category. He was the only viable running option outside of Ajayi, finishing second on the team with 482 yards (3.5 ypc) with six scores. He also proved to be a good improviser, catching three passes on flea-flickers, advancing two grabs for touchdowns.

Ajayi is the featured player on the Boise State team. In fact, unless junior free safety Darian Thompson declares for the draft, the only other Bronco with a draftable grade is Matt Miller, but the receiver is still at least three months away from running again after undergoing October surgery for torn ligaments in his ankle.

Fresno State is bound to have a long afternoon trying to stop Ajayi, who has been one of the top scoring machines in the country, ranking second in the FBS with 24 rushing touchdowns. He’s the fifth-leading ball carrier in the country with 1,619 yards on the ground and his average of 179.58 all-purpose yards per game is third in the major college ranks. If they stack the box on the tailback, he’s shown to be just as dangerous as a receiver, pulling in 45 balls for 536 yards and four more scores.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Matt Miller is a possession receiver, but will not be fully recovered from his surgery in time to participate in drills at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine in February. In five games this year, he snared 28 passes for 461 yards (16.5 ypc) and three touchdowns. Tight end Jake Roh added 31 catches for 377 yards, but much like Miller, the rest of the receiving unit could not stay healthy, as no other Broncos wideout played in every game.

To compensate for those losses, Hedrick made a determined effort to get all his other receivers heavily involved, connecting with 11 different targets, including five that pulled in at least 28 tosses. Split end Thomas Sperbeck led the team with 658 yards (38 catches, three scores) while H-back Shane Williams-Rhodes paced the Broncos with 68 receptions, totaling 585 yards while reaching the end zone a team-best seven times.

What makes Fresno State’s defensive struggles so puzzling is their best talent resides on that side of the ball. Both free safety Derron Smith and nose guard Tyeler Davison are not expected to last past the third round of the draft, with Smith likely to go in Round 2. The Bulldogs also have a few other departing players that will find themselves in an NFL camp as free agents – cornerback Curtis Riley and linebackers Ejiro Ederaine, Kyrie Wilson (both have one year of eligibility remaining) and “Mike” man Karl Mickelsen.

Wilson led the team during the regular season, posting 86 tackles that included six stops-for-loss. Mickelsen followed with 81 tackles and both linebackers had two interceptions each. Smith, the leader of the defensive squad, delivered 80 hits with a pass theft, breaking up seven other tosses. Davison plugged the middle to the tune of 56 tackles, recording seven of the team’s 27 sacks for the year while making 11.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Even coming into this game with a 6-6 record, Fresno State has two dangerous threats on offense – newly installed quarterback Brian Burrell and split end Josh Harper, regarded as the best receivers in the Mountain West Conference and one of the best in the 2015 draft class. When Derek Carr left for the NFL, the quarterback job was Brandon Connette’s for the asking. That soon changed during fall camp, as Burrell staked claim to leading the first unit, as FSU finished 55th in total offense (416.3 ypg), 67th in passing (225.2 ypg), 40th in rushing (191.1 ypg) and 62nd in scoring (29.3 ppg).

Burrell was successful on 57.7 percent of his tosses (211 of 366), generating 2,239 yards with 21 touchdowns, but a total of 16 interceptions by Bulldog passers (three by Connette and 13 by Burrell) placed the team 110th among 125 major colleges. The QB did show impressive mobility, running for three scores and ranking third on the team with 319 yards on 104 carries.

Burrell has two physical backs to hand the ball off to – tailback Marteze Waller (195 for 1,269 yards and 11 scores) and fullback Josh Quezada (104 chances for 407 yards and four touchdowns). Both have proven to be capable of making plays with their hands, as both arrive at the game having caught 25 balls.

The Bulldogs will face a Broncos defense that allowed 147.4 yards per game on the ground (45th in the nation), 216.1 yards per game passing (45th) and were scored upon at an average of 27.6 points (72nd). They finished 37th in the nation by yielding 363.5 yards per game, thanks to a pass rush that averaged 2.92 sacks per game, second-best in the MWC and 18th in the country.

With Burrell tossing interceptions regularly, the Boise State defense will lie in wait. The Broncos intercepted 17 passes this season, ninth-best in the FBS and recorded four defensive touchdowns (10th in the nation) while holding opponents to just 208 first downs (lowest in the league and the 20th-best figure nationally).

Free safety Darian Thompson will be called upon to double-team Fresno State’s only receiving threat – potential late first-rounder Josh Harper. Harper pulled in 76 passes, ranking third in the league and 25th nationally, as his 941 yards gained also placed third in the conference ranks. He was second in the MWC with seven touchdowns, with five of those grabs going for long distances. Sophomore corner Jonathan Moxey is no match for Harper and the split end will have to contend with Thompson, an outstanding ball thief who has seven interceptions this year, along with 56 tackles and four stops-for-loss.

Boise State Featured Prospect
JAY AJAYI: Tailback, 5:11.1-220-4.54 Most in the scouting industry feel that Ajayi is two games removed from playing – no, make that starring – in the NFL next season. The junior has little to prove at the college level and could go as early as the second round on draft day. He is one of four ball carriers in college to have over 3,500 yards rushing (3,592) on his résumé, as he ranks fourth in the nation among active players for yards gained on the ground, eighth with 634 carries and fourth with 46 touchdown runs. This season has seen Ajayi reach elite status. He’s a fine receiver, ranking second on the team with 45 catches for 536 yards (11.9 ypc) and four scores this season. He’s also ranked fifth in the nation with 1,619 rushing yards, second with 24 scoring scampers and third with an average of 179.58 all-purpose yards per game.

Ajayi Positives…Creative open-field runner with that sudden burst of speed that allows him to immediately gain advantage through the rush lanes…Elusive cutback runner with precise plant-and-drive agility. He has the body control and lower body flexibility to stop and go with no wasted motion and is effective at utilizing head fakes and his hip wiggle to set up the opponent…Alert athlete, especially when it comes to recognizing and locating the blitz and bull rush…Most featured backs shy away from blocking assignments, but Ajayi relishes playing in that role, as he is a tough, fiery type who will not hesitate to mix it up in the trenches…Explodes out of his stance through the rush lanes and is very decisive attacking the holes…Has the loose hips and wiggle to make the initial tackler miss and stays low in his pads to burst through the pile…Runs with short pitter-patter steps and is very fluid redirecting…His hip shake and wiggle lets him change direction in an instant to run through the cutback lanes…Slippery runner who is very difficult to bring down in isolated coverage…Protects the ball well by keeping it close to his body, usually carrying it away from the defender…Quick to uncover and has the anticipation skills to work back to the ball…Effective cut blocker with enough hand strength to lock on and sustain… Quick in the open, using angles properly to locate second level defenders…Shows good alertness picking up the blitz and has a quick kick slide in pass protection.

Negatives…Despite his 220-pound frame, he is the type of player that needs room to run and can get bottled up inside, where his leg drive is only adequate...Executes excellent jump-cut moves but will get a bit frustrated when he has little or no room to execute these moves…Will run the ball hard up the gut, but unless he redirects or bounces wide, he is not the type that can break many tackles taking the ball up the middle…Has good weight room strength, but needs room to operate and seems to get too narrow with his base when having to power through arm tackles.

Fresno State Featured Prospect
JOSHUA HARPER: Split End/Slot Receiver. 6:00.6-184-4.48 It was good to see this Bulldog play the entire season for a change, as there were some concerns about his durability. Before the 2014 season, Harper was battling an assortment of injuries the previous two seasons. A preseason hamstring injury during 2012 fall camp lingered and he missed two games and lots of practice time in 2013 with an array of injuries, including a sports hernia that would lead to surgery after the season.

Even though he missed two games in 2013, he still gained 1,011 yards with 13 touchdowns on 79 receptions (12.8 ypc). The team was originally planning on Harper remaining at flanker this season, with Greg Watson replacing departed Devante Adams at split end, but Harper has proven to be highly effective creating speed mismatches on the left side.

This season, the senior has managed to rank second in the Mountain West Conference with 76 receptions and seven touchdown grabs, as his 941 aerial yards placed him third in the league. With his 6-foot-1 frame and 4.48 speed, he will probably see a team use a second-round pick on him, as he’s proved he has the ability to play flanker, split end or line up at one of the inside slot positions.

Harper Positives…Displays good timed speed, but it is his sudden burst and acceleration that allows him to slip past defenders and make plays down field…Has very good quickness when changing direction and the hip snap, knee bend and flexibility to squeeze through tight quarters to gain additional yardage…Instinctive athlete who easily takes the plays from the board to the playing field…Well-coordinated in his initial burst off the snap and demonstrates that smooth release needed that allows him to cover ground and a gliding stride that will generally see him get underneath the ball to catch it cleanly…Has just adequate strength, but relies more on his second gear and avoidance skills to avoid the jam at the line of scrimmage…Tough to reroute, as he uses his hip swerve effectively to shake and bake the defenders with quickness…Glides in and out of his breaks to set up the defender and shows very good zone vision to spot the soft spot and settle in…When isolated one-on-one, he is very consistent at using his speed as a weapon to pull away from the defender…As a slot receiver, he shows good body control on short routes, demonstrating courage going across the field and has the required hand radius to make adjustments in attempts to get to off-target throws…You can see on film his ability to track the ball over his shoulder and the confidence he displays with his second gear to elude in the open and uses good vision to find seams with his shake and wiggle…Working in a crowd, he has the toughness to make the catch and hold on securely while taking the hit (will get bounced around when having to get physical due to a lack of strength, though)…Has soft, natural hands, especially when tracking the ball over his shoulder…Good route runner who might round his cuts at times, but shows the gliding stride to get in and out of his breaks…Does a nice job of keeping his feet when working along the sidelines…Runs with the ball securely and has the speed to get vertical and separate from the slower defenders after the catch.

Negatives…Has a lean, angular frame with marginal strength…Needs to add more bulk and power in order to absorb punishment at the next level, but his frame might be reaching maximum growth potential…Will not hesitate to sacrifice his body going up for the jump balls, but lacks the strength to prevent the more physical defenders from jolting him around a bit to prevent him from making the grab…After the catch, he can elude, but will go down from initial contact due to his size and strength limitations…His strength issues become evident when asked to block, as he lacks the hand placement and strong jolt when trying to lock on and sustain at the line…Also does not seem to relish the idea of stalking and taking on linebackers as a cut blocker in the second level…Good route runner, but when he tires he will sometimes round his cuts (generally shows good precision as a route runner, though).

*AJAYI, Jay Boise State TB05:11.1 2204.54 6.62
HARPER, Josh Fresno State WR06:00.6 1844.48 6.52
DAVISON, Tyeler (DT) Fresno State NG06:01.4 3015.16 6.02-3
SMITH, Derron Fresno State FS05:09.7 1964.52 5.93
*EDERAINE, Ejiro Fresno State OLB06:02.5 2214.74 5.83
*THOMPSON, Darian Boise State FS06:01.5 2054.72 5.73-4
RILEY, Curtis Fresno State CB06:00.1 1894.55 5.07
*WILSON, Kyrie Fresno State ILB06:01.5 2384.76 4.97
WICHMANN, Cody Fresno State OG06:05.4 3245.32 4.97
*DEAYON, Donte (CB) Boise State RET05:08.5 1584.46 4.87-FA
MICKELSEN, Karl Fresno State MLB06:00.1 2314.83 4.7PFA
BELL, Corey (OLB) Boise State SS05:11.1 2074.56 4.7PFA
BURRELL, Brian Fresno State QB06:03.5 2214.92 4.6FA
QUEZADA, Josh (TB) Fresno State FB05:10.6 2174.56 4.6FA
RENAUD, Blake Boise State MLB06:02.0 2434.77 4.5FA
PAGE, Cleshawn Boise State CB05:08.0 1794.43 4.4FA
IOANE, Jeremy Boise State SS05:10.0 1904.59 4.4FA
#MILLER, Matt Boise State WR06:02.2 2224.59 5.06-7
#MICENHEIMER, Malique Fresno State FB06:00.5 2394.81 4.6FA
BARNES, Riley Fresno State TE06:03.0 2614.89   
CONNETTE, Brandon Fresno State QB6:01.6 2254.79   
DOUGLAS, Bryan Boise State CB05:09.0 1784.63   
GOODALE, Dan Boise State PK05:09.5 1954.95   
GUSTAFSON, Andrew Fresno State OT06:05.0 2665.09   
HEDRICK, Grant Boise State QB05:11.6 1954.76   
HORN, Tyler Boise State DT06:04.0 2654.86   
LEWIS, Donavon Fresno State OLB06:02.0 2394.71   
MARTIN, Beau Boise State DE06:02.0 2714.86   
MASTON, Mercy Boise State CB05:10.0 1964.56   
McCLENDON, Jerin Fresno State TE06:07.2 2554.93  
PAGE, Cleshawn Boise State CB5:08.6 1744.43   
RIGGINS, Anthony Fresno State WR05:11.0 1904.65  
RUBALCAVA, Sean Fresno State OG06:03.6 2885.07  
SAXTON, Travis Boise State OLB06:01.0 2144.66   
TAIMATUIA, Justin Boise State NG05:11.0 2815.02   
THOMAS, Derrick Boise State TB06:00.0 2084.71   
TREMBLAY, Josh Fresno State OT06:05.0 2845.29  
WATSON, Greg Fresno State WR05:10.0 2094.58
NOTE: An * indicates the player is an underclassman…# indicates major injury that could impact draft grade…CL indicates college class…HT indicates height of the player…WT indicates weight…40 indicates 40-yard dash time…225 indicates repetitions in the 225-pound bench press…VJ indicates vertical jump…BJ indicates broad jump…SH indicates 20-yard shuttle…3C indicates three-cone drill…PRO-indicates The NFL Draft Report’s projected pro potential grade (see chart below)…RND indicates the round we project the player to be selected.

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