2023 NFL Draft: Ranking the 10 best prospects from Group of Five conferences, including two from Fresno State

Cincinnati has been a consistent winner this past season, and that led to a chance to represent the Group of Five schools in the college football playoffs. Many talents come from the Conference-USA, American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt Conference, Mid-American Conference, and Mountain West Conference.

The transfer portal has certainly created a more volatile landscape year by year. For example, Louisiana would have featured on this list if there had been no off-season changes. After head coach Billy Napier left for Florida, the Ragin’ Cajuns lost six transfers to Power 5 schools, including five to the SEC.

Here’s a preseason look at the top 10 draft prospects among the Group of Five schools:

10. Dorian Williams, LB, Tulane

Williams aggressively flies downhill from his linebacker position. It wraps and consistently packs through the core. The South Carolina native offered little as a pass rusher last season but registered a tackle on 19.4% of rush plays, according to the PFF. In 2020, his 98 total tackles was enough to lead the American Athletic Conference. However, according to TruMedia, the opponent completed 83.3% of passes against him as the main defender.

9. Scott Matlock, DL, Boise State

If there was only one bronco on this list, most would have said safety JL Skinner. However, Matlock is a good size at 6-foot-4,300 pounds. The Idaho native shows good movement skills and does a good job dropping blocks in the running game. Last fall, he managed seven sacks from his position at center back.

According to the PFF, it took Matlock an average of 2.55 seconds to apply pressure.

8. Viliami Fehoko, EDGE, San Jose State

Fehoko has had at least six sacks each of the past two seasons. He has a thicker lower body that allows him to hold his own on the edge. The California native is strong by nature and is constantly working to get out of the blocks. He shows a good burst and has a few points in his war chest. Fehoko was credited with 10 missed tackles in running play, so ideally that number would go down.

7. Darrell Luter Jr., CB, South Alabama

The third-year cornerback comes off a season in which he recorded four interceptions. Practice against Jalen Tolbert — who would be selected in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft — was among the toughest assignments on his schedule. The Mississippi native is able to get up to speed quickly and hit the gas. A good speed allows him to mirror routes up the border.

Luter had the second-lowest completion rate as a main defender (24.5%) with at least 250 coverage snaps, according to TruMedia.

6.Daste Brown, CB, UCF

Brown is a border cornerback who isn’t afraid to get physical at the line of scrimmage. He has an athletic build and can rotate his hips with ease. The Florida native has an average top speed, but at 6-foot-2 he’s a difficult matchup downfield in jump ball situations. With essentially a season of extended playing time, Brown could really help himself by making a similar contribution in 2022.

The Knights took three defensive backs (Aaron Robinson, Richie Grant and Tay Gowan) to the next level in the 2021 NFL Draft. Incoming Alabama wide receiver transfer Javon Baker is one to watch.

5. Jalen Cropper, WR, Fresno State

Cropper was an incredibly productive player last season, amassing 85 receptions for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns, in addition to 19 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Most of his actions took place near the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his 7.71 air yards per target, according to TruMedia. The California native is a very aware talent, showing good catch radius and great body control.

4. Jake Haener, QB, Fresno State

The offseason was one of the uncertainties for Haener. Fresno State head coach Kalen DeBoer accepted the same position as Washington. A report quickly surfaced claiming that Haener, who had entered the transfer portal, was following his former coach to play for the Huskies, just as he did from 2017-2018. Jeff Tedford settled into a head coaching chair that was still warm when he last served in the role for the Bulldogs in 2017-2019. Tedford was Fresno State’s head coach when Haener originally joined the program. When the dust settled, Haener chose to remain in Fresno.

Haener is undersized but tough as nails, putting out some late finishes a year ago. The native Californian has a good sense of pressure and throws with great touch. His attention to detail in menial tasks like selling a fake is impressive. Arm strength won’t measure up to others in this class, but talent judges should feel comfortable with Haener’s bottom as a prospect of some level of comfort.

3. Nathaniel Dell, WR, Houston

Dell is a thin-framed wide receiver, but the modern NFL has room for that type of player. A lithe athlete by nature, he does a good job of slowing his feet down to set up crisp breaks. The Florida native isn’t a stunner, but he’s putting himself in a position to play in space. There is a need for improvement with regard to the drop in concentration. There are times when he sniffs his next move before securing the catch. According to TruMedia, Dell ranked 12th for percentage of drop in reception (7.9%).

2. Quindell Johnson, S., Memphis

Johnson is a great communicator with a fiery spirit. He is able to rev up quickly and shows flowing hips to transition into cover. The New Orleans native had six interceptions in the past three seasons. Preseason honors include the Chuck Bednarik Award, Jim Thorpe Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, and Wuerffel Trophy Watchlist recordings.

1. DeWayne McBride, RB, UAB

McBride is almost prototypical in size for today’s game. He revs up quickly and keeps a good balance through contact. The Florida native was rarely used in the passing game beyond blocking and ranked fifth among running backs with four fumbles. McBride ranked among running backs with at least 100 carries in several categories, according to TruMedia. He ranked 10th for tackle avoidance (41%), 6th for average yards after contact (4.72), and 8th for yards per carry (6.67).

Texas-San Antonio didn’t have a representative on the list, but safety Rashad Wisdom and wide receiver Zakhari Franklin have the potential to shake it up by the end of the season.

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