In the inaugural version of this list from 2020, I tried to identify names flying under the devy radar. Most of the names, like Texas Tech RB SaRodorick Thompson or now-Memphis QB Grant Gunnell, still have questions remaining and need further evaluation. Although the list did hit on a drafted player in Colts fourth-round tight end Kylen Granson, the biggest (and proudest) hit was Arkansas WR Treylon Burks, who’s 2020 season vaulted him to a top 3 WR overall in most devy rankings. A hit like that is what these types of lists are built for.
For this year’s edition, the criteria is the same: I’m trying to find the players that aren’t being discussed frequently in devy circles. I dug deeper into team situations, coaching habits, offensive schemes, and most importantly: the film. Most of the players we’ll talk about here are typically drafted low, if at all. Consider this a “watch list” of sorts, and if we’re lucky, we might just find ourselves another Treylon Burks hidden amongst these names.
QB: K.J Jefferson, Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks have become a lot more popular after the rise of WR Treylon Burks, who has worked himself into the top 3 WR conversation in next year’s draft. But he can only get there if the man behind center can deliver him the ball.
This year, that will be sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson, a 4-star product out of Mississippi. Standing at an intimidating 6-3 and 230-pounds, Jefferson carries a large, Cam Newton-esque physique and brings high-end athleticism to the position.
Jefferson has flashed his potential in minimal play during his first two years at Arkansas. He injected life into a quiet offense during spot duty in 2019, in which he displayed a powerful arm and dynamic rushing ability, while also showing signs of his inexperience.
The graduate transfer from former quarterback Felipe Franks to Arkansas in 2020 would give Jefferson the opportunity to learn and refine his game further, which has the Arkansas staff fully behind him heading into 2021. A strong spring would lead to a promising showing in Arkansas spring game, where he would complete 5-of-6 passes for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I thought KJ couldn’t have had a better start. He did some really nice things. I think he’s certainly maturing. He’s got command of this team. His teammates believe in him. That’s hard to do. He’s going to be a very good quarterback for us.–Arkansas Head Coach Sam Pittman
The Devy Watch‘s Kyle Francis recently tabbed Jefferson’s range of outcome as “Cam Newton to Jamie Newman,” and I feel as though that appropriately sums him up. His upside is tremendous, but what he does with this opportunity will go a long way in determining his future in the NFL.
rb1: Re’Mahn Davis, Vanderbilt
After a flashy 2019 year that saw him break out as true freshman, Re’Mahn Davis‘ devy value has seen its ups and downs. He followed up his 1,100 yard, 10-touchdown effort as a true freshman in 2019 by opting out four games into his sophomore season. After a strange and tumultuous season for Temple football, Davis would end up entering the transfer portal, where he would take his talents to a Power 5 program in Vanderbilt.
At first, the move may have been a head-scratcher for some, especially after the Commodores went winless in 2020, but a big opportunity in the SEC has its appeal.
As luck would have it, Vanderbilt’s leading rusher in 2020, Keyon Brooks, would announce his own intentions to transfer shortly after Davis’ arrival. With his departure, he leaves 50-percent of the rushing market share up for grabs, as well as 25-percent of the total offensive production.
The 5-9, 215-pound back has already managed to leave a strong impression throughout spring, making a strong case to be Vanderbilt’s Week 1 starter. With most reporters who cover the team expecting a run-heavy approach in 2021, Davis could be a sneaky riser in a thin 2022 running back class.
RB2: Israel abanikanda, pittsburgh panthers
After their rushing attack ranked No. 13 (out of 15) in the ACC last season, head coach Pete Narduzzi has made the run game a focal point of this offseason. Part of that solution will be finding the right guy to lead their backfield.
Although he tried to maintain that junior running back Vincent Davis would retain the lead job, Narduzzi couldn’t help but pull back on his comments after seeing an improved Israel Abanikanda this spring.
“Well, not so fast. I shouldn’t say stuff like that. I sit there and declared that and then all of a sudden, Izzy (Israel Abanikanda) is coming on, “ Narduzzi said this spring. “Vince is still a good back, but Izzy is getting after it. There’s a battle going on there.”
Israel, or “Izzy,” has impressed staff this spring. After adding 10-pounds and working on his pass protection, the 5-11, 210-pound back is pushing for the starting gig. He was Pittsburgh’s most impressive running back in the spring game, notching six carries for 77 yards. With impressive verified testing featuring a 4.50-second 40-yard dash and a 39-inch vertical, the former Elite 11 MVP has a unique blend of size, explosion and power that currently cant be found in the Panthers backfield. His vision, patience and instincts has even led his head coach to compare the sophomore running back to an NFL running back who found a lot of success in the league.
“He’s just been running so patiently,” Narduzzi said of Izzy. “He almost looks like Le’Veon Bell sometimes with the patience, running, and vision to find the holes.”
Israel’s size and athleticism are ideal fits for today’s NFL. If he can put together a strong 2021, he could put himself on the NFL’s radar and vault himself up devy boards.
WR1: Milton Wright, Purdue
Over the past few years, Purdue has become a hotspot for devy WR targets. Although some of this is due to a friendly, pass-happy system, the Boilmakers have had no shortage of talent.
Ex-Boilermaker and current Arizona Cardinals WR Rondale Moore went in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and David Bell, who currently sits atop Purdue’s WR depth chart, is being mocked in the first round of next years draft. Could Milton Wright be next in line?
Standing at 6-3 and 200-pounds, the highly ranked 4-star prospect was able to make his presence felt in 2020 with Moore in and out of the lineup. In three games without Moore, the blazing speedster averaged five catches and 70 yards per game, while finding the end zone twice. He went over the 85-yard mark twice, including a six-catch, 100-yard, one-touchdown performance against Illinois. The rising junior is a threat in all three phases of the game as well, excelling on defense and special teams in high school, as well as rushing the ball for almost 400 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season.
In a shortened six-game season last year, we were only able to catch a glimpse of what Wright can offer. He has a chance to be a versatile weapon for the Boilermakers in 2021 and help fill the void left by Moore. Should he decide to stay for his senior season, Milton will be in the drivers seat for a very productive spot atop the depth chart in 2022.
WR2: elijah Canion, Auburn
During the 2021 offseason, the Auburn tigers went through some massive changes, starting at the top with new head coach Bryan Harsin. The tigers also lost a good amount of talent in 2021, including their top three pass catchers from last year. Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will be looking for a wideout to fill the void, and they may have found one in Elijah Canion.
Canion, who finished off 2020 with a strong performance in the Citrus Bowl (three catches for 80 yards and a TD), has made a lasting impression through the spring. The 6-4, 210-pound WR has spent most of his time lined up at the X position with the first team, a role that has a proven track record in Bobo’s offense. In the last six years, the WR1 in his offenses have averaged over 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and almost 10 touchdowns per season.
Canion capped off a solid spring with an impressive six-catch, 51-yard performance in Auburn’s spring game, connecting with quarterback Bo Nix on a four-yard touchdown strike. Although many devy analysts are iffy (at best) on Nix, reports out of spring are…optimistic. Nix has worked tirelessly to improve his game, working with noted quarterback guru Jordan Palmer, who was quoted saying Nix has the potential to be the first overall draft pick in 2022.
In reality, all we can hope for is a little consistency from Nix to help players like Canion blossom. As a 3-star prospect in a crowded WR room, he still has a lot to prove, but he brings a strong set of tools and will present a big, easy target for Nix.
TE: Will Mallory, Miami
After averaging almost 500 yards and four touchdowns for the Canes over the past three years, former tight end Brevin Jordan is off to the NFL. As the second-leading receiver the last two seasons, Miami will need to find someone to replace his role in the offense, and that’s starts with senior tight end Will Mallory.
Although the 4-star prospect had to patiently wait his turn, we were able to see glimpses of what the future might look like. Even while playing second fiddle to Jordan, Mallory was able to catch 22 balls for almost 400 yards and four touchdowns in 2021. During a three-week stretch without Jordan in the lineup, Mallory caught 10 passes for 187 yards and three scores. His performance grabbed the attention of evaluators and even earned praise from his fellow Hurricane.
“Will Mallory is a problem, “ Brevin Jordan said in an interview with NFL Draft analyst Ryan Roberts. “I’m telling you right now, he will be TE1 in next year’ s draft…people really didn’t even get to see that dude. He won state hurdles as a senior in high school, I mean the dude is just a freak. People will just have to wait and see.”
Mallory brings prototypical size to the position, towering over defenders at 6-6 and 245-pounds. As a former hurdler and runner in high school, Mallory exhibits good acceleration and speed for this position. His 16.3 YPC over the past two years is evidence of his ability to get down the field. His monster Catch Radius and impressive body control add to a strong athletic profile that should translate well to the NFL level.
If you look hard enough, you can already start to see Mallory getting some major attention heading into the 2022 draft. PFN ranked Mallory as a top 10 tight end nationally going into 2021, he was dubbed one of Miami’s top five 2022 draft prospects by Sports Illustrated, and he’s featured in CBS’ top 100 prospects for 2022. If he can put it all together with a strong senior season, Mallory has a good chance at being a top tight end in the 2022 draft.
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