Connor Allen

Team Previews

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Independent Team Previews

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


*Draft prospects and grades provided by Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline


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Independents

Notre Dame (10-2)

UMass (7-5)

BYU (6-6)

Army (6-6)

New Mexico State (5-7)

Liberty (4-8)

 

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University of Massachusetts Minutemen

 

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: RB Marquis Young (Rounds 6-7)

 

How should I think of this team?:  It’s now or never for the exciting Minutemen.

 

The case for: The preseason game with the Minutemen is a fun one to play, because there’s enough talent that you can dream -- imagine if everything came together this year. The game is even easier to play this summer than last, as we saw clear improvements from this previously moribund crew, which went from averaging just 23 points in 2016 to averaging close to 30 for the past campaign. And guess what? They’re getting the gang back together. UMass largely reunites the core components of its attack, with a we-know-each-other-so-well-we-finish-each-other’s-sentences offensive line returning four starters ready to roll in fending off the foes of redshirt senior QB Andrew Ford, RB Marquis Young and the ever-underrated Andy Isabella, who caught 65 passes for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Ford encapsulates our strange smittenness with UMass, owning a stellar 48/14 TD/INT ratio the past two seasons. He was picked off just four times in 353 attempts last year -- 10 fewer than in 2016 -- while also jumping his YPA from 7.3 to 8.3 and his completion percentage from 60.8% to 63.2%. That’s clear development for the Davey O’Brien Watchlister.

 

The defense doesn’t return as much well-rounded firepower as the offense, but it’s not without its charm, especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks Isaiah Rodgers and Lee Moses roll to the ball like sharks with a bit of chum in the water, picking off seven passes last year while leading a unit which allowed just a 53-percent completion rate. UConn grad transfer Brice McAllister, whom HC Mark Whipple seemed to take to immediately after he transferred over in the spring should be step in as an immediate contributor at safety. The front seven is slightly thinner this season but they return senior LB Bryton Barr, the team leader in tackles with 105 sacks last fall. As with the offense, there’s hope in notable places, here.

 

Here’s the thing: All of this optimism isn’t just wishful projection. Even better -- it’s projection based in actuality. After starting 0-6 last season, the Minuteman got their act together and rattled off four wins in their final six games. If they can carry over some of that momentum into this year, they could find themselves bowling. That would be something for team which still has yet to make a bowl game since joining the FBS in 2012. Their schedule is all over the map, with games against Charlotte, Georgia Southern, and just plain Georgia, to name a few. One other thing -- in Week 2, they’ll play Boston College, which itself has gone from unwatchable laughing stock to national notable. It’s not impossible for UMass.

 

The Case Against: While the offense doesn’t have many chinks in the armor, there’s a gaping, lance-shaped hole on the other side of the ball. This is a horribly thin offensive line, and while Whipple should be able develop depth, that’s not going to happen immediately and it’s probably not going to happen this season. The Minutemen will have to compensate for the loss of multiple pass-rushers. Here’s a stark way of putting it -- seven of every 10 UMass sacks last year is no longer on roster If DC Ed Pinkham doesn’t come up with a way to create pressure, even an above average secondary like UMass’ could struggle. Luckily the offense looks like it will be good enough to hang around in shoot outs, but an ineffective defense severely limits their potential in the win column this season.

 

Even with a schedule that isn’t the most difficult in terms of opponents, it bounces. HC Mark Whipple’s squad has a three-game road trip early in the season. After a cupcake matchup against Duquesne at home to kick off the season, they have to travel to (as aforementioned) Boston College, Georgia Southern, and Florida International. In a vacuum, they would probably come away with wins against Georgia Southern and FIU, but with that many consecutive road games it’s very possible they falter in at least one game they shouldn’t. Still, this might be a team that’s just about ready for its unveiling unless their deficits at the front of the line causes everything to go sidewise.

 

Bovada win total over/under: 5.5

 

Prediction: OVER

 

Projected Record: 7-5

 

Editor’s Note: Get a sneak peek at the Rotoworld’s NFL Draft Guide with a look at some of our top features such as positional rankings, sleepers and busts, dynasty rankings, mock drafts, rookie rankings and more! Click here now!


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Notre Dame Fighting Irish

 

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: CB Julian Love (Round 2)

 

How should I think of this team?:  A team with a good chance to live up to their high expectations.

 

The case for: We were so, so in on Notre Dame early last year, and then everything just kind of fizzled. 10-3 is great. 10-3 doesn’t get you to the Playoff, though. Let’s try this again. And yeah, we’ll give junior QB Brandon Wimbush one more shot assuming that he can fend off Ian Book in camp. He nearly averaged the same rushing yards per carry (5.7) as yards per pass attempt (6.8). Despite not being the best passer -- look at us being all charitable -- Wimbush at least turned the ball over infrequently -- we don’t really know how the defense would have caught some of those passes  -- and we’re not asking him to move the universe. Just, like, be cool. Small strides are all that the Irish need. Junior WRs Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin give him reliable options even with the departure of Packers WR Equanimeous St. Brown, while senior RB Dexter Williams and sophomore RB Tony Jones Jr will try to make up for the loss of Josh Adams after both of the former dealt with injury concerns last year. Losing two first-round offensive lineman in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson to the NFL is normally devastating to a team, but Notre Dame recruits like gangbusters along the line and they should be able to weather their losses. We will say -- the starting offensive line has not yet been written in ink, and if you start reading about the Irish trying different personnel groupings, that should raise your antenna. We saw a similar situation when Zach Martin and Chris Watt departed for the draft in the winter of 2013. Notre Dame did not subsequently figure out their offensive line for four games.

 

After the departure of DC Mike Elko to join Jimbo Fisher’s staff at Texas A&M, Brian Kelly promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator.  Presumably he went out and bought a lottery ticket after that hiring, because boy howdy, did he hit the jackpot in his first career gig as a coordinator -- nine defensive starters return from last year’s elite defense. They ranked 13th in run defense S&P+ and seventh in pass defense S&P+ and we trust that Kelly knows what he’s doing in promoting Lea can keep continuity from Elko’s system. In conclusion, just give us something as a passer, Mr. Wimbush.  Everything else is pointing in the team’s direction right down to the schedule, with Notre Dame playing three of their hardest games at home (versus Michigan in the opener, versus Stanford on Sept. 29 and versus Florida State on Nov. 10. And somehow, they don’t play back-to-back road games all season? Some guys just get all the breaks.

 

The case against: Advance apologies to the Wimbush family, but his passing inefficiency could single-handedly be Notre Dame’s downfall. Remember when people nitpicked Lamar Jackson’s accuracy in the spring? His completion percentage was 10 points higher than Wimbush’s. 49.5-percent completions from a quarterback who is not running a triple option is simply difficult to believe. We hate to keep harping on the same thing, but we saw the dangers of too much Brandon Wimbush literally play out last year. If opponents can stop the run, their offense will essentially be rendered useless. And while we do like what’s on roster, we’d remiss not to reiterate that Notre Dame lost two of their top three pass-catchers and two elite offensive lineman this offseason. If backs Williams and Jones are unable to stay on the field then this could be an ugly offensive concoction. We don’t think Wimbush can afford more than one loss in September.

 

The defense should be good, but they forced just 20 turnovers last season, which placed them 50th in the country, a statistic that will need to improve in order to win 10+ games again. Their schedule is also predictably brutal, stacking them up against five top-25 teams in Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and USC. Michigan, Stanford and USC should all be considered Playoff contenders to one degree or another (a hotter degree with the first two) and both the UM and Cardinal games come in September, when the offense is most likely to still be working itself out. And those are defenses which can play against any team in the country. At the moment, Notre Dame’s only game as an underdog comes in the first week against Michigan. The Irish are now two seasons removed from a disastrous 1-7 record in one-score games. You figure that normalizes, it’s just a matter of how much. If you can’t pass, those are difficult games to win.

 

Bovada win total over/under: 9.5

 

Prediction: OVER

 

Projected Record: 10-2

 

***

 

Liberty Flames

 

NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Juwen Bells (UDFA)

 

How should I think of this team?:  Can we pitch There Will Be Points to Daniel Day-Lewis?

 

The case for: We’ll spend this season mourning the loss of Idaho from the FBS, but turn, turn, turn, as they say, and now it’s time to welcome a batch of soon-to-be-former FCSers to our FBS family. They gave us a sneak peek of coming attractions when they spoiled Matt Rhule’s Baylor debut last September. Flames QB Buckshot Calvert and WR Antonio Gandy-Golden sound like a dynamic superhero duo and they played like it in that 48-45 win on Sept. 2, with Calvert throwing for 447 yards and three scores while hooking up with Gandy-Golden for a 13-192-2 receiving line. To set the table on this offense for the unfamiliar -- the Flames played it fast and threw, a lot, last year, averaging 76 plays and 309.9 passing yards per game. Calvert set Liberty’s single-season record in passing yards (3,336) and touchdowns (29). His main target was the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Gandy-Golden who racked up 69 receptions for 1,066 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Both return along with their top three receiving targets beyond Gandy-Golden. And we’ll give a tepid thumbs up to RB Frankie Hickson, who rushed for 396 yards and a pair of scores.

 

As difficult as the FCS-to-FBS transition in, this is a “let’s go” offense and we expect them to be able to go, from the start. It’s not quite as shiny on the defensive side -- absolutely the side that’s going to kill them if they die this year -- but senior DE Juwan Wells deserves to be watched after leading Liberty in tackles (74) and sacks (4.5) last season. Wells and senior DE Tolen Avery are the only two returners on the defensive line. We have some worries about the secondary, but those will be saved for the darkness beneath.

 

You have to be realistic when it comes to Liberty. Moving up a weight level can swallow programs alive. There’s a reason that Appalachian State is the gold standard, here. There aren’t that many success stories. That said -- they have an offense, they have a style, and they’re going to punch somebody in the mouth early on.

 

The case against: They were bad defensively, against FCS competition, and there’s not much equivocating you can do. Liberty didn’t win a single game in which they scored fewer than 27 points last year and the offense wasn’t good enough to compensate, with the Flames finishing with a 6-5 record on the whole. And oh goodness is this a bad rushing defense, surrendering a whopping 225 rushing yards per game last year. Teams didn’t even need to pass because they could run. Kennesaw State, for instance, rammed it down Liberty’s throat to the tune of 502 last year.

 

That speaks volumes to some potentially disastrous outcomes against FBS teams with even better running games in 2018. That clear issue turns getting-your-feet wet dates with Old Dominion, Army and North Texas into affairs in which we could see ginormous rushing totals. Buckshot and company will only be able to do so much to keep the Flames afloat, and there are no guarantees the offense will be as potent with the bump in difficulty. The Flames are only favored in two games this season, one against Norfolk State and the other Idaho State.  You have to be pragmatic about the Flames this year.

 

 

Bovada win total over/under: N/A

 

Prediction: N/A

 

Projected Record: 4-8

 

 

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You can find Connor on Twitter @ConnorAllenNFL.
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