Next year’s class of Mountain West football prospects could be a diverse bumper crop.
Who could be the next men up?
It’s always tricky to guess which Falcons might be enticed to chase the NFL dream after their time at the Academy, but running back Brad Roberts might consider it if he can duplicate his 2021 season. It isn’t often that a fullback leads Air Force in rushing, let alone the entire Mountain West, but that’s what Roberts did in piling up 1,357 yards and 13 touchdowns on a conference-high 297 carries. He’s a bruiser with enough acceleration to warrant a look as a short-yardage back in the NFL, if nothing else.
In the mix: Zion Kelly, CB; Kyle Patterson, TE; Vince Sanford, LB
Pass catchers beware when Broncos safety JL Skinner is in the vicinity. At 6-4 and 220 pounds, he’s earned a reputation as a hard hitter with the range to make plays just about everywhere on the field. In 2021, he collected 92 total tackles, seven tackles for loss and two interceptions, so another big year patrolling the defensive backfield is all but guaranteed to put him on a few big boards by this time next year.
In the mix: Hank Bachmeier, QB; Stefan Cobbs, WR; George Holani, RB; Shane Irwin, DL; Scott Matlock, DL; John Ojukwu, OT
Wide receiver Dante Wright wasn’t always at 100% during the 2021 season, but he remained one of the Rams’ most reliable targets and could be the primary beneficiary of Jay Norvell’s Air Raid offense. The former freshman All-American hasn’t lost any of his potency — he caught at least four passes in every game he played last year and has done so in all but two career games — and could very easily be 2022’s Deven Thompkins if everything breaks right.
In the mix: Cam’ron Carter, LB; Dequan Jackson, LB; Melquan Stovall, WR
Most college football fans remember Jake Haener‘s late-game exploits against UCLA last September, but the Bulldogs quarterback built a strong case throughout all of last year as the best signal-caller in the Mountain West. In throwing the ball nearly 38 times a game, Haener completed 67.1% of his passes for 4,096 yards and 33 touchdowns, also managing a reasonable 1.8% interception rate. While he may not fit the typical NFL quarterback mold (6-1, 195 pounds), his moxie and arm should give scouts plenty to keep an eye on.
In the mix: Dontae Bull, OT; Jalen Cropper, WR; David Perales, DE; Evan Williams, S
Since breaking into the starting lineup as a true freshman back in 2018, defensive tackle Blessman Ta’ala has been a quiet force in the trenches for the Warriors defense, earning a pair of all-Mountain West honorable mentions in 2019 and 2020 and, according to Pro Football Focus, posting a career-best 75.3 grade last season. His ability to eat up space is something not just anyone can be taught, so he might be an example of how the stat sheet doesn’t tell you the whole story.
In the mix: Ilm Manning, OT; Dedrick Parson, RB; Solo Vaipulu, G; Micah Vanterpool, OL
Defensive tackle Dom Peterson didn’t have to rejoin the Wolf Pack for one last season, but you can bet fans will be glad he did. Perhaps the best interior defender anywhere in the Mountain West, Peterson has now made 40 starts for Nevada and picked up 22 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss. Not only could another dominant year put him in the conversation as the program’s best defensive lineman ever, it could entrench him as a prospect to watch.
In the mix: Aaron Frost, OL; Toa Taua, RB; Tyson Williams, S
After leading the Mountain West with four interceptions in 2020, Lobos safety Jerrick Reed II put together another solid campaign last fall and led the team with 92 tackles. He also tied for the team lead with seven pass breakups, moving around the defense to do whatever it took to make stops and bolstering his bonafides as a sure tackler with reliable hands.
In the mix: Donte Martin, CB
San Diego State
The draft class from this program probably won’t be nearly as prolific as this year’s, but don’t tell that to defensive tackle Jonah Tavai. He enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2021 with 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, posting a PFF overall grade above 80 for the second straight year. At 6-0 and 295 pounds, he has the power and balance to continue causing headaches in centers week after week.
In the mix: Keshawn Banks, DE; Caden McDonald, LB
San Jose State
He isn’t a former Defensive Player of the Year like one of his Spartans teammates, but defensive end Viliami Fehoko might be the best player on a defense that was better than you thought last fall. The 6-4, 263-pound junior led San Jose State with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, flashing an arsenal of moves that puts him in the conversation as the Mountain West’s best edge defender heading into 2022.
In the mix: Cade Hall, DE; Kyle Harmon, LB; Tre Jenkins, S
Injuries cut his 2021 season short, but linebacker Austin Ajiake is an intriguing dark horse candidate who did well with his first extended opportunity as a starter. In eight games, the 6-2, 220-pound Fremont native averaged 9.25 tackles per game and proved adept in coverage duties, earning a 75.0 grade from PFF that ranked fourth among qualifying Mountain West linebackers.
In the mix: Daniel Gutierrez, K; Philip Hill, S; Adam Plant Jr., DE/LB
What do you do for an encore after a record-setting season? If you’re Aggies quarterback Logan Bonner, you run it back and remind NFL scouts of your arm strength and your toughness. Provided he stays healthy (which wasn’t always a given in 2021), he could solidify his draft standing and give Utah State a chance to defend its conference title.
In the mix: Alfred Edwards III, OT; Justin McGriff, WR; Jacob South, OT; AJ Vongphachanh, LB
It surely stung Cowboys fans when Xazavian Vallday left the program through the transfer portal, but his running back peer, Titus Swen, had a 86.3 run grade from PFF in 2021 that not only bested Valladay but was the third-best figure in the Mountain West. He has a nice blend of power and speed that you know will get a lot of opportunities to shine in Craig Bohl’s offense, so while NFL running back prospects typically have to wait a little longer for a phone call on Draft Day these days, Swen could play himself into that situation with a big year.
In the mix: Eric Abojei, OL; Cole Godbout, DL
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