In a day and age when college football is dominated by the constant threat of realignment, there is some sense of purity when it comes to the four remaining football independents. You have the tradition and patriotism that comes with both Navy and Army, the history and prestige that comes with Notre Dame, and then you have newcomer BYU. Notre Dame and BYU puts players into the NFL on an annual basis but both service academies struggle to attract NFL talent due to their military commitments. Here however are eight prospects you need to know from the independents.
CB Bennett Jackson*
6’0, 185 lbs.
The athletic Jackson has seen the majority of his early playing time come on special teams as he had been one of the teams main kick returners before George Atkinson III came along. Jackson’s speed and size intrigued coaches enough to move him from WR to CB in spring practice last year and they are hoping to see the dividends of that move begin to pay off this season. If Jackson can show off improved cover skills he could present a real challenge to the best WR’s Notre Dame sees because of his size/speed combination.
OLB Prince Shembo*
6’2, 250 lbs.
Shembo may be one of the most important parts of this Notre Dame defense this season. He’s going to spend time at OLB in their 34 front but will also kick down to DE in a 43 look. He has the versatility and pass rush skills to be a terror from either position and the Notre Dame coaching staff expects both he and Sophomore Ishaq Williams to give the Irish that pass rush threat it’s been lacking since the move to the 34 defense.
DT Romney Fuga
6’1, 321 lbs.
Late in the year last year many draft analysts got excited about the potential of Hebron Fangupo due to his size and ability to control the middle. This year there is an even better prospect in Fuga who has the same qualities as Fangupo and almost identical production in limited playing time. Fuga should hold the middle of the line easily and become a high rising NT prospect in the 34 defensive scheme.
CB Preston Hadley
6’0, 200 lbs.
Hadley was an under the radar JUCO recruit who came into BYU with almost no expectations. He turned around and put together a junior campaign that should put him up there with the top senior CB’s in the country. He’s not the most fluid athlete at the position, nor does he have the best technique but he’s a fighter on the edge. He uses his size to get better positioning and his 14 PBU’s last year show an ability to get his hands on the football.
RB Raymond Maples*
6’1, 218 lbs.
As the leading returning rusher for the Black Knights offense, Maples knows that all eyes will be on him this fall at West Point. He will be the key to the Black Knights option offense with his ability to rush the ball and pick up first downs. Maples set an Army record last season by averaging 7.3 ypc and while it’s not likely he’ll repeat that impressive feat in 2012, he is expected to spearhead this attack. With Maples taking on the majority of the carries look for Army’s QB Trent Steelman to suddenly find more freedom and space in which to operate which could make more than a few games more interesting than many opposing teams fans would prefer.
DB Nate Combs
6’1, 216 lbs.
I don’t want to draw unfair comparisons to Combs but many are going to compare him to former Black Knight defender Caleb Campbell who was drafted by the Detroit Lions a few years ago. Combs plays a less conventional BAN position for the Black Knights and is basically an in the box safety. He is an aggressive player who attacks the line of scrimmage and knows how to make plays in the backfield. Combs is still raw in coverage and will need to improve that if he hopes to make the NFL.
WR Brandon Turner
6’4, 225 lbs.
Whenever you play in a triple option offense as a WR you’re almost never going to get the glory and the headlines. However former Georgia Tech and current NY Jets WR Stephen Hill did show that you can still be a high draft pick despite being stuck in that style of offense. Turner led the Midshipmen in receiving last year, averaging over 21 yards per catch and being a big play threat against defenses that tried to cheat up and stop the option. Turner is also a very good blocker on the edge using his impressive size and strength to control smaller CB’s and give his RB or QB a lane to run through.
DB Tra’ves Bush
5’10, 192 lbs.
Tra’ves Bush was one of the big playmakers for the Navy defense last year. He is asked to play the ROV position despite being undersized and often over matched by players who are bigger and stronger. However you may not find a defender who gives more of himself to the play than Bush. Bush isn’t afraid to put his body on the line in order to make a plays, that mentality is what makes Bush so much fun to watch and such an intriguing prospect for the NFL. You can teach a player to be in the right spot or know what’s coming but you can’t will him to make a play and with Bush that’s never a question.