2014 NFL Draft: Conference USA, Sun Belt Conference Sleepers to Watch

Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews is a player to watch in the Sun Belt Conference this season. (Photo: Mark Zerof — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Joseph Curtis

Despite not being power conferences, both Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference have produced their share of NFL talent in recent years. An average of eight players have been selected from C-USA during the last five drafts, including one first-round pick in each of the past two drafts (Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe in 2012, Houston cornerback D.J Hayden in 2013). During the same period, the Sun Belt has averaged 4.8 selections with no first-round picks.

While neither conference possesses any surefire first-round caliber prospects for the 2014 NFL draft, Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson is gaining notoriety heading into the season.

Due to conference realignments, C-USA boasts six new football schools this season while the Sun Belt adds two schools. In this article, we’ll explore some names other than Jackson to watch this season amongst the C-USA and Sun Belt teams.

Antonio Andrews, RB, Western Kentucky

Arguably the best offensive player in the Sun Belt, Antonio Andrews accounted for 34.4 percent of Western Kentucky’s total offense last season.

Andrews ran for 1,733 yards and 11 touchdowns while gaining 432 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. He also had 1,001 total return yards and a punt return touchdown.

He checks in at 6’ and 211 pounds, according to Western Kentucky’s official athletics website, with a solid build. He could afford to add a few pounds and has the frame to do so.

He’s a one-cut, north-south runner who quickly finds the hole and gets through it. He sees the field well and knows where holes will open up. He does show patience to wait for blocks to set up if the hole isn’t there initially.

While he won’t run anyone over, he’s strong enough to break through most arm tackles. He’s surprisingly elusive in the open field and wades through traffic well.

He lacks NFL-level speed and likely won’t be able to run outside at the next level, but he is a very good pass catcher out of the backfield with solid enough hands to be put in motion and line up outside.

Another valuable dimension of his game is his return ability. While his lone punt return touchdown in 2012 was his only return touchdown of his collegiate career, he is a consistent returner with the vision and elusiveness to break off some big gains.

Andrews currently grades as a possible late-round selection and even with another splendid season, it’s unlikely his stock will elevate much from there. That said, whichever team drafts or signs him could get one of the steals of the draft.

Justin Ellis, DT, Louisiana Tech

It’s hard not to notice Justin Ellis when watching the Louisiana Tech offense.

A formidable figure listed at 6’2” and 330 pounds, Ellis dominates the inside. He is quick off the line and powerful enough to hold the point of attack against double teams.

He displays inconsistent pad level, often playing too high and compromising his overall balance. If he can improve his pad level and balance, he has shown that he can overpower and drive linemen back. Still, despite his questionable balance, he is able to stand up to blockers, even double teams, and hold his ground.

He has constantly moving hands with good placement but lacks a strong punch. As a result, he is often unable to use his hands effectively to get past blockers.

He does a good job of working down the line against the run and even displays good pursuit and motor making tackles downfield. When he is able to get low enough, he can redirect blockers to close holes for the runner.

Ellis is a prototypical nose tackle both in size and performance. His effect may not consistently show in the box score, but he is an essential member of Louisiana Tech’s defense. He’s likely to get some late-round looks, but if not selected he should definitely be a priority free agent come May.

East Carolina’s Justin Jones has massive size for a tight end, and his complementary athleticism gives him huge upside. (Photo: Jake Roth — USA Today Sports)

Justin Jones, TE, East Carolina

Versatility and the ability to exploit matchups is what offensive coordinators love, and Justin Jones has both.

Jones seems to have added some necessary bulk heading into 2013. He is listed at 6’8” and 277 pounds by East Carolina’s official website, after being listed at only 258 pounds last season.

He is very athletic for his size and can play inline or split out wide. He has decent speed and good leaping abilities to go with his size. He is a very raw route runner who often runs the most basic routes and just tries to get open. He possesses large, soft hands that seem to swallow up the ball. He is excellent at going up and high-pointing the ball, especially in the end zone.

In fact, of the 52 passes Jones has caught in his three seasons at East Carolina, 12 have been touchdowns. That is equivalent to a touchdown every 4.3 receptions.

His blocking technique needs work, but he is still an effective blocker thanks to his size and good strength. He even has enough blocking upside and size for a team at the NFL level to consider moving him to offensive tackle and developing him over a few seasons.

A former high school basketball player, Jones displays the raw talent that NFL teams are looking for. He’s a Jimmy Graham-type player who will be drafted due to his unique blend of size and athleticism, but will likely serve strictly as a red zone threat until he develops.

Jones will likely be a mid-round selection, but he could become a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end with proper development.

Other Names to Watch:

Chris Boswell, K, Rice

One of the top kickers in the nations last season, Chris Boswell connected on 23-of-29 field goals including 6-of-8 from beyond 50 yards. He has a strong leg but needs to show improved accuracy to have a chance at being drafted.

Jonathan Dowling, S, Western Kentucky (Jr.)

An instinctive safety with good range, Jonathan Dowling is an intriguing prospect. He displays good ball skills, including on six interceptions last season.

Jordan Jeffries, OT, Marshall

Jordan Jeffries is an intriguing offensive tackle prospect with good size and length (listed at 6’8″, 310 pounds by Marshall’s official athletics website). He has an outside chance of being drafted at this point, but is capable of a breakout 2013 season.

Cairo Santos, K, Tulane

Cairo Santos won the Lou Groza Award last season, which is awarded to college football’s best placekicker. He went a perfect 21-for-21 in field goals last season, including 54- and 57-yard field goals. He may only be 5’8” and 160 pounds, but he’s a natural kicker.

Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Antonio Andrews, Cairo Santos, Chris Boswell, Conference USA, Draft Sleepers, East Carolina, Jonathan Dowling, Jordan Jeffries, Justin Ellis, Justin Jones, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Rice, Sleepers, Sun Belt, Tulane, Western Kentucky

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