2014 NFL Draft: UConn preview
Connecticut ... a football school? Gino Auriemma and recently retired Jim Calhoun built far more prominent programs. But the Huskies had a program-record five players drafted in 2013, and the pipeline isn't empty.
In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the past five years: 16
2013 NFL Draft picks: 5 -- CB Dwayne Gratz (Jacksonville Jaguars, 3rd round), LB Sio Moore (Oakland Raiders, third round), CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Tennessee Titans, third round), DE Trevardo Williams (Houston Texans, fourth round), TE Ryan Griffin (Houston Texans, sixth round)
UConn had its most prolific NFL draft in 2013, with an all-time school best of five players selected. This year's group doesn't have near the depth or talent of that class, but redshirt junior LB Yawin Smallwood may be better than anyone UConn put out last year, and has a chance to be one of the first linebackers selected if he declares. Two others seniors -- DT Shamar Stephen and OT Jimmy Bennett -- are other Huskies to keep an eye on.
Top Connecticut prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. Yawin Smallwood (6-3, 235, 4.68)* -- While Sio Moore and Trevardo Williams drew the majority of NFL Draft attention last season, there may not have been a better player on the Huskies defense than Smallwood. All the redshirt sophomore did in 2012 was lead the team in tackles with 120, including 15 for a loss and 3.5 sacks, and was selected First-Team All-BIG EAST. At 6'3, Smallwood is a fluid, instinctive 'backer who possesses an explosive first step and good fundamentals as a tackler. He's physical when taking on blockers, and uses his length well to keep himself clean in pursuit. Although he has played primarily inside at UConn, he's certainly shown the type of range that NFL teams look for in their quests for versatile defenders that can be moved around to multiple spots. He could bulk up a bit, as he doesn't exhibit a lot of natural power to move or control his opponent on contact. He'll also be seen overrunning his gap at times when he locks onto the backfield, so he'll need to continue to improve this year, in terms of overall awareness and discipline. If he does, he could very well end up one of the first five linebackers off the board, should he choose to declare and come out next May.
2. DT Shamar Stephen (6-5, 323) -- Stephen is the most experienced of the Huskies' D-linemen, having played in 34 games since his freshman year ('10), and he figures to anchor that unit again in '13. He possesses an impressive combination of size and athleticism, and exhibits awareness against the run. While Stephen's size leads some to automatically classify him as a run plugger, he has flashed above-average get-off and strong closing burst that could enable him to provide some disruption as a pass-rusher as well. Where he needs to improve the most is in utilizing his hands to create space off the snap. While he'll often beat his opponent off the ball, he had a tendency to lead with his shoulder, allowing blockers into his frame too easily and is rendered ineffective too often as a result. He also doesn't appear to possess a lot of natural upper body strength, as he struggles to sustain arm extension when he does establish hand-placement early. If Stephen can tap into some of his apparent upside, and work to get stronger and more active up top, he could end up on the radar of several NFL teams this year.
3. LT Jimmy Bennett (6-8, 306, 5.34) -- Had it not been for ACL and shoulder injuries keeping Bennett off the field for more than half of his college career, we may be talking about one of the premier tackles in the class. Considering the severity of prior injuries -- especially those to the knees -- Bennett displays surprising quickness off the snap and good straight-line speed, but he's pretty stiff in the lower half when asked to bend and absorb contact. The range of his kick-slide is limited and lacking of fluidity, but he anticipates change-of-direction well and he takes good angles to secure the edge when initially beat at the snap. Bennett's skill-set seems to be better-suited for the right side than the left, as he seems to possess natural anchoring strength in spite of some of his lateral limitations. He'll need to bulk up and improve his technique in order to play there at the next level, though, and most importantly, he'll need to show that he can stay on the field for a second straight season now that he's been granted a 6th year of eligibility.
4. DE Jesse Joseph (6-3, 262, 4.92) -- Since posting an impressive 8.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2010, Jesse Joseph has struggled to stay on the field, missing the first four games of 2011 to a knee injury, and then sitting out the final nine games of 2012 after tearing his Achilles tendon against Maryland. Before his injury, not only was Joseph considered to be one of the more vocal and respected leaders on the team, but he also exhibited explosiveness and an ability to routinely disrupt the pocket as an edge rusher. Though he may lack elite speed or ideal flexibility to establish leverage at the edge, he's often able to compensate with active hands and use of arm length to disengage. As a run defender, Joseph shows awareness and physicality at the point of attack, both when asked to set the edge and when anchoring against bigger O-linemen. Joseph's draft stock will rely on his ability to rebound from the Achilles tear and then stay healthy through his senior campaign.
5. LG Steve Greene (6-5, 308, 5.42) -- Greene became the Huskies' starting left guard mid-way through his sophomore year, and has remained there ever since. He's quick off the snap, physical on contact, and exhibits strong awareness on the move. Technically, however, he's inconsistent as he tends to drop his shoulder when engaging, and will throw himself at defenders as a run blocker, rather than squaring up and snapping into his target. Although his quickness may be above-average, he doesn't routinely transition it to power and is rarely seen controlling his opponent all the way through the play. Greene looks like an ideal zone-scheme guard considering the flashes of quickness to the second level, but this year, he'll need to show that he's taken significant strides forward as a technician, if he's going to be considered as a draft-able prospect next May.Other Connecticut prospects worth watching: CB Taylor Mack (5-9, 170, 4.59)
Small but quick. Primarily played the slot in '12. Should see more action on the outside this season, with Gratz and Wreh-Wilson gone.DE Tim Willman (6-3, 267, 4.96)
Took over at end when Jesse Joseph went down to injury in week 3. Posted eight TFL and three sacks in '12.OT Kevin Friend (6-5, 304)
Started 23 of UConn's last 24 games, primarily at right tackle.
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