The last two years, C-USA has lost several programs with UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU leaving last season and East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa making the jump elsewhere for the 2014 season. But despite the recent exodus, the conference has gained several worthy institutions and will have several NFL prospects worth watching this season.
Former Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines was drafted 87th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, but his former teammate DT Christian Covington has a good chance of hearing his name called even earlier. The Owls haven't produced a top-40 pick since 1989, but Covington has the NFL skill-set and ability to change that whether he decides to enter the draft next year or after his senior season.
NFL Draft-Eligible prospects from Conference USA to watch in 2014:
DT Christian Covington, Rice, RS Junior (6-2 | 295 | 5.09 | #1)
One of the few players who can say he sacked Johnny Manziel in college, Christian Covington led Rice in tackles for loss (11.5) last season as a sophomore, earning First Team All-CUSA honors. The British Columbia native lined up mostly as a one-technique defensive tackle for the Owls last season and on tape he compared very favorably to Timmy Jernigan, who was a second round pick this past May. Covington is a quick, upfield penetrator who stays light on his feet with the fluid hips, natural flexibility and easy movement skills to attack gaps and disrupt the backfield. However he doesn't always show a consistent plan and has a bad habit of lowering his eye level, causing him to lose sight of the ball. Covington has a solid anchor, but has room to improve his upper body power and grip to better disengage blocks. If he continues to develop as a junior, it wouldn't be a surprise if Covington earns top-40 grades from NFL scouts.
CB D'Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic, Senior (5-11 | 175 | 4.52 | #21)
Voted Florida Atlantic's Most Valuable Player last season by his teammates and coaches, Smith was Mr. Production for the FAU defense in 2013. He ranked No. 1 in the conference and No. 2 nationally in passes defended (20) and No. 1 in the conference and No. 3 nationally in interceptions (7), adding two forced fumbles and 112 interception return yards. Smith has the top-end speed and movement skills to cover in man or zone coverage, adjusting well on the fly with the read/react skills to recognize what the offense wants to do. He has a very thin frame with the lean muscle tone that suggests he doesn't have much growth potential, but that doesn't stop him from giving top effort in run support. It will be tough for him to match his 2013 production this upcoming year, but Smith has already grabbed the attention of NFL scouts and is an underrated senior prospect to keep an eye on this season.
CB Cam Thomas, Western Kentucky, RS Senior (6-0 | 190 | 4.58 | #19)
After serving as a part-time starter his first two seasons with the Hilltoppers, Thomas emerged as one of the more productive defensive backs in the country in 2013, leading the Sun Belt Conference in passes defended (15) and interceptions (5). He is built well for the position with a tall, long frame to play press and get physical in the run game. Thomas has some technique issues that need tweaked and he has a bad habit of freelancing or abandoning his responsibilities at times in hopes of the big play, but he is a tough-minded and confident player who isn't afraid of taking chances. He has room to improve his functional strength to better disengage blocks on the outside to be more of a consistent force vs. the run, but effort isn't a question defending the ground game. With Western Kentucky moving to C-USA, Thomas has more competition at the cornerback position to earn First Team All-Conference honors in 2014, but if he shows continued development, his NFL profile will be on the rise.
CB Bryce Callahan, Rice, RS Senior (5-10 | 180 | 4.53 | #29)
Last season, several opposing quarterbacks chose to throw away from Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines, who was a third round pick to the Chiefs in May. But Callahan played on the other side of Gaines and benefited from this, showing that he has shutdown ability as well. He led the Owls last season with 10 pass break-ups and finished second on the team with three interceptions. Callahan doesn't have the same stout size as Gaines or his track-like speed, but he does exude the same toughness, strength and competitive nature and plays much bigger than he looks. He has a smooth pedal with good quickness out of his breaks to attack in any direction, arriving at the ballcarrier with deceiving power. Callahan doesn't have ideal cornerback measureables, but the relentless fight and toughness in this prospect is easy to see on tape.
Other AAC prospects worth watching:
QB Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion, Senior (6-1 | 205 | 4.64 | #14)
After seeing the field as a true freshman, Heinicke has started 33 straight games at quarterback for the Monarchs entering his senior season. He doesn't have NFL size and his arm strength is probably best categorized as average-at-best, but he's a cerebral passer with a high football I.Q. and the improvisational skills to be productive. With Old Dominion making the transition to the FBS-level for the first time in 2014, the bar will be raised for Heinicke as a senior.
QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall, Senior (6-0 | 188 | 4.78 | #12)
Looking at his resume, Cato's production has been impressive as a four-year starter, coming off a junior season where he finished with 3,916 passing yards and 45 total touchdowns (39 passing, 6 rushing). He has fierce competitive heart and has clearly matured since he arrived at Marshall, but the lack of size, inconsistent mechanics and overconfident arm hurt his NFL value. Cato reminds me of a smaller, not as refined version of Teddy Bridgewater.
RB Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech, Junior (5-10 | 220 | 4.59 | #28)
As a freshman in 2012, Dixon put his name on the college football map with 1,194 rushing yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He missed some playing time last season in 2013, but still finished with 917 rushing yards and a 6.1 yards per carry average. Dixon doesn't have much burst to his game and is more of a one-gear runner, but he runs physical and balanced with the ability in pass protection that will impress NFL scouts.
OG Cyril Lemon, North Texas, Senior (6-3 | 304 | 5.34 | #62)
A reigning All-Conference first teamer, Lemon has started 37 straight games and is the only FBS player to start every game of his college career and be named All-Conference three straight seasons. He shows the strength and base to be a stout interior player and also the versatility to kick outside at tackle in a pinch, filling in at right tackle twice last season. Lemon will likely start at right guard in 2014 and is one of the more underrated senior offensive line prospects entering the season.
FS A.J. Leggett, Marshall, RS Sophomore (5-11 | 190 | 4.52 | #1)
A high school All-American not so long ago, Leggett, who attended four different high schools, was rated as one of the top cornerback prospects at the prep level and was set to enroll at Miami (Fla.), his dream school. But poor academics changed those plans and set him on a path that led him to Marshall where he redshirted in 2012. Leggett started only one game last season, but he led the team in interceptions with four and flashed why he was so highly rated out of high school.