By Eric Galko, Optimum Scouting
UConn isn’t nationally regarded as a program that consistently produces high draft picks. In fact, before 2005, they hadn’t had a player drafted in the first 100 picks since 1984. However, over the past five drafts, the Huskies have produced nine Top 100 players, including rookie contributors Dwayne Gratz, Sio Moore, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
After a frustrating 3-9 season, star linebacker Yawin Smallwood declared for the 2014 NFL Draft. He joins Shamar Stephen as prospects with the talent level to be highly viewed by NFL teams. And with no bowl games to finish their evaluators, both Smallwood and Stephen have to utilize the draft process to impress teams until the 2014 NFL Draft in May.
The most talented defensive player on the roster this past season (and arguably in 2012 as well) has been linebacker Yawin Smallwood. An active, athletic, and ideally-built linebacker, Smallwood has both produced statistically for his team and showcased his NFL upside in both run and passing situations.
Listed at 6’3, 244 pounds, Smallwood is remarkably fluid for a player at his size, evading blocks with quick body positioning changes and is controlled in pursuit, both as a blitzer and when attacking the ball carrier. While he tends to be a bit over-aggressive in his attacking lanes and when transitioning from pass to run, he’s been able to make up for it with outstanding burst to the ball and the lateral recovery to adjust off of a poor initial line. Combined with his explosiveness as a blitzer, he uses his hands and upper half flexibility to evade full contact from blockers and gain ground as a rusher.
Smallwood’s biggest concern are his tendency to dip his head when attacking the ball carrier in space and his tendency to be over-aggressive to the ball, both issues that can be limited and coached up at the next level, but may lead to a learning curve upon first entering the NFL.
And as for Shamar Stephen, the 6’5, 323 pound defensive tackle has shown the ability to work as 1-tech nose tackle and 3-technique rusher. With ample size to play as a gap eater in both the 3-4 and 4-3, Stephen utilizes his thick lower half and control laterally while engaged to win at the block point and win as both a one or two-gap player. A smooth mover on the interior, Stephen does a great job of playing within himself, limiting any wasted motion and efficient in running plays to hold his gap.
He does, however, play with inconsistent pad level, which leads to more one-on-one rush losses than a rusher of his talent should let up. His motor seems to bit hit or miss as well, not utilizing his ideal strength/size combination throughout a game. If Stephen could be win more initially off the snap, works more efficiently in his rush moves, and utilize his physicality on a more consistent basis, Stephen could take advantage of a lackluster defensive tackle class.
Thanks to a mediocre inside linebacker and defensive tackle class, both Smallwood and Stephen have a chance take advantage of their situation and rise through the draft process. For Smallwood, he’ll have to wait until the NFL Combine in February for NFL teams to see him again, while Stephen will get the chance to work in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl. Despite a down year for the UConn football team, both Smallwood and Stephen could use the post-season draft process to push their draft stock up.
Editor's note: Thanks to Eric for the article. Please be sure to check out Optimum Scouting for all things NFL Draft related over the coming months. You can also follow them on Twitter @OptimumScouting.
photo credit: ian bethune – sox & dawgs