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Bears 2021 college prospect preview: Non-Power 5

In the sixth and final part of our annual college football prospect preview series, we take a look at some of the top players outside of the Power 5.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Liberty vs Coastal Carolina Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The college football season is officially underway, and with it comes the return of our annual college prospect preview.

Much will change between now and the end of the regular season, but there are a handful of college players who have shown that they can be legitimate NFL talents in the near future.

In the sixth and final part of this year’s series, Jacob Infante and Erik Christopher Duerrwaechter will break down some of the top NFL Draft prospects that the Bears should keep an eye on outside of the Power 5.

Cream of the crop

Jacob: Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame (6-foot-4, 220 pounds)

Part of me wishes I could talk about Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, as he might be my favorite overall prospect to watch in the 2022 class. However, of players who don’t play for a Power 5 school, he’s the second-highest player on my board, just a few spots behind Kyle Hamilton.

Simply put, Hamilton might end up being the best safety I’ve watched at the collegiate level. His size is absurd for a safety, as he possesses elite lengthy and a well-built frame that helps him out significantly at the catch point and as a tackler. He brings a physical brand of football to the table that sees him play with a high motor in run support and not be afraid of lowering the boom as a downhill tackler. Because of his size, physicality and motor, he offers significant value as a defender in the box and as a blitzing option up the middle or off the edge. He also takes precise angles in pursuit and is measured in his movements.

Hamilton is far from just a hard-hitting box safety, though: he’s a legit ball-hawk with 5 interceptions and 13 pass deflections in his first two collegiate seasons. In fact, he kicked off the 2021 season by picking off two passes against Florida State. He is an intelligent coverage defender who does a very good job of reading the eyes of the quarterback and picking up on route concepts in zone coverage. He times his jumps on routes well, breaking just at the right time and using his above-average closing speed to make a play on the ball. Hamilton arguably fits better in two-high shells, but he is certainly capable of playing in a single-high centerfielder role.

Being as tall as he is, it can be a little tougher for Hamilton to sink his hips and change direction. He’s certainly not stiff, but he can still improve how crisp he is exploding out of his breaks. That said, though, he’s a gifted prospect with a high football IQ and the physical tools to warrant legitimate top-5 consideration.

ECD: Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (6-foot-1, 215 pounds)

Admittedly, as I type this out, I’m still surprised my comrade didn’t pick this under-the-radar prospect at QB as the best Non-Power 5 player to be had in this upcoming draft class. He’s in my top five overall QB prospects — currently #3 to be exact — and has a legitimate chance of being picked in the first round. That’s if the selecting team is OK with the need to develop him slowly over time.

Malik is easily the most athletic and electrifying player at the QB position amongst draft eligible players in the 2022 class. He has a howitzer for an arm, one that’s strong enough to fit the ball in any tight spaces to be expected at the NFL level. The ball zips out of his hand with high velocity and rarely floats in the air. There have been some absurd plays featuring Malik dropping the ball into the bucket from 50+ yards out. He’s also the most dangerous ball carrier in this class, as he can turn on a dime, and geek out an entire defense. You can build a whole offense around Malik Willis.

The amount of swagger and energy he brings to the QB position is something every scout should take note of. Physically, he’s the most exciting prospect to consider for any team searching for a long-term answer under center. He’ll fit right in with the trend of Non-Power 5 QBs being drafted super early in recent years.

It’s also a serious gamble that should not be taken by any team looking to throw a young QB into the fire right away. Once he’s selected, he needs to be seasoned properly. For all his incredible talent on film, his decision-making can be flat-out bad, whether it’s trying to force an ill-advised throw into good coverage or holding onto the ball and taking unnecessary sacks. He’s a gamer that does need to learn what not to do at the QB position.

Out of all the QBs I have reviewed so far, Malik Willis has the highest amount of potential. He also has the highest amount of risk - the QB class of 2022 is risky to begin with. With the right amount of patience, coaching, and veteran guidance, Malik can turn into a star in the NFL. It’ll be a case of whether or not he’s in the right place at the right time.

Top Bears target

Jacob: Braxton Jones, OT, Southern Utah (6-foot-5, 303 pounds)

If you haven’t heard of Braxton Jones yet, make sure to remember his name: he could be rapidly rising up boards sooner rather than later.

A three-year collegiate starter by the time 2021 comes to an end, Jones was an All-Big Sky first-team selection in the delayed spring 2021 season. He kicked the new year off with tremendous performances against two FBS teams in San Jose State and Arizona State, earning him significant hype in draft circles as a small-school prospect dominating top competition. He has long arms and impressive raw power in his upper body that allows him to easily lock up defenders at the point of attack. His ability to keep his legs churning through contact and to keep fighting when engaged with the opposition should intrigue offensive line coaches, as it shows his high motor and willingness to finish a play.

Jones isn’t just a big bully, though: he’s also an above-average for an offensive tackle. He accelerates well in his kick slide and offers nice acceleration climbing to the second level. He is a coordinated athlete who can shuffle well in pass protection and execute down blocks if called upon to do so. As a jump-set pass protector, he covers a significant amount of ground out of his stance and is able to quickly get to the edge to lay his powerful hands onto defenders.

There are some areas Jones can improve upon, as one can usually expect for a smaller-school tackle. His pad level can use some improvement, as he doesn’t always generate enough bend in his knees and waist. He has shown some promise in regards to his instincts in pass protection, but he can be a bit hit or miss in picking up blitzes or twists. He would benefit greatly from a Senior Bowl invitation, and if he were to receive one and play well in Mobile, we could be looking at him as a potential Day 2 pick whom the Bears would be wise to target.

ECD: Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama (6-foot-3, 190 pounds)

It certainly helps my case knowing this excellent receiver plays at a university which is just a stone’s throw away from my current home. Every year there is a receiver from a relatively unknown school (South Alabama is great btw) that makes it big in the pros. Enter Jalen Tolbert, who I’ll dare say is a more polished prospect than most I’ve seen from Power-5 programs.

For a receiver listed at his size, Tolbert is exceptionally explosive and twitchy. So much so that, even though he isn’t a slouch speed-wise, his route running alone allows him to bust single-man coverages all day long. One unique aspect to his game is he never seems to lose any speed when getting into position for a reception. He plays through the ball and releases the throttle to rack up a ton of yardage after the catch. This is accented when he runs any double-moves, using head fakes and flawless footwork to routinely bait DBs. He’s shown himself capable of running a full route tree.

His biggest strengths are his awareness in space and a canny ability to make up for bad throws from his QBs. His 6-foot-3 frame sports a compact build, and he’ll box out smaller DBs in contested catches. Tolbert has a basketball-level vertical element as he floats in the air once he takes off to contest at the maximum point for the ball. He has perfected the art of making tip-toe catches towards the sidelines.

It’s incredibly hard to point out notable flaws in his game. He will be a 23 / 24 year old rookie, which could sway some people away, if we’re being picky. His route running could be improved once he learns to sink his hips a little more in making his cuts. Once in a while he has dropped the ball in high intensity situations, with those drops coming far in between. Run blocking is… meh, not overly effective but he’s a willing player who isn’t afraid of getting into a scrap. Again, there really aren’t too many concerns with him as a whole.

This is a classic case of a great player in a small school that will likely result in him being passed over for more recognizable names. I’m curious to see just how well he will test at scouting combines once draft season is upon us. Watch for Jalen Tolbert’s name to circulate more as time goes by.

Hoping they slide

Jacob: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati (6-foot-2, 188 pounds)

Cincinnati has a talented group of potential 2022 draft prospects, and perhaps none has as high of a ceiling as cornerback Ahmad Gardner.

With 6 interceptions and 12 pass deflections in his first two collegiate seasons, Gardner has certainly made an impact in the AAC early in his career. That production is reflective of his ball skills, as he does a good job of high-pointing the deep ball and adjusting himself in a necessary manner to square up to the ball. He offers good route-recognition abilities and can consistently pick up on route concepts and read the progressions of quarterbacks to time his jumps on a route. Patient in his backpedal and measured in his movements, he does a good job of preventing receivers from attacking leverage spots by squaring his pads in man coverage.

Gardner has a lengthy frame, and his long arms give him an extensive catch radius that aids him tremendously when attacking the ball. For someone who’s on the taller side for a cornerback, he also offers very good fluidity in coverage. He has loose hips and changes direction seamlessly to mirror the movements of opposing receivers. He does a good job of accelerating upfield coming out of his breaks, and his long speed is good enough to make him a valuable vertical defender. His combination of length and athletic ability alone should be intriguing to NFL teams.

Though he offers very good length for a cornerback, Gardner doesn’t bring the trademark physicality that is typically associated with taller corners. He has a lankier frame and doesn’t do an incredible job of using his hands to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage or through their stems. He can also struggle a bit with his tackling play strength. If said concerns are enough to get him to drop into Round 2, though, Gardner would be a great complement to Jaylon Johnson as a field-side cornerback in the Bears’ secondary.

ECD: Diego Fagot, LB, Navy (6-foot-3, 240 pounds)

For any of the prospects we have seen from the service academies — Navy, Army, Air Force — Diego Fagot may have the best potential in recent years. Since starting as a true freshman in 2018, he’s racked up several honors and recognitions nation-wide for being one of the top linebackers in the country. Plus, he’s a true leader on a team filled with future leaders for this nation’s defense.

When you’re looking for ILBs with a complete game, Fagot is towards the top of that list. He attacks the run with great instincts, power, and a high IQ. He’s able to diagnose plays quickly and fill in to stuff any inside game. He’s also sound in pass coverage and can play deep zones as a true “Mike” LB. His tackling is some of the best when assessing defensive players in general.

The question everyone will have is whether the Navy would grant him a deferment in his service upon being drafted by an NFL team. I don’t believe that will be an issue - and it’s not one I feel anyone should have to begin with. He will fulfill his service obligation in one way, or another, there are several arrangements he can make if his NFL dreams come true. And I believe he has a real chance of being selected rather early.

Later round hopefuls

Jacob: Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa (6-foot-7, 321 pounds)

One year after Northern Iowa had a big-bodied offensive tackle enter the draft in third-round pick Spencer Brown, they should have another player going to the pros who fits that criterion in Trevor Penning.

The obvious strength with Penning is his size; with tremendous length and a powerful frame, he is able to physically overwhelm the competition more often than not. His long arms make it tougher for opposing edge rushers to disengage from him upon contact, and that natural advantage is made even more apparent with how he uses his hands. He does a good job of consistently locating his jabs with accuracy inside the frames of defenders, and he is able to hand-fight at the point of attack to maintain leverage in that regard. With above-average grip strength, he does a good job of shutting out players in the run game.

Penning plays with a nasty edge that is apparent in his demeanor near the line of scrimmage. He continuously fights to not only lock out defenders, but to also drive them into the dirt. For someone who is as big as he is, he is a solid athlete in terms of his footwork in pass protection. He shows great temperance in his vertical pass sets, and his ability to redirect inside as a pass protector is commendable for any offensive tackle, let alone one as big as he is. The Panthers standout also offers good acceleration climbing to the second level.

Such a tall frame can also serve as a detriment to Penning, as he’s stiff in his lower half and doesn’t generate much bend in his knees. He can struggle against rip moves and other speed rushes to the outside, given his general lack of flexibility. That issue can also hinder his body control climbing to the second level and his ability to maximize his raw power in his anchor. All told, though, Penning is a gifted offensive lineman with a high ceiling whom the Bears should certainly do their homework on.

ECD: Matt Waletzko, OT, North Dakota (6-foot-7, 300 pounds)

North Dakota State isn’t the only team in the Peace Garden State that’s producing NFL caliber players. Matt Waletzko of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks is a lengthy and athletic prospect that will earn national attention from teams searching for more answers at OT. It’s also a situation where we’ll have to gauge his talent level against opponents he’ll face in the pros.

He’s incredibly nimble and well balanced for a LT that comes with a 6-foot-7 frame. Hand placement, the impact of his punches, and pad level all stand out in the small sample of footage available on Waletkzo. He’s a tall player who plays with good pad level, and runs his feet constantly to drive opponents to the ground when paving lanes for the run game. Granted, it’s hard enough to find too much footage of anyone from North Dakota to begin with.

It will be a challenge for anyone without routine access to professional ties when grading how good this jumbo-sized OT tackle prospect will be. That being said, he’s a small school prospect that will shine once given an opportunity against prospects at the next level. I personally hope to see his name listed on the upcoming Senior Bowl invites list in Mobile when looking for more chances to watch him live.

Featured game

Jacob: Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati (Oct. 2)

The odds of a team without ties to a Power 5 conference making it to the college football playoff are rare, but if any team does it this year, it will likely be one of these two teams.

Notre Dame’s offense is highlighted by running back Kyren Williams, a well-rounded back with solid starting upside at the next level. Graduate transfer Jack Coan doesn’t have the highest ceiling at quarterback, but he’s an accurate thrower who generally make good reads in the pocket. Their offensive line seems to lack in terms of early-round firepower this year, but center Jarrett Patterson and transfer guard Cain Madden should garner looks from teams. The aforementioned Kyle Hamilton is the star of the show on defense and projects as a top-10, if not a top-5 pick come 2022. Defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is an undersized but quick and high-motored interior defender who projects as a Day 3 talent on their defense.

Cincinnati put together an impressive 2020 campaign, and they return most of their key performers from last year in preparation to make a playoff push. The Bearcats are headlined offensively by quarterback Desmond Ridder, a gifted thrower with raw physical upside that has garnered him some first-round discussion for the 2022 draft. His top weapon solely in terms of NFL aspirations for next year’s draft is tight end Josh Whyle, a lengthy and athletic move tight end with red-zone value. Cincinnati features two intriguing cornerbacks in the aforementioned Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, with the former looking the part of an early-round pick. Keep an eye on edge rusher Myjai Sanders, who brings impressive flexibility to the table.

ECD: Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati (Oct. 2)

It’s pretty funny when looking for games to watch from Non-Power 5 schools - there aren’t too many available on a national scale to begin with. Notre Dame barely squeaked by FSU in opening weekend, yet they also feature their typical assortment of players destined to be NFL draft picks. Cincy has their own group of studs to consider as well.

When one discusses Notre Dame, the conversation always begins with their history of developing tight ends. Michael Meyer will be a name to watch for these next two seasons. However, when looking at 2022 prospects, Kyle Hamilton is the best safety we will see this year. Some have declared him to be the best prospect at safety since Sean Taylor - that’s a bit too bold and presumptuous for me, but there’s no question he’s a day one starter. Jarrett Patterson checks in as the best Center to be had. Isaiah Foskey and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa stand out up front for the Fighting Irish defense.

The Cincinnati Bearcats just might be the fastest growing NFL prospect factory. Ahmad Garder is one of the best true corners in college football, but it’s QB Desmond Ridder and DE Myjai Sanders who will lead any discussion for Bearcat prospects looking to turn pro. Alec Pierce and Josh Whyle add into their potent offense.