Arguably the biggest story of the Bears’ 2023 preseason was the emergence of undrafted rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent.
From a 0-star high school recruit to the NCAA’s all-time passing yards leader, a Division II undrafted rookie to the presumptive QB1 of one of the most storied franchises in football, Bagent’s story has been incredible to watch in recent months. Through his stellar play in the preseason and ability to lock on a spot on the Bears’ 53-man roster, he showed that talent is talent, no matter what school you play at.
With Bagent’s recent success and elevating of Shepherd as a Division II football program, it got me thinking: who are the next prospects in this wave of small-school talent?
Luckily for me, the 2024 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watchlist recently came out. In said list are hundreds of the top college football players in the nation who are or will be eligible for collegiate graduation. Of those 720 prospects, 7 of them come from either the Division II or Division III ranks.
It’s just small enough that I could watch all of these prospects within the span of a week, but it’s large enough to put together a substantial breakdown, so I thought it would be a great exercise to watch all of the D2 and D3 prospects on the watchlist and share my evaluations. Will any of these guys be the next Tyson Bagent? Hyperbole aside, let’s look into what these 7 players bring to the table.
Wayne Ruby Jr., WR, Mount Union
Ruby dominated at the D3 level in 2022, catching 105 passes for 1,785 yards and 30 touchdowns. When you’re looking to make an impact for NFL scouts at a small-school level, that’s some pretty good production to have!
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is a sure-handed pass-catcher with good ball skills and impressive coordination. He attacks the ball well in the air and offers good footwork off the line of scrimmage, utilizing speed releases to break free from press coverage. I like him best as a field-side ‘Z’ receiver, where his coordination works best in more space. His physical ceiling in terms of deep speed and play strength are good but not great, but in terms of prospects outside of Division I, Ruby has the best shot to hear his name called in the 2024 draft in my eyes.
Trey Vaval, CB, Minnesota State
An AFCA All-American kick returner as a freshman, Vaval’s game-breaking athleticism translates to what you see from him on defense.
His creativity and agility with the ball in his hands gives him big-play ability after interceptions as well as a high return ceiling, and that athleticism is also shown in coverage. He thrives as a field-side defender with his loose hips and deep speed coming out of his breaks. Vaval is skinny at 6-foot and 170 pounds, which limits his strength in press through a receiver’s stems and hurts him as a run defender. I have him projected as an undrafted free agent, but he’s one of the top defenders outside of Division I and belongs firmly on NFL radars.
Grant Smith, OG, South Dakota Mines
If you’re looking for size and power in a guard prospect, you’ll find plenty of it when you turn on Smith’s tape.
Granted, you have to go back a bit to find some, seeing as though he missed the 2022 season due to injury. That said, he’s a nasty blocker with a 6-foot-5, 325-pound frame that packs a punch at the initial point of contact and allows him to drive defenders into the dirt with ease. He has a strong grip and a powerful anchor that makes it easy for him to seal off defenders in the run game. Athleticism and flexibility concerns could push him out of draftable range, but his dominance projecting in a gap-based setting should be enough to earn him a shot with an NFL team.
Andre Jefferson, DL, Lenoir-Rhyne
Jefferson, a Calumet Park native, is an extremely interesting case as a 6-foot-2, 295-pound defender who can rush off the edge and is coming off of a 13-sack season.
I like Jefferson best as a penetrating 1-technique with good flexibility as a pass-rusher, but he can line up as a 3-technique defensive tackle or a stand-up edge rusher in some cases. He does a good job of keeping his weight underneath him and his pads low, and his stout frame makes it easier for him to plug up holes against the run. His burst for a defensive tackle and ability to squeeze through gaps is impressive, as well. Jefferson will need to work on his hand usage, seeing as though he’s limited from a length perspective and will need to compensate for that. However, his production and tape could be enough to get him an NFL contract.
Deshawn McCarthy, EDGE, East Stroudsburg
At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds with incredibly long arms, McCarthy looks like a Greek god when you turn on his tape.
He’s raw as the day is long, but the physical tools with him are absurd. He’s quick off the ball and closes in on ball-carriers with a tremendous motor, and his long arms make it easy for him to push the pocket and dominate the leverage battle at the line of scrimmage when he lands his strikes properly. McCarthy has strength for days, and he’s had 19 sacks and 30.5 tackles for a loss over his last two seasons. He’ll require developing as a technician — pad level and pass-rushing diversity are issues of his — but he’s freakish and productive enough that NFL teams would be wise to take notice.
Willie Drew, CB, Virginia State
Drew’s production of 5 interceptions and 7 pass deflections and 4.44 40-yard dash at his Junior Pro Day are more than enough to catch my attention.
As his interceptions indicate, Drew has very good ball skills and thrives attacking the ball in the air with his body control and ball-tracking ability. The 6-foot, 185-pounder plays with a high motor in both coverage and run support, often making big plays as a field-side corner for Virginia State. I think he’s a bit skinny and can stand to improve his hip fluidity, but his production and ability to attack the ball should earn him a camp invite when it’s all said and done.
Justin Blazek, EDGE, Wisconsin-Platteville
Blazek, a Naperville native, is coming off of a 9-sack season which saw him win the WIAC Defensive Player of the Year award.
One of the top D3 defenders in the nation in 2022, Blazek has great size at 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds with an elite 6-foot-10 wingspan. He showcases good hand activity at the point of attack, including a killer swim move when he attacks the outside corner. He plays with a high motor as both a pass-rusher and a run defender, and he does a good job of deconstructing blocks to make plays against the run. According to Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, Blazek also has a top speed of 20.5 miles per hour and a 78th-percentile 4.30 shuttle time. His reaction time off the ball to maximize his athleticism could stand to improve, and his level of power might not translate all the way to the NFL, but I see him getting a shot with an NFL team, whether it be as an undrafted free agent or as a minicamp invitee.