College coaches dish on what NFL teams got draft’s biggest steals from Group of Five and independents

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

College football coaches spent the weekend much like the rest of America. They were home on their couches, second-guessing NFL draft picks.

After hearing from enough of them over the weekend, Yahoo Sports decided to conduct a poll as unscientific as the scouting process itself. We texted more than 120 college coaches and assistant coaches to find out which opposing players they felt were the steals of the NFL draft.

Below is the Group of Five version of the All-Larceny team – the small-school steals. We polled coaches from every league and tallied votes from both the repetition of appearances and conviction of argument.

Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden, a receiver the Washington Redskins selected in the fourth round, won the top spot from the Group of Five and independents. Gandy-Golden’s praise came from every corner of the country, including one coach recalling a game from three years ago. (It was striking that he stood out that much, as most teams didn’t see him multiple times like they would have in league play.)

Baylor defensive tackle James Lynch, chosen by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round, won the award for the most effusive praise among Power Five coaches.

Here’s the breakdown of votes and coach opinions from the Group of Five and independents.

Memphis' Antonio Gibson pumps up the crowd in December against Cincinnati at the American Athletic Conference championship game. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Memphis' Antonio Gibson pumps up the crowd in December against Cincinnati at the American Athletic Conference championship game. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

AAC (17 picks)

1) Antonio Gibson, Memphis WR (Washington Redskins, third round, 66th pick)

“Could do it all for them as a running back, receiver and a returner. He’s explosive and legit fast, strong lower body. He was hard to bring down. He’s one of the top returners we have seen.”

2) James Proche, SMU WR (Baltimore Ravens, sixth round, 201st pick)

“He’s a steal. He’s dynamic and his quickness and explosion. He can get in and out of breaks quickly and will make competitive catches.” Added another assistant: “Baltimore is now loaded at receiver.”

3) Reggie Robinson II, Tulsa CB (Dallas Cowboys, fourth round, 123rd pick)

“Aside from his talent level, it was his mindset. I thought he had a lot of fight in him and competed at a high level. He is an in-your-face type of player that does not back down. Very aggressive and very confident.”

Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald was a draft steal from the Group of Five, according to one coach. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald was a draft steal from the Group of Five, according to one coach. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)

Mountain West (10 picks)

1) Logan Wilson, Wyoming LB (Cincinnati Bengals, third round, 65th pick)

“He has Day 1 starter potential and should have a long career. I think he is as good as most of the bigger ILBs [240-250 pound range] that have been taken in the first round over the past few years.” Added another coach: “You walk off the field on Saturday and say, ‘I wish that kid was on my team.’”

2) Kyahva Tezino, San Diego State LB (New England Patriots, undrafted)

“He’s physical and violent. Always around the ball.” Added another: “Really undersized, but a great, great player.”

3) Cole McDonald Hawaii QB (Tennessee Titans, seventh round, 224th pick)

“He has a big-time arm and can make all the throws. In the run-and-shoot offense, it’s very different from a pro-style team. But the kid is a competitor.”

Conference USA (10 picks)

1) Alex Highsmith, Charlotte OLB (Pittsburgh Steelers, third round, 102nd pick)

(Notable that he finished a close second to Gandy-Golden for the most votes). “He was probably the best player we faced this year.” Added another coach: “He’s explosive, gives relentless effort and can bend the corner.”

2) Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech DB (Las Vegas Raiders, fourth round, 139th pick)

“He’s the best player we played. He’ll be a steal. He’s a dog and plays with the ultimate chip. You can tell he studied his opponents. He knew when we were in this personnel grouping or alignment what we liked. He picked us off multiple times and he anticipated all of them. No way he makes those plays if he’s not spending time studying our tendencies.”

3) Harrison Bryant, FAU TE (Cleveland Browns, fourth round, 115th pick)

“Big, physical and athletic. He played all over the field. Sometimes as a tight end or any of the receiver positions. We based our whole gameplan around him.”

Sun Belt (7 picks)

1) Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern K (Buffalo Bills, sixth round, 188th pick)

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but Tyler Bass the kicker from Georgia Southern has a howitzer for a leg. I see him playing for a while.” Added another coach: “You could hear it when he contacts the ball.”

2) Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State LB (Cincinnati Bengals, fourth round, 107th pick)

“He’s big, can run, can play in space and also come off the edge and rush the passer.”

Notre Dame (6 picks)

1) Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame DE (Cincinnati Bengals, fifth round, 147th pick)

“I think he’s an every-down starter, potentially. He can play against the run and adds value in the pass rush.”

MAC (2 picks)

More than a breakdown, this deserves an explanation. What in the name of Ben Roethlisberger happened to the MAC? The MAC had nine players picked last year and 11 in 2017. Heck, they had the No. 1 overall pick back in 2013 (Eric Fisher of Central Michigan).

But the MAC had only two players invited to the NFL scouting combine. One was Ball State’s Danny Pinter, a guard who went in the fifth round to Indianapolis. (The other drafted player was Sam Sloman, a kicker from Miami (Ohio).

Why so few MAC players going late? Two MAC coaches told Yahoo that the lack of pro days hurt the guys who could have forced themselves into the conversation with good workouts. “[The lack of] pro days killed out league,” one MAC head coach explained. “If a guy didn’t get into the combine, then he had no shot. There’s less of a chance to catch someone’s eye with elite measurables, and that’s all the late rounds are.”

If you want a MAC sleeper, take University of Buffalo’s Ledarius Mack. He’s Khalil’s brother, well regarded as a pass rusher and popped on special teams. He ended up in Chicago with his big brother.

Other Independents

Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty WR (Washington Redskins, fourth round, 142nd pick)

“We still haven’t covered him. He has size, is physical and got off the line well. He ran a good variety of routes. He played really strong. I guess him falling that far is what you get from such a deep wide receiver group.” Added another coach who was impressed off crossover film: “He was scary on tape.”

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