Small school players are fun to talk about before the draft starts, but once it’s all said and done, few are selected very high, with a few notable exceptions.
Last year, for example, Alabama State offensive tackle Tytus Howard was the only “small school” player – meaning a non -Division I FBS school — who was drafted in the first round. Overall, only six small school players were drafted in the first three rounds.
There are a number of candidates for the top non-Power 5 conference player in the 2020 draft, including Louisiana-Lafayette OT Robert Hunt, Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger, Liberty WR Antonio Gandy-Golden and Appalachian State LB Akeem Davis-Gaithers.
All 32 NFL teams have been through Hickory, N.C., to scout Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger. So how did this physical freak get ignored by every major school in the country?#BACK2CAMPUS: https://t.co/SXJa1ymPrs pic.twitter.com/QQZaSPJEPm
— NFL Draft (@NFLDraft) November 5, 2019
Of the four, Hunt, Dugger and Gandy-Golden have the numbers and the measurables teams are looking for at their respective positions.
However, at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Davis-Gaithers appears a bit on the light side. By comparison, former Boise State and current Dallas linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is 6-foot-4, 255-pounds.
So, is Davis-Gaithers big enough to play at the next level?
Absolutely, says one NFL draft evaluator. Due in large part to the increase of the spread offense, more teams are placing a high value on rangy, speedy linebackers who can cover a lot of ground. That includes former Georgia linebacker Devin White, also an undersized linebacker at 6-foot, 237 pounds. White wound up going No. 5 overall last draft to Tampa and is currently second on the team in tackles with 86.
So, does Davis-Gaithers fit that mold? Andrew DiCecco of Pro Football Network says Davis-Gaithers is a “dynamic hybrid defender” who “could be the NFL’s solution to defending the recent surplus of athletic tight ends and running backs in the passing game.”
“Granted, Davis-Gaither will likely never become that early-down, downhill thumper against the run,” DiCecco writes. “His rare athleticism and elite coverage prowess, however, should enable him to see the field in sub packages to start his career. As more and more teams begin to implement the spread offense and 12 personnel to take advantage of mismatches, rangy defenders with solid ball production — like Davis-Gaither — will be in high demand.”
Of course, he’ll have to prove at the next level that he’s not a liability against the run. He finished the season with 104 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 1 INT and 8 pass breakups. He also had the game-saving block against North Carolina.
However, DiCecco touts Davis-Gaither’s instincts, ability to quickly diagnose plays and his sideline to sideline range along with his “unparalleled” athleticism and a lengthy wingspan.
“It’s only a matter of time before the Sun Belt phenom becomes a household name,” DiCecco writes.
There’s a big discrepancy with Davis-Gaither in the Fanspeak big boards. He’s the No. 91 overall player in the Fanspeak-Steve big board and the No. 174 overall player in the Fanspeak-Jake big board. The way the draft winds are currently blowing, the former may be closer to the mark than the latter.