Sun Belt Conference rich with rising prospects in 2020

Non-Power 5 conferences see their NFL influence grow every year. Here are ten rising prospects in the Sun Belt Conference to watch in 2020.

In what has become a yearly tradition, the oft-slighted Sun Belt Conference produced another intriguing batch of NFL prospects. While this skillful bunch eagerly anticipates hearing their names called in the 2020 NFL Draft, a new wave of prospects has emerged from beneath the surface, poised to establish themselves as next-level talent. This piece highlights 10 rising prospects expected to take the Sun Belt Conference by storm in 2020.

Layne Hatcher, QB, Arkansas State

Layne Hatcher undoubtedly benefited from having two of the conference’s top pass catchers last season in Omar Bayless and Kirk Merritt, but the young signal-caller showed enough promise to conceivably take the next step toward Sun Belt stardom in 2020.

Originally an Alabama commit in 2018, Hatcher was given the redshirt designation in his first season with the Crimson Tide. He spent his first season adjusting to the collegiate game, and despite not playing competitive football in nearly two years, Hatcher made the seamless transition to Arkansas State last season. Playing in 10 games, the redshirt freshman threw for 2,946 yards, to go along with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Though his outlook is intriguing, Hatcher will have to overcome the loss of his prolific tandem of pass catchers, improve his pocket presence, and correct his accuracy deficiencies in order to take the Red Wolves offense to the next level. 

Levi Lewis, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette

After taking a backseat in his first two seasons, Levi Lewis seized his opportunity to lead a supercharged Ragin’ Cajuns offense in 2019.

Starting all 14 games, Lewis completed 243 of 378 pass attempts for 3,050 yards, throwing 26 touchdowns against four interceptions. Lewis also added 195 yards and three scores on the ground. In the Lending Tree Bowl, Lewis threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-17 victory over Miami University.

Lewis (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) doesn’t have prototypical size for the quarterback position, but he makes up for it with his intangibles. The Ragin’ Cajuns signal-caller has demonstrated a propensity to improvise and extend plays, while always keeping his eyes down the field. There are obvious areas for improvement, but Lewis took a monumental step in his first season as a starter and should have the Ragin’ Cajuns in contention for a conference title in 2020.

Elijah Mitchell, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette

Lauded for his versatility, Elijah Mitchell brings a unique blend of power and finesse. Considered to be the most well-rounded of the talented three-man rushing attack that essentially drove the Ragin’ Cajuns offense in recent years, Mitchell opted to return to Lafayette for his final season. Mitchell, who becomes just the sixth player in program history to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing barrier last season, will only have to contend with Trey Ragas for carries next season.

Though he figures to earn the lion’s share of the carries in 2020, Mitchell will need to prove that he can handle an increased workload for the first time in his collegiate career. With the power to run between the tackles, the patience to set up his blockers, the athleticism to turn the corner, and exceptional contact balance, Mitchell has enough tantalizing talent to emerge as one of the premier running backs in college football next season.

CJ Marable, RB, Coastal Carolina

Despite finishing fifth in the Sun Belt in rushing yards (1,085) and sixth in rushing touchdowns (11) last season, CJ Marable’s name was somehow omitted from the 2019 Sun Belt Conference football postseason honors when it was announced in December.

Marable, who spent his freshman year at Presbyterian College in 2017, rushed for 731 yards and six touchdowns in his first year playing for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. In 2019, his patience was rewarded, and his breakout season came to fruition.

Though he is listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Marable packs a punch when he surges through the hole. His superior vision is an underrated aspect of his game, and his elusiveness in the open field makes him a threat to break off a long run on any given play. Marable is still developing as a pass-catcher but looked exceptionally fluid in that area throughout his junior season.

If the Coastal Carolina star continues his upward trajectory, all signs point to Marable becoming a household name by this time next season.

Kaylon Geiger, WR, Troy

A diminutive, albeit dependable pass catcher, Kaylon Geiger is talented enough to lead the Sun Belt Conference in receiving yards in 2020.

A transfer from Navarro College — where he reeled in the most catches in junior college (70) and finished second nationally in receiving yards (954) as a sophomore — Geiger wasted little time making noise at the FBS level. The junior wide receiver quickly evolved into quarterback Kaleb Barker’s primary pass-catcher, hauling in 77 receptions for 873 yards and five touchdowns in 2019.

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, there are obvious limits to Geiger’s game. While he doesn’t possess the desired size for the position, the Fort Worth native is electric with the ball in his hands and has game-breaking speed to yield downfield success. Geiger’s short-area quickness also makes him a threat to manufacture yards after the catch.

With Barker having graduated, the one uncertainty that could potentially thwart Geiger’s ascension would be how quickly he can establish a rapport with Troy’s new signal-caller.

Carlton Martial, LB, Troy

Built in more of a hybrid mold at 5-foot-10, 216 pounds, Carlton Martial has flourished from his linebacker spot over his two seasons playing for the Trojans. Named a freshman All-American in 2018 by USA Today, FWAA, and The Athletic, Martial turned in 76 tackles (8.5 for loss), three sacks, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.

Last season, Martial upped the ante, amassing a remarkable 126 tackles (18.5 for loss), four passes defended, four sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors for his efforts.

The tenacious defender has demonstrated an innate instinct to quickly diagnose plays, fluidity in coverage, and impeccable range roaming sideline-to-sideline. I fully anticipate another 100-plus tackle season from Martial, and I’ve already tabbed him as my front runner for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.

Trajan Stephens-McQueen, LB, Georgia State

After toiling as a reserve inside linebacker and special teams maven over his first two seasons, Trajan Stephens-McQueen emerged after a breakout junior campaign. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker amassed 82 tackles (5.5 for loss), a sack, and two interceptions in 2019. Stephens-McQueen thrived as a run-and-hit linebacker in his first season as a starter at Georgia State, notably racking up 15 tackles against Texas State and a career-high 20 tackles against Army, respectively. While he was somewhat overshadowed due to some outstanding linebacking play from Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Lehr, and the aforementioned Carlton Martial, the Georgia State standout put the conference on notice in 2019 and is considered to be one of the fastest rising Sun Belt prospects in 2020.

Tarron Jackson, DE, Coastal Carolina

The Sun Belt’s reigning sack leader from a season ago, Tarron Jackson’s ascent began in his sophomore season, when he compiled 58 tackles and three sacks while battling a leg injury all season. Jackson, 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, announced his arrival to the college football world in 2019, registering 60 tackles, ten sacks, two forced fumbles, and 10 quarterback hits. Jackson has decent bend off the edge and plays with excellent pad level. The Chanticleers’ resident sack master comes equipped with a wide array of pass rush moves in his arsenal and has the required strength to anchor against the run. If he can reach a double-digit sack total for a second consecutive season, the rising senior should experience a significant spike in his stock heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

Corey Straughter, CB, Louisiana-Monroe

Corey Straughter is a player that earned his stripes early in his collegiate career. He started games against Auburn, Florida State, and Arkansas State as a freshman, and he hasn’t looked back. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound cornerback has combined for 16 pass breakups and seven interceptions over the past two seasons, steadily improving each year, so there is reason to believe his final season in Monroe could place him squarely on NFL radars. Known as a rangy ball magnet, Straughter boasts an innate football IQ and often wins matchups due to sound technique. 

Shaun Jolly, CB, Appalachian State

Though Shaun Jolly sports a smaller frame at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, he served as a versatile chess piece on a stingy Appalachian State defense last season. Jolly is a quick-twitch cornerback with excellent ball skills and a competitive streak. Last season, Jolly accounted for 35 tackles, five interceptions, seven pass breakups, and one blocked kick in his first season as a starter. He tied for first nationally with two interception returns for touchdowns. The ascending junior will look to build on his recent success and is poised to become one of the Sun Belt Conference’s rising prospects in 2020.

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