|Don Ryan / Associated Press|
|Fresno State WR Davante Adams could steal headlines from the Mountain West's talented QB duo.|
Reports of the Mountain West's demise were greatly exaggerated. With Boise State and San Diego State sticking around after the messy divorce of the Big East and some key additions from the WAC, the conference looks firmly entrenched as the sixth-best conference in college football -- it has a collection of draft prospects befitting that status. No longer the plucky underdogs relying on trick plays, the Broncos have had four players drafted in the first round under head coach Chris Petersen (compare that to three for Pac-12 power Oregon in the same seven-year span) and continue to excel in recruiting and player development.
Talent is never an issue for the California schools, while Nevada and Hawaii have seen their innovative offensive approaches produce NFL talent. Utah State and San Jose State -- two schools that have trended dramatically upward the past few seasons -- must try to do so without the coaches who were so instrumental in that success. Under its new configuration, the MWC had 10 players selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, including four taken in the second and third rounds. Expect those totals to increase with the conference's newfound strength and stability.
Top senior prospects
Fresno State QB Derek Carr: Younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, Derek has the arm talent to match any quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft. Excelled in spread scheme under new head coach Tim Deruyter, but can struggle to get through reads and takes inopportune sacks as a result. If the mental side of his game ever catches up to his physical gifts, Carr could be a franchise quarterback.
San Jose State QB David Fales: Extremely precise with short and intermediate throws, Fales completed 72.5 percent of his attempts in his first year as a starter. He struggles with pressure (took 16 sacks in Spartans' two losses, compared to 10 in 11 wins) and will make bad plays worse under duress. Concerns about wobbly deep ball might pigeonhole Fales as a quarterback who needs to be in a West Coast system to succeed in NFL.
Utah State C Tyler Larsen: Held his own against defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who was drafted 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers, as the Aggies averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the upset of in-state rival Utah. Larsen has started 38 consecutive games.
Fresno State TE Marcel Jensen: Jensen is still very raw as a receiver with only 22 career receptions, but he has athleticism that jumps off the screen. With some experience as an inside receiver in Bulldogs' spread offense, he could project as a "Joker" or H-back. Jensen has a strong special-teams background, blocking three kicks in 2011.
Nevada OT Joel Bitonio: He moves quite well for his size, which shouldn't surprise as Bitonio (a basketball fan who calls Kobe Bryant his favorite athlete) averaged a double-double as a senior for Long Beach (Calif.) Wilson hoops team. He has started 26 consecutive games for the Wolf Pack.
Wyoming WR Robert Herron: Herron actually caught 12 fewer passes as a junior than he did the year before when splitting time between running back and wide receiver, but nearly doubled his output by averaging an eye-popping 21.2 yards per catch. With four grabs of 50 yards or longer, Herron has speed to burn and is incredibly elusive in the open field.
Gil Brandt's top senior TEsFresno State's Marcel Jensen is among the top senior tight ends in college football.
Boise State DT Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe: Born in Amsterdam, Tjong-A-Tjoe played only one year of high school football before signing with the Broncos. Considering his size (6-foot-3, 303 pounds) and relative inexperience, Tjong-A-Tjoe should be worth a flier in the 2014 draft and could have significant upside.
Boise State OT Charles Leno: Leno has started 26 consecutive games for the Broncos, moving to left tackle last season after playing right tackle the previous year. He stonewalled the fearsome BYU pass-rush duo of Ezekiel Ansah and Kyle Van Noy, but did concede a coverage sack to Ansah. Because the Boise State running game struggled against talented defenses like Michigan State, BYU and Washington, Leno must show his run blocking matches up to his pass protection.
Fresno State WR Davante Adams: Barely recruited out of high school, Adams used his explosive speed and leaping ability to emerge as one of the top young receivers in all of college football. With 102 receptions for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman (ranking in the top 10 nationally in all three categories), he excels in all aspects of the game. This is a name to know.
Boise State DE Demarcus Lawrence: A junior college transfer, Lawrence immediately stepped into the starting lineup and led the Broncos with 9.5 sacks and forced four fumbles. He moves very well and has enough athleticism to project as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Lawrence did not play in the bowl game against Washington and was sent home from Las Vegas because of a violation of team rules, so NFL teams will certainly want answers regarding that incident.
Boise State S Darian Thompson: He started the last six games of 2012 as a redshirt freshman, recording 24 tackles (career-high nine in the bowl game vs. Washington), three pass breakups and an interception. Considering the recent pedigree of Boise State defensive backs, Thompson will be worth watching in years to come.
Fresno State S Derron Smith: Intercepted six passes as a first-year starter playing under assistant Tim McDonald (six-time Pro Bowl selection and member of the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl XXIX-winning team now serving as defensive backs coach for the New York Jets). Smith plays centerfield almost exclusively, but closes well in run support.
Five must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31, Nevada at UCLA: If the Wolf Pack is going to upset a Pac-12 opponent in the season opener for a second straight season, Joel Bitonio will need to neutralize Bruins outside linebacker Anthony Barr, a gifted edge rusher only beginning to tap his potential at the position. Hold him in check, and Bitonio's draft stock will explode.
Aug. 31, Wyoming at Nebraska: After exploding for 173 yards and two touchdowns at Texas last season, Robert Herron can showcase his game-breaking speed against a pair of senior Blackshirt corners in Ciante Evans and Andrew Green.
Sept. 7, San Jose State at Stanford: David Fales was solid against the Cardinal (24 of 35 for 217 yards, one touchdown, one interception) last season, but it didn't translate into an upset. With four of five offensive linemen returning, Fales can showcase his arm and decision-making here against an elite defense.
Sept. 21, Utah State at USC: Tyler Larsen draws an elite Pac-12 defensive tackle in USC sophomore Leonard Williams. Contain him and Larsen will have a strong case to be the top draft-eligible center in 2014.
Nov. 29, Fresno State at San Jose State: When two of the top senior quarterbacks in the country duel the day after Thanksgiving, NFL teams in need of a signal-caller will be watching with keen interest. Fales can dissuade any doubts about his arm strength, which is certainly not an issue for Carr.
Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.