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East Carolina QB Shane Carden among top seniors to watch

Gerry Broome / Associated Press
East Carolina's Shane Carden tied for ninth in the FBS last season with 33 TD passes.

Spring practice has started at universities across the country, and we're using the kickoff of spring drills to get you reacquainted with some of the top college players in the nation.

Specifically, we're taking a look at notable seniors on a league-by-league basis. Today is the final day of the series, and we're focusing on the leagues outside the "Big Five."

There won't be any Khalil Macks or Derek Carrs this fall, but there still is some good talent outside the "Big Five" leagues, especially at tight end, offensive tackle and free safety. And there's a quarterback-wide receiver combo that could be the most productive in the nation.

Previously, we looked at the top seniors to watch from the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12.

A reminder that this is a list of notable seniors who already are on the radar of NFL scouts. And by no means is this an all-inclusive list.

10 seniors to watch outside the 'Big Five' leagues


OT Brett Boyko, UNLV

Particulars: 6-7, 310

Buzz: Boyko, a native of Canada, missed most of the 2012 season with a knee injury, but was a full-time starter in 2011 as a redshirt freshman and again last season. He is athletic for his size and has good feet, not surprising considering he was a high school quarterback. Yes, he was a high school quarterback in Canada -- on a wider and longer field than is used in the U.S. -- as a 6-6, 270-pounder. He is surprisingly good in pass protection, and his run blocking was noticeably better last season. A big senior season could make him one of the top dozen offensive tackles nationally, and given his relative inexperience, his upside is intriguing.

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QB Shane Carden, East Carolina

Particulars: 6-2, 218

Buzz: Carden should graduate with most of the most important school passing records, an impressive feat considering NFL quarterbacks Jeff Blake and David Garrard also starred for the Pirates. NFL Media draft analyst Bucky Brooks has Carden at No. 7 on his list of college quarterbacks to watch in 2014. He's not the most physically imposing quarterback, nor does he have a huge arm. But he is productive and cerebral, and should again break the 4,000-passing-yards plateau this fall in ECU's pass-happy attack. He won't be in the top tier of quarterbacks in the nation, but he should reside in the second tier and intrigue a few NFL teams.

SS Clayton Geathers, UCF

Particulars: 6-2, 207

Buzz: A number of Geathers' cousins and uncles have played in the NFL, and Clayton has the size and production to join them. He will be a four-year starter for the Knights. He has average speed, but makes up for it with good instincts and is a huge hitter. His coverage skills need improvement, but he does have 21 career pass breakups, proving he has a nose for the ball. He is one of the top 10 strong safeties nationally.

WR Justin Hardy, East Carolina

Particulars: 6-0, 186

Buzz: This is Shane Carden's favorite receiver, and Hardy will enter 2014 as one of the nation's top 10 senior receivers. Hardy, a former walk-on, was fifth nationally with 114 receptions in 2013 and has 266 in his career, the most of any returning receiver nationally. Hardy has had at least three catches in each of his 36 career games and has had 10 games with double-digit receptions. He has good speed (in the 4.4s in the 40), but it's his elusiveness more than his speed that makes him dangerous. In addition, Hardy has excellent hands and has shown he can work out of the slot as well as lining up wide. He also is a solid return man.

DE Brock Hekking, Nevada

Particulars: 6-4, 255

Buzz: Hekking sported one of the most unique hairstyles in college football in 2013 -- just Google "Brock Hekking" and gaze in wonder at his big blond mullet -- but scouts have noticed his production more than his hair (well, truthfully, maybe not). He had eight sacks in 2013, one more than he had in 2012, and also has 22.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons. While he could stand to add some weight, Hekking has been good against the run. He is a good athlete who plays with great intensity and should be one of the top dozen senior ends in 2014.

DE Martin Ifedi, Memphis

Particulars: 6-3, 265

Buzz: Ifedi tied for 12th nationally in 2013 with 10.5 sacks; the other three players with 10.5 sacks will be drafted in May: Khalil Mack, Dee Ford and DeMarcus Lawrence. Ifedi is an athletic end, befitting a guy who thought his future was in basketball until he was a sophomore in high school. He runs well, with his fastest 40-yard dash clocked at 4.76 seconds, and has long arms. He remains somewhat raw at the position, as he has played end for just two seasons. Ifedi has been solid against the run, but it's his pass-rush skills that intrigue scouts. He's another of the nation's top dozen senior ends.

TE Ben Koyack, Notre Dame

Particulars: 6-5, 261

Buzz: Irish coach Brian Kelly likes to use his tight ends, and with the early departure of Troy Niklas to the NFL, Koyack moves into a starting (and starring) role. He had only 10 catches in 2013 and has just 14 in his career, but he should at least triple that career total this fall. He was considered one of the nation's best pass-catching tight ends in high school in Pennsylvania, and Irish coaches think he is athletic enough to be split wide. If he has the season expected of him, he will be one of the first three or four tight ends drafted in 2015.

OT Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

Particulars: 6-6, 309

Buzz: He was a first-team All-Big East pick in 2012 as a sophomore and a first-team All-AAC selection in 2013, when he was the best offensive lineman in the league. He gained 20 pounds last offseason, and it paid off as Cincy placed a bigger emphasis on a power running game. Lefeld has good feet and has been solid in pass protection at left tackle. He will go into the season as one of the top six or seven senior tackles in the nation.

TE Wes Saxton, South Alabama

Particulars: 6-4, 240

Buzz: He tied for the team lead with 50 receptions (but zero TDs) and was a first-team All-Sun Belt choice. He runs well, has the ability to get deep and is a willing blocker. He has the potential to be one of the top seven or eight senior tight ends, and has enough of an upside to become the first Jaguars players drafted. He played one season of football at Hueytown (Ala.) High; his quarterback was Jameis Winston, who was one year behind Saxton in school. Saxton also is a cousin of former NFL running back Tony Nathan.

FS Derron Smith, Fresno State

Particulars: 5-11, 200

Buzz: He has started for two seasons and been an All-Mountain West Conference selection twice. He has 13 picks in the past two seasons, including seven in 2013, which ranked second nationally. He toyed with the idea of turning pro, but decided to remain for his senior season. He is effective in run support and had eight tackles for loss in 2013. He is one of the best free safeties in the nation.

Five other seniors to watch: DT Tyeler Davison (6-2, 304), Fresno State; CB Byron Jones (6-1, 191), Connecticut; WR Matt Miller (6-3, 222), Boise State; ILB Terrance Plummer (6-1, 234), UCF; DT Travis Raciti (6-5, 286), San Jose State. And, no, we didn't forget Utah State quarterback QB Chuckie Keeton (6-2, 200); he will miss spring practice as he recovers from a severe knee injury, but he will be one of the nation's top 10 senior quarterbacks this fall.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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