Draft Class Heroes: Underclassmen Sleepers

You know the drill, my people! Tuesday means it's time for another edition of Draft Class Heroes!

Today I focused on a few rare underclassmen sleepers, one of whom is among my favorite prospects in the class. I also tabbed my three biggest winners among draft-eligible prospects in Monday night's National Championship Game.

Draft Class Superhero of the Week: James Williams, RB, Washington State

Despite my bold and at times abrasive nature, I will have you all know that I am still first and foremost a human being, and as such stories of remarkable triumph and success in the face of adversity hit home with me. As a person, Washington State running back James Williams has already achieved such an honor, and financially he is about to achieve it as well.

Williams' backstory is sobering to say the least, as he grew up in Toledo, Ohio in the midst of intense gang violence, often having to dress in red to avoid getting shot. Somehow, Williams stayed out of trouble and locked in on football, moving to Burbank, California when he was 14. He and his family were homeless on and off over the next several years, living out of their car for extended periods of time on more than one occasion.

Just when it seemed like things were turning the corner for Williams and his family, the running back tore his ACL and MCL during his senior year of high school after already committing to Washington State. Amazingly the school stuck by him, kept his scholarship offer on the table and has reaped the benefits ever since.

Coaches rave about his work ethic, effort and determination to be great, all traits that led Williams to declare for the NFL Draft as a redshirt junior despite never rushing for more than 585 yards in a season. Sound like a dumb decision to you? It wasn't.

In Washington State's offense under Mike Leach, Williams is never going to get more than 100-130 carries, and he'd already been the feature back in Pullman for three years in a row. During that time he compiled an FBS-leading (for a running back) 202 catches for over 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging over seven yards per catch. For a college running back, those are eye-popping numbers.

With two 70-catch seasons under his belt and a 16-touchdown 2018 season, Williams knew returning to school was a risk he couldn't afford to take, not with a wedding coming up and a baby on the way. His skill set is a rare one at the college level, with few running backs showing his combination of receiving ability and creativity/balance as a runner.

There are so many traits to get excited about here, but the effort stands out above all. Williams constantly gets more than what is there as a runner and a receiver, all while showing some of the best ball skills I've ever scouted in a running back. I haven't seen him drop a pass in any game I've studied, and his ability to adjust outside his frame or high-point the ball as needed are second to none.

He's not a bell-cow runner, but he plays with low pads, finishes through contact and can make defenders miss in tight quarters. This spin move to get out of a side side door against Washington made two Huskies defenders tackle each other!

So Williams is elusive, balanced through contact, high-effort and has unbelievable ball skills for a running back. What's not to like? Well, he's never been a bell-cow back, has only one 100-yard rushing game in his career, generally faced little resistance at the line of scrimmage which has left his vision a little underdeveloped and he has issues in pass protection from time-to-time on tape.

In essence, Williams is a rotational back with excellent receiving skills in a league that thrives on that very profile. He won't be coveted early, but I would expect his stock to rise with a strong Combine, as he is virtually un-talked about in NFL Draft circles currently. Williams is the exact type of player I would target in the mid-rounds at running back, as his skill set should translate easily to the NFL.

Sidekicks

Here are three other underclassmen declarations that are flying under the radar:

1. Darwin Thompson, RB, Utah State

In his first year at the FBS level, Thompson averaged over 15 yards per catch on 23 catches, ran for over 1,000 yards and averaged nearly seven yards a carry and scored 16 total touchdowns. He's drawn comparisons to Tarik Cohen already, with joystick like agility and exceptional burst. Thompson should kill the Combine, but at 5-foot-8, sub-200 pounds, it will be interesting to see where the NFL values him as a prospect.

2. Jakobi Meyers, WR, N.C. State

I just finished studying Meyers last week, and came away truly impressed with his all-around skill set. He's played wide receiver for just three years after switching from quarterback, but he's already showing flashes of polish as a route runner to go along with exceptional hands and ball skills. If Meyers balls out at the Senior Bowl, he could fly up boards.

3. Dillon Mitchell, WR, Oregon

I really like this kid. Tons of other wide receivers have been talked up this season, but Mitchell quietly put together a fantastic campaign with 75 catches for 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging almost 16 yards a catch. He's explosive in his route breaks and elusive post-catch. I can't wait to do my full eval on Mitchell, who I think could be a riser with a big Combine.

National Championship Draft-Eligible Big Winners

1. Christian Wilkins, IDL, Clemson

I didn't think Wilkins was going to get better by coming back, but boy did he prove me wrong. Wilkins was more disruptive and a better pass rusher this season, both of which were on display last night as he took apart Alabama's offensive line.

2. Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson

After losing last year's playoff battle with Jonah Williams, Ferrell got a few good shots in during Round 1. I still worry about his ability to bend and change directions, but his hands and pass rush plan continue to impress.

3. Anfernee Jennings, EDGE, Alabama

Quietly, Jennings was pretty awesome on Monday night. Yes, some of his 3.5 tackles-for-loss were unblocked, but he also broke up a pass, altered several others and consistently got pressure on Trevor Lawrence with slow-burn pass rushes. He's a middling athlete for the position, but he's good at what he does.

Written By:

Jon Ledyard

Chief Operating Officer

COO & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked on NFL Draft podcast. Passion for all things Pittsburgh.

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