Four Conference-USA players selected in 2021 NFL draft

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Photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics

UTEP defensive back Broderick Harrel celebrates a defensive stop versus Abilene Christian Sept. 19, 2020.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

The NFL once again feasted on Power Five schools to supply their rosters and largely ignored minor football conferences such as Conference-USA (C-USA). Overall, 191 players out of the 259 total players drafted were from Power Five schools, while only four total players were recruited from C-USA.

Dominating the draft picks was the Southeastern Conference, with 65 players chosen from its ranks. National Champion Alabama had 10 total players selected, including six first-round picks. C-USA’s grand total of 4 players is down from the 2020 draft, where 10 players were chosen.

For the third consecutive year, no UTEP Miner was taken. Will Fernandez, a second-round pick by the New York Giants, was the last Miner selected in the 2018 draft. Since 2008, the only other Miner selected in the NFL draft was Aaron Jones in 2017.

The highest-drafted C-USA player in this year’s draft was defensive tackle Milton Williams of Louisiana Tech. Williams was drafted in the third round with the 73rd pick by the Philadelphia Eagles. A –Pro-Football focus All-American and C-USA all-conference player this season, Williams was third overall in tackles for loss in conference. He had 4.5 sacks and 30 pressures for the 2020 season. At 6-4, 278, Williams can play both tackle and end and is a freakish athlete with 4.6 speed.

In the fourth round, Jordan Smith, a linebacker out of UAB, was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 121st pick. Smith, who has quite a troubled past, originally signed with the Florida Gators out of high school. After a disciplinary incident involving credit card fraud, he found his way out the door and on to the junior college route.

After signing with UAB in 2018, Smith was immediately a force for the team with 10 sacks in his first season. In 2020 his sack total fell to 4.5. A tall, rangy player at 6-6, 255, Smith projects as an edge rusher for an Urban Meyer defense who could become a solid starter. He will need to improve his NFL strength but should earn playing time on passing downs.

Eight picks later in the fourth-round wide receiver Jaelen Darden out of North Texas was by the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Bucs. Standing 5-9, 174, Darden was one of the most productive football players in all of college last season with 19 receiving touchdowns, second only to Alabama’s Devonta Smith, who had 23.

Darden is the all-time leading North Texas receiver in receptions (230), touchdowns (38) and yards (2782). Named the C-USA MVP this season, Darden was also named to multiple All-American teams. In his final game of the 2020 season, Darden had eight catches for 173 yards and four touchdowns versus UTEP. Darden is also a dynamic return man and should instantly impact a team that sorely needs a punt returner.

In the fourth round, the Dallas Cowboys selected tackle Josh Ball out of Marshall as a tall project lineman. First-team all-conference tackle that was a key blocker for 2019 C-USA MVP Brenden Knox, who led C-USA in rushing that season with 1284 yards. Marshall was again one of the top rushing teams in the conference in 2020, placing fourth overall. Ball is tall at 6-8, 309 and will have to add some weight to his frame.

Ball is another former top player from a Florida School that ended up transferring due to disciplinary issues. Initially signing with Florida State as a four-star prospect, he started seven games for the Seminoles before being kicked off the team due to the school judicial panel finding he committed dating violence.

C-USA did also have 14 undrafted free agents that were signed to teams right after the draft:

Undrafted free agent signings by school

Alabama Birmingham

Spencer Brown RB Carolina Panthers

Myron Mitchell WR- Minnesota Vikings

Austin Watkins WR- San Francisco 49ers

Marshall

Darius Hodge DE – Cincinnati Bengals

Brenden Knox RB- Dallas Cowboys

Tavante Beckett LB- Detroit Lions

Charlotte

Trey Harbison RB Cleveland Browns

Ben Deluca QB- Los Angeles Chargers

Western Kentucky

Jordan Meredith C Los Angeles Rams

Devon Key S- Kansas City Chiefs

Florida Atlantic

Leighteon McCarthy Edge- Tampa Bay Buccaneers

B.J. Emmons RB- Seattle Seahawks

Middle Tennessee State

Rob Jones LB – Miami Dolphins

Southern Miss

Tim Jones WR Jacksonville Jaguars

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]; @dlockz on Twitter.