Mark Nzeocha (pronounced en-ZAH-chah) was productive from the moment he got on the field. In 2011, as a true freshman, he played in 10 games at safety for the Wyoming Cowboys. As a sophomore, he played in 11 contests, finishing with 32 tackles and a forced fumble. Thanks to his 3.24 GPA, he was named to the Academic All-Mountain West team.
The following season, Nzeocha blew up, logging 101 stops (10 for loss), sharing the team lead with two forced fumbles, and adding a sack and two pass breakups. Plus, in a pattern Jason Garrett will appreciate, Nzeocha was named to the Academic All-Conference team for the second-straight season. In 2014, he started strong, posting 59 tackles with two sacks, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles in seven games before suffering a season-ending injury. Despite missing time, he was named to the Academic All-Conference team for the third straight year.
Nzeocha is a lump of clay, filled with promise but not yet molded. On one hand, he boasts tremendous athleticism, length and speed (he supposedly runs a sub-4.5 forty). Plus, he's agile and rangy and can run from sideline to sideline. On the other, he's a relative football neophyte, so his instincts are under-developed and must be sharpened with diligent coaching. In the meantime, most scouts believe he can be a strong contributor on special teams while he develops his recognition skills to the level where he can compete for significant defensive playing time.
Want to scout like a boss? Let's start by looking at his measurables; because of his knee injury, these leave much to the imagination:
And here they are in the form of a spider graph, courtesy of the folks at Mockdraftable.com. Admittedly, its not much...
Want to go to the tape? Well, there is this one game against Florida Atlantic (five tackles)...
Let's see what our esteemed panel of scouts has to say about Nzeocha's game:
Gary Horton (ESPN.com) 27th-ranked OLB; 338th overall:
Instincts/Recognition: Lacks natural FBIs. Still learning to trust his eyes and will often play with hesitation. Adequate recognition when the play is in front of him. However, will often false step and be a quarter count late finding the ball against misdirection runs. Still developing recognition for play action and misdirection game. Carries out assignment and gets to proper drop zones in coverage but doesn't have ideal playmaking instincts the fly.
Take-on Skills: Average point of attack skills. Flashes adequate initial pop. However, lacks ideal bulk and will get engulfed by bigger and more massive blockers in a phone booth. Still learning to take on blocks with proper shoulder to maintain gap integrity. Flashes quick hands but needs to be more efficient shedding and finishing play.
Range vs. Run: Above-average athlete. Light on his feet. Has some tightness in hips but changes directions fairly well. Displays an above-average closing burst once pointed in the right direction. Pursuit angles are up and down. Will be too flat at times defending the outside run.
Tackling: Doesn't have great fundamentals as a tackler. Flashes decent pop but lacks knock-back power. Feet often go dead upon contact and will lose his power source. Effective corralling runners at the legs. Average body control in space. Will come in too hot and needs to do a better job of breaking down to become a more consistent open field tackler.
3rd Down Capabilities: Good overall range in underneath zone coverage. Doesn't have a great feel for throwing lanes. Also will be a quarter count late locating targets coming into his territory. Adequate man coverage skills but will struggle against more polished route runners. Not a difference maker rushing the passer. Lacks instincts and often hesitates when blitzing from the second level.
Intangibles: Family is from Germany. Comes from a supportive two parent home. Mature and responsible individual. Excellent work ethic. Low maintenance. Team first player. Well like by teammates. Is able to be coached hard. Good student. No issues learning. Did not start playing football until college. Will be a 25 year old rookie.
Nolan Nawrocki (NFL Draft 2015 Preview) 17th-ranked OLB:
Strengths: Very good athlete with loose hips and exceptional timed speed to run and cover. Is agile and light enough on his feet to run with backs, tight ends and slot receivers. Very quick to arrive on the blitz, with outstanding closing speed. Secure, wrap up tackler. Very intelligent.
Weaknesses: Overaged. Green football-playing instincts—slow digester still learning the game. Takes time to sort out what he sees. Too many tackles come down the field.
Future: A fast-flowing converted safety with the speed and cover skill to match up in the slot. I still very new to the game and will require time to develop into a more complete, reactionary football player. However, he has the talent to contribute readily on special teams and could become a niche cover player if assignments are kept simple. Intriguing developmental project in multiple areas.
Draft projection: Late draftable pick
Tony Pauline (TFY Draft Insider) 17th-ranked OLB:
Positive: Athletic three-down linebacker with potential in a variety of schemes. Fluid, quickly changes direction and flows well laterally. Displays speed in a straight line or out to the flanks, quick moving to every direction and covers a lot of area the field. Stays with assignments, squares into runners and wraps up when tackling. Gets depth on pass drops, agile and easily redirects to runners.
Negative: Gets caught up in the trash or held up by blocks. Not a physical defender who throws his body around the field. Shows indecision in coverage.
Analysis: After a breakout campaign in 2013, expectations were high for Nzeocha but his development was halted by the knee injury last year. When healthy and playing on all cylinders he's a legitimate weakside linebacker prospect in a 4-3 who can line up in any situation.
Lance Zierlein (NFL.com) 25th-ranked OLB; 328th overall:
Strengths: Size, strength and speed numbers are outstanding. Has length and speed to throw a net over running backs trying to turn a corner and reel them in. Busts it in the weight room. Shows power in his hands and upper body to strike a blow against second-level blockers and keep himself clean. Extremely rangy playmaking ability. Agile in his scrape and generally avoids trash at his feet. Former safety who has long speed to stick with running backs out of the backfield. Transitions forward with control and is a wrap-up tackler.
Weaknesses: Suffered a season-ending knee injury in October and it could impact his draft standing. Played club football in Germany during his high school years and is still learning to play the game. Instincts and awareness are well below average for the college game. Can be seen sprinting back into coverage on run plays and will drift around lost in zone coverage at times. Slow to diagnose and attack. Will take a poor angle into his run fit and lose leverage. Wyoming kept coverage as basic as it could for him.
Draft Projection: Priority free agent
Sources Tell Us: "He has no instincts, but he will test really well when healthy. Those testing numbers should get him into somebody's camp for sure, but I don't think he can be anything but a practice squad guy for now." -- NFC scout
NFL Comparison: Bryan Braman
Our scouts are pretty clear here: if Nzeocha is to be drafted at all, it will be with one of the Cowboys' two seventh-round selections. So, that's where I'll put him on my "little board." And if the Cowboys do indeed pick him there, I'll be just fine with the choice. The seventh round, after all, is an ideal time to take a flyer on a guy with evident upside. His profile - athletic, rangey, run-and-hit three-down linebacker - is a superb scheme fit. If Nzeocha gets some more football under his belt and develops better instincts, he could well prove to be a late-round steal.
And who wouldn't be all about that?
Next up: Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson