I linked up with Fletcher Keel of Underdog Dynasty, the SB Nation community for fans of most of the teams of the non-major conferences, to get some info on the Los Angeles Rams first fourth-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, Western Kentucky TE Tyler Higbee.
So obviously story 1a right now for Higbee is the altercation last month and the charges he pleaded not guilty to. Obviously an event like this can tarnish anyone's career. The question is one of isolation. Should there be any concern for Rams fans of a pattern or that Higbee is going to be someone who struggles with the responsibility and professionalism the NFL requires? Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher is no babysitter. Is there anything you could shed light on that would suggest that will be a problem for Higbee or was this an unfortunate incident that spiraled out of control that you think will be something we point to years later as something Higbee learned and matured from?
If Higbee has had any other off-field issues, outside of his altercation and arrest, it's been kept out of the public eye. I heard the ESPN broadcast crew talk about how scouts said he enjoys the night life (which, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, there really isn't a whole lot of). However, that was the first time I had heard of that, and also the first time he's really been in trouble. Over the past few years, plenty of WKU athletes have had run-ins with the law - be it small (DUI or marijuana possession) or large (a program getting suspended for five years) - but Higbee wasn't one of them until this offseason. I think this was just an unfortunate incident that spiraled out of control, but I also think he learned his lesson and going forward he wont find himself in another situation like this again.
Rams TE Tyler Higbee
Underdog Dynasty Scouting Report
Brandon Doughty gets all the pub when it comes to the successes of WKU's offense, and righty so, but one of his weapons is a better draft prospect, and Tyler Higbee could become quite the NFL player.
Rams TE Tyler Higbee
Alright. time for some on-field stuff. What does Higbee do that makes him a legit NFL prospect? Clearly, he was able to deal with Conference USA-level talent by his senior year. But what will he be able to excel at against NFL-caliber opponents?
First and foremost, Higbee is a tremendous pass-catcher. Unlike previous WKU tight ends like Jack Doyle (now a big special teams player and H-back with the Colts) and Mitchell Henry (currently with the Packers) who were offensive weapons when they needed to be, Higbee is an offensive weapon first and a pass blocker second. He's a converted wide receiver and had a tremendous relationship with his quarterback in Brandon Doughty. While yes, its easy to look down on C-USA competition (usually, rightfully so), Higbee did light up the two Power 5 teams he faced in 2015, hauling in 102 receiving yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt and 109 yards and a touchdown against Indiana, so he has a couple of resume-building performances. He was so successful with the Hilltoppers, primarily, because he was Doughty's security blanket. If he can develop a great relationship with Jared Goff, he'll be a threat.
Let's be blunt. Higbee ended up at WKU for a reason. He had holes in his game coming out of high school. And it's not as if he was a local product either coming out of Florida. What does he need to work on? What were the holes in his game that he addressed over his five-year career?
Sure, Higbee wasn't highly touted out of high school, but there's a bit more to him coming to WKU from Florida than meets the eye. Willie Taggart, the coach who helped put WKU on the map, was a great QB in his playing days for the Tops, and built a very strong recruiting pipeline with the Sunshine State (Doughty was also a Taggart signee, also from Florida, among many others). However, of course, Higbee isn't a perfect player, and his biggest need for improvement will be rush blocking. With the backfield the Rams have, rushing is obviously going to be a huge part of the weekly gameplan, and they'll need a reliable H-back/blocking tight end. Higbee needs to bulk up a bit and get stronger in the trenches.
Five years from now, let's say there are two paths. In one, Higbee has established himself as the clear starting tight end and signed a second deal with the Rams. In the other...he's an afterthought. What's the fork in the road? Where do those paths diverge? What does Higbee have to accomplish in year one to stay on the former path?
I think it all depends on what exactly the Rams want from him, both in the present and in the future. Are they happy with potentially needing a separate guy for run blocking than a pass catcher? Do they think they can turn Higbee into a great run blocker? Again, the offensive talent is there, no doubt, but if the Rams can develop someone else to be more efficient away from the ball, do they cut their losses with Higbee? So, all of this is a long way of saying, the paths will diverge at the point of Higbee's blocking development and the Rams' decision on a.) how much they want to use him in that way and b.) if they're happy potentially needing two people for the position. If Higbee shows signs of improvement with the blocking, I'd say he has a good shot of staying. Even if the blocking is weak to begin the season, I still think he has enough offensive prowess for the Rams to want to be patient with him.
WKU had three players drafted for only the second time ever, the last time being 1971 when they had players drafted in the 15th, 16th and 17th rounds. Clearly, they're going to have a tough time replacing Higbee and Miami Dolphins seventh-round pick QB Brandon Doughty. Without much history at this level, it's clear this is the highest height for the program in the nine years in FBS football. How does the program remain the class of Conference USA and continue to build a program that can feed the NFL with fresh talent?
The growth of WKU football has been awesome to watch. I was a freshman in 2011, and I rushed the field when we beat Louisiana-Lafayette at home to snap a 30-something game home losing streak. That 2011 year was the first time the Tops became bowl eligible in FBS. So, to begin my WKU fandom there and see them become conference champions after just five years has been pretty awesome. And, while they're losing Higbee and Doughty, and local Bowling Green defensive product Prince Charles Iworah to the 49ers (I'm so looking forward to a Prince Charles v. Higbee matchup), there is a lot of returning talent. Receivers Nicholas Norris, Taywan Taylor and Nacarius Fant will be back, and that's literally just scratching the surface at the position. The backfield should be one of the best in all of G5 football, if not one of the best in the nation, with Ace Wales and D'Andre Ferby coming back, as well as Leon Allen who gained a sixth-year of eligibility. All of those names should be on NFL-watch lists sooner rather than later, and that's not even mentioning some of the non-skill position players on the offensive and defensive lines.
2016 will be interesting, as we'll see if WKU's success was more so Doughty or Jeff Brohm, but either way, yes the Tops may take a step back and only crack nine wins, they still should compete for a spot in the CUSA title game, and continue run of sending at least one player to the NFL that started in 2011 with Bobby Rainey.
Thanks to Fletcher for taking the time to answer these.