The MLR Drafts: Top College Prospects

In a four-part series, Doug Coil and Alex Goff are collaborating on articles about the Major League Rugby drafts that will be published on DJCoil Rugby and Goff Rugby Report.

In Part One, Doug provided an introduction to the three drafts happening this spring, with detail on the Colorado Raptors player dispersal draft. Part Two looked at the MLR Expansion Draft.

Part 1: MLR 2021 Drafts: Colorado Raptors

Part 2: The MLR Drafts: The Expansion Draft

Now, Part 3, we look at the collegiate draft, and who are the best prospects at each position.

Just over 400 rugby players have applied for the Major League Rugby collegiate draft, but most won’t be drafted.

A surprising number of players from lower-division schools have put their names in the hat, while several players who are high-profile seniors in D1A and D1AA college rugby have not.

In the end, this first attempt by MLR to control a college recruiting free-for-all may undergo some changes in future years. Certainly, some players are taking a wait-and-see attitude, while others are looking at one extra semester, or worrying about their regular careers first.

With the talent pool being relatively small, MLR has reportedly reduced the draft to just two rounds. In the next episode of our four-part collaboration between GRR and Doug Coil, we’ll look at specific teams, where they fall in the draft, and which players we think they will (or should) pick.

In this article, Part 3, we simply look at the various positions, what we think the requirements are, and who looks to be the best candidates for the draft.

We judge these players based on the following criteria:

  • Size appropriate to the position;
  • Physical requirements of professional rugby;
  • Anticipated areas of need;
  • Player’s success in relation to his level of competition;
  • Some subjective judgment

One more note here: Success in the college game doesn’t always mean you’re rated at the top of your position. A player might get a nod in the Rudy ScholzAward, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best pick for a pro team.

Loosehead Prop Top Prospects

  • Brian Nault (Central Washington)
  • Lincoln Sii (Grand Canyon)
  • Nate Shipley (Cal Poly)
  • Keyon McCloud-Holmon (Kutztown)
  • Nikolas Afuhaamango (Texas Tech)
  • Adonnis Lee-Johnson (Humboldt State)

Nault is the real deal. The former HS All American, he was a No. 8 then and has translated nicely to prop. He has the right attitude, can handle himself physically, and is very smart. We will list him also as a hooker, because we’re pretty sure he can play there, too.

Shipley was a football player at Cal Poly and listed as a lock, but his build and his experience might make him a better prop. When he embraced rugby he went to New Zealand to hone his skills. He’s big, very powerful, and knows what it takes to be very serious about a sport. He’s still raw, but the raw materials are good.

McCloud-Holmonis the opposite of Shipley. Both are good athletes, but McCloud-Holmonis not big (he’s 5-10) but has a lot more rugby history. He has an excellent technique and could be another hooker candidate.

There are some players at this position who have some open-field ability and can carry the rock upfield. Adonnis Lee-Johnson is a gamble. Not listed as a prop, he’s built like one and has some offensive skills. More conventionally, Sii is very good in the set-piece and a hard carrier, while Afuhaamango has played both prop and center. No, really.

Tighthead Prop Top Prospects

  • Spencer Krueger (Ohio State)
  • Matthew Davey (Indiana)
  • Elijah Hayes (Iowa Central CC)
  • Jared Smallwood (Fordham)
  • Max Coduti (Notre Dame)

Krueger was central to Ohio State’s success and while he’s the shortest of this group, he’s got size and power, and the angles. Codutiis huge and a thundering presence, while Hayes is almost as massive. This is overall a talented group and while they are all (except Smallwood) very large, they can move around.

(Some of the players can play both sides of the scrum, and usually, we expect these players to do so. Therefore, don’t take the positional divisions too literally.)

Hooker Top Prospects

  • Stephen McLeish (Lindenwood)
  • Nicholas Hryekewicz (Saint Mary’s)
  • leonPatel-Champion (Penn State)
  • Thomas Capriotti (Penn State)
  • Dillon Shotwell (Sam Houston State)
  • Stephen Ambrosino (SUNY Binghamton)

There are some very good hookers coming out of college rugby who are just too small to get the label of “likely pro.” Manny Bravo of Western Michigan, North Westallof St. Bonaventure, and Mason Koch of Dartmouth are all on that list. Good players, good leaders, and hard guys all, they will have to show up more powerfully-built, more fit, and more ready because they aren’t so big.

We think that some players might shift positions as time goes on. Given the chance, Brian Naultor Virginia Tech No. 8 IeuanIsrael could do very well at hooker.

McLeish is a good ballcarrier, and Hryekewicz very mobile and effective in the set-piece. Ambrosino is a leader and a battler, while Shotwellis a flanker who can play hooker. While he may have played for a lower-profile team, he’s a talent. He was a USA representative at the U17, U18, and U20 levels.

And yes, that’s right, we have two Penn State players. Capriotti is tough as nails and very smart. Patel Champion is very strong and experienced. He’s ranked over Capriottiin part because Capriottidoesn’t graduate until next May. So a draft of Capriottiis a draft that waits.

Lock-Top Prospects

  • Casey Renaud (Kutztown)
  • Cameron Dodson (Grand Canyon)
  • Bronson Teles (Arizona)
  • Calum Haddock (Notre Dame College)
  • Sam Ciancutti (Bowling Green)
  • Matthew Gordon (Mary Washington)
  • Campbell Robinson (Kennesaw State)
  • Mike Matarazzo (Notre Dame)
  • Kelly Fernandi (Virginia Tech)
  • Michael Johnson (Indiana)

This is a very deep position. Anyone looking for height will be pretty happy, and in fact, we know that scouts and GMs are calling around looking for height.

Renaud is 6-8 and has a long and very successful career at Kutztown. He’s mature and intelligent and could be a massive find.

Dodson is 6-7, and as long as he has his visa ducks in a row,  he would be a great pick. Telesis a little shorter but a powerful presence and is one of those players who, physically, could step into an MLR game right now.

The rest of these guys are physical, around 6-5, good in the lineout (and probably run their team’s lineout), and the go-to big man on their team. Ciancuttiis probably slower than the other two but he’s a battler.

Gordon, Robinson, and Teles, especially, are crossover players who could be flankers or No. 8. Matarazzo lists his first position as No. 8, but not, at 6-5 and still young, he’s a lock. Fernandi and Johnson have big work rates but may need to show more to get drafted.

Loose Forward Top Prospects

  • Justin Johnson (Life University)
  • Tommy Clark (AIC)
  • Joe Rusert-Cuddy (Colorado State)
  • Andrew Guerra (Notre Dame College)
  • Joey Freeman (Penn State)
  • Simione Moala (Southern Virginia)
  • DaQuan Perry (Kutztown)
  • Jack Miller (Colorado)
  • Jack Russell (Wisconsin)

Clark is a Scholz Award finalist, but he’s a bit of a tweener—a small lock, and maybe a medium-sized #6, but not a #7. Johnson perhaps has a bit more size and still mobility, and could handle himself in pro rugby. Flanker, especially at openside, is pretty deep in this draft, and Rusert-Cuddylooks to be the quintessential #7. (By the way, we left CSU’s Joe Kamaraoff this list because he graduates late in 2021, and so would likely be a better pick for next season.)

Guerra is very powerful, has the mobility to play good 7s, and could be an effective #6. Freeman just knows what he’s doing. Perry is a fast guy, and if someone wants a good runner who covers the field to poach ball, he might be the one to sign. Miller and Russell are very similar in build and what they bring as hardworking flankers.

The wild card may be Moala, a 6-2, 250 cinder block out of small college Southern Virginia. He’s also older than most of these players and will have a bit of a leg up because of that.

Scrumhalf Top Prospects

  • Connor Buckley (Iona)
  • Matt Rogers (Arizona)
  • Darren Chan (Northeastern)
  • Harry Masters (Mary Washington)
  • Ken Kurihara (Cal)
  • Nick Dangelo (West Chester)

This looked to be a note-very-deep list until the final week when some very talented #9s declared. Buckley was almost the ScholzAward winner, and he has all the tools: the pass, the leadership, the kick, the tackle, and the opportunism. With Mike Petri mentoring him at Xavier and through college (and potentially in New York?) he could be special.

Rogers is built very differently from Buckley—more slight, basically—but he’s very quick and a good leader, too. Rogers is attractive also because he can slide in as a wing or fullback.

Chan is a superb leader, and a very good goalkicker, as well. Like Chan, Kuriharacan slot in as a flyhalf too, and that versatility is valuable on limited bench space. Deangelo is another good goal kicker and field general.

Note: We missed Harry Masters from UMW and have put him in late—sorry about that. Masters is smart, he’s 24 so he’s been in the game a bit longer, and he grew up with the game in Australia. Definitely a possibility.

Flyhalf Top Prospects

  • Noah Niumataiwalu (St. Joseph’s)
  • Matthew Mairowitz (Life University)
  • Patrick Madden (Cal Poly)
  • Thorne O’Connell (Kutztown)
  • Jihad Khabir (AIC)

The chances of a drafted player being tracked to flyhalf are very, very slim. Not something we endorse—just a fact. Both of these guys can run, pass, read the game, kick, and defend.

Madden is a junior and his presence here is a silent plea for San Diego to draft him so he can live and play in his hometown. but his underclassman status also drops him down our list. O’Connell is from South Africa and will have to straighten out his residency status (which, of course, a pro contract would help).

Niumataiwalu is very much like Madden, elusive, a good passer, a smart kicker. Mairowitzis a very useful goalkicker and is more the guy to put players into space rather than find that space for himself.

We’ll talk about Khabir under fullback.

Center Top Prospects

  • Connor Mooneyham (Life University)
  • Aaron Matthews (Saint Mary’s)
  • Calvin Gentry (Memphis)
  • Levi Van Lanen (UW-Whitewater)
  • Watson Filikitonga (Iona)
  • Kyle Williams (Western Michigan)
  • Luis Sitama (AIC)
  • Nicholas Taylor (Lindenwood)

Saitama is a good goalkicker, which is a nice bonus. He’s not tall but he’s aggressive and strong.

Mooneyham has the skills and is an imposing presence in the midfield, and you could probably say the same about Gentry. The guy who was a start for the USA South when they won the North American U19 international championships, Gentry also has a ton of desire.

Matthews, who was still coming back from a knee injury this spring, can play anywhere in the backline and can defend, run, pass, and step out of trouble.

Filikitongais an elusive runner and a hard hitter. Williams is a freight train. Van Lanenis our first D2 player in this list and he’s fully capable of being a successful back as a professional. Taylor has all the tools. This is a solid group of centers.

There are some others we don’t list who could be great. Nic Franklyn out of AIC could still be a great pro

Wing Top Prospects

  • Cole Zarcone (Central Washington)
  • Derek Ellingson (Saint Mary’s)
  • John Powers (iona College)
  • Lukas Pavlakis (Illinois)
  • SamyShelbaya (Michigan State)
  • Terran Meek (Louisville)
  • Eric Naposki (UCLA)
  • KaipoTagaloa (Southern Virginia)

Zarcone is probably ready now. He can handle the job, which in professional rugby means you don’t have a lot of space most of the time and have to fight for it. Ellingson is the same, and perhaps a better kicker than Zarcone. He lists center as his #1 position but he could succeed at wing.

Your out-of-nowhere pick is probably Tagaloa, who is big, imposing, and athletic—he tried out for the USA volleyball team (!). But … he graduates in 2021, so we drop him down a bit.

Pavlakisis listed here because he’s a powerful presence and should be able to fight through traffic, too. Meek is a finisher and so is Shelbaya, who brings some goalkicking talent to the table. Naposki, while not big, is enormously elusive and very smart. He’s a former HS All American and has been good at every level where he’s played.

Note – we missed John Powers earlier and he’s in here. Chalk that up to the fact that he’s normally a flyhalf and he’s declaring as a wing.

Hickman is a bit of a wild card. Very successful in high school, he didn’t track through a fancy rugby university. But desire and high-level experience, even from a few years ago, can go a long way. He might be worth a look.

Fullback Top Prospects

  • Jihad Khabir (AIC)
  • Ani Mteto (Lindenwood)
  • Cian Barry (UCLA)
  • Jacob Goeppner (Kentucky
  • Jeremy Brown (Texas A&M)
  • Mats Najberg (Boston University)

Khabir is unlikely to leave his hometown of Washington DC as he’s got a pretty cool job there, but the man is just all kinds of talent. He is fast, elusive, and a game-breaker. He needs to kick a bit better.

Mteto is a good athlete who has an excellent kicking boot, and that’s his key attraction. Barry has all the tools and adds to that some good leadership qualities.

Goeppner and Brown are smart, mature, good on defense, and can position themselves well, while Najberg could double up at scrumhalf.

That’s 66 names in a draft that will see 24 get the nod. But several of these players might also get a look as undrafted free agents.

Look for Part 4, who should draft whom.

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