There isn’t a shortage in pass catchers returning in the AAC this season, and that could mean defensive backs facing these athletes could be in trouble. We continue to split the teams into four groups: Elite, Second Tier, Wait and See and Room for Improvement.
“Room for Improvement” means exactly what you think, this team needs to get better or maybe has one returner but a lot of questions behind him.
“Wait and See” are teams that we’re not sold on, but have the talent or experience to be good. These teams just need time to get their players up to speed during fall camp/beginning of the season.
“Second Tier” are for teams that return valuable experience, but the depth behind them is questionable, and an injury to the starter could spell trouble.
“Elite” will be the top teams who have all-conference talent, and also have depth behind that talent who can step in should an injury occur.
SMU: Courtland Sutton is arguably the best returning receiver in the country, let a lone the conference. He has tremendous size that allows him to catch anything thrown his way. James Proche and Xavier Castille also return, and took some pressure off of Sutton in 2016. Other player who could play bigger roles this season include Kevin Thomas, Shelby Walker, and LSU transfer Trey Quinn. Safe to say that the Mustangs receiving corps will be crowded in 2017.
Memphis: Anthony Miller is the top returning receiver in the conference, and like Sutton, is one of the top returners in the country as well. Phil Mayhue returns after a year in which he caught 42 passes for 677 yards and four touchdowns. Dynamic receiver and kick returner Tony Pollard had a spectacular freshman year, and should take on a bigger role. Tight end Daniel Montiel will need to be replaced, but that shouldn’t be too much of a burden with the returning talent.
Houston: Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar both sat out of the spring game with injuries, but that gave other players opportunities to see the field. Derek McLemore and Keith Corbin will take on bigger role this season and looked great this spring. Tight end Romello Brooker looked good in the spring, and has tremendous size to fill that position. Bonner and Dunbar will demand the defense’s attention, so the other role players should have room to make plays and take that pressure off the stars.
Temple: Quarterback may be an issue now, but whoever wins has plenty of talent to throw to downfield. Ventell Bryant and Keith Kirkwood are the two stars, but Adonis Jennings and Brodrick Yancy also return. Even with a new quarterback figuring things out, the receivers should provide some support even if teams try to focus on the run.
ECU: Sadly, Zay Jones is out of eligibility and off to the NFL, and his production will be missed dearly. Jimmy Williams returns and is a threat to score on any play after averaging 18.2 yards per catch last season. Quay Johnson caught 58 passes last year for 563 yards and could be the primary target in 2017. Deondre Farrier averaged 14.5 yards per catch, and also should be another option downfield. Production dropped off after these two, meaning there is plenty of room for others to fill the void that Jones left.
Cincinnati: This was an extremely young and inexperienced group last year, but that won’t be the case this season. Devin Gray and Khalil Lewis were the Bearcats top two receivers last year, and both return in 2017. In fact, Cincinnati returns seven of their top nine receivers from last season.
UCF: Tre’Quan Smith has proven he can catch anything, and is layout for any ball thrown his way. His spring game catch was spectacular to some but, to him, it’s just routine (see his catch below).
TE Jordan Akins has nice size and can run downfield, but the returning experience drops off after him. Smith and Akins are the only returners with at least 20 catches in 2016.
Wait And See
Tulsa: Nearly 65% of the production downfield is gone with the departure of Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson, meaning new weapons will need to emerge. Justin Hobbs, and Keenan Johnson are the top two returners and added another 29% to last year’s yardage. Long story short, Hobbs and Johnson will play larger roles this season, but will need help.
USF: Marquez Valdes-Scantling only had 22 receptions last season, but that number will increase with the departure of Rodney Adams. His size will also benefit him at 6-5, 207 pounds. Tyre McCants hauled in 25 passes last year, and should also see an increase in production in 2017. Tight end Mitchell Wilcox is huge at tight end, and will be a great asset in both the run and pass games.
Room For Improvement
Tulane: When you only throw 258 passes (122nd in the country), it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of your receivers. Terren Encalade caught 36 passes for 500 yards and six touchdowns, and will be joined by sophomore Darnell Mooney. Both have solid size, but their production will be limited by a run-first offense. Quarterback play could improve this season, which could bode well for these two also.
UConn: The only team that hurts more from losing one player than ECU is the Huskies. Noelle Thomas was the passing threat, and he never saw much help, making his 2016 season quite astonishing. Hergy Mayala is the leading returning receiver, tight end Alec Bloom is an enormous target, and Tyler Davis also has great size, but none has a ton of experience yet. This group has the attributes, but can they produce enough to replace Thomas?
Navy: Surprisingly, Navy had seven players who had over 100 yards receiving last year. Three return this season and two are running backs. Jamir Tillman was the go-to receiver lase year, and will need to be replaced. Brandon Colon could be the next man up, and at 6-4 and 223 pounds, shouldn’t have issues with reeling in passes. His experience limits him and there isn’t much depth behind him.