Top talent returns in the AAC at linebacker, but depth is the question for multiple teams. Many teams have one player who could be a star, but that star will need to be leaders in developing talent behind them. We continue our preseason position previews with our same four categories: 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 or two but a lot of questions behind them.
“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 one or two starters 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.
Previous positions: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive Line
UConn: It’s pretty rare to see the Huskies at the top of many lists coming into this season, but this group is the best in the conference. Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph are All-Conference talents, and their presence alone will affect offensive coordinator’s game plans. Whoever joins these two will see plenty of opportunities to make plays with blocking schemes focusing on the two Husky stars.
Navy: The offense may need to figure out how to get going, but this group will ensure the defense hits the ground running in 2017. Micah Thomas is arguably the best returning backer in the conference, while DJ Palmore and Hudson Sullivan will also compete for All-Conference honors.
Memphis: Five of their top six tackler return, and that should help the Tigers improve defensively. Genard Avery and Curtis Akins will take the WILL and MIKE positions, respectively, and there are a couple options at the KAT position. Jackson Dillon and Bryce Huff will battle for that spot, and both have playing experience to contribute in 2017.
UCF: One of the most polarizing figures in college football is Shaquem Griffin. He won AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, and could repeat that achievement in 2017. He had 74.5 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 11.5 sacks. All with just one arm. Griffin makes so many plays, and will continue his inspiring story by leading a group that needs his leadership. Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett will help, and multiple other players should contribute as well.
USF: Auggie Sanchez could be an All-American by the end of 2017, but he’s probably hoping that he won’t have to carry too much of the load. While he returns nearly 11% of the defensive production, there isn’t much other production back. One thing that Sanchez should be excited for: Charlie Strong’s defensive reputation. With Strong’s experience, there shouldn’t be much worry for this group.
Houston: Replacing Tyus Bowser and Steven Taylor will not be easy, but the Cougars have the talent to at least try. Matthew Adams and D’Juan Hines will be the leaders, but who will join them? Emeke Egbule saw a lot of time at outside linebacker and could be the starter opposite Hines. Adams will probably have to wait a while for someone to fill the void next to him, but plenty of competition should help develop depth.
Wait and See
Tulane: Nico Marley will be missed, but there is plenty of returning experience that could help replace him. Rae Juan Marbley could become Marley’s replacement, while Zachary Harris and Eric Thomas return on the outside. Combined with the defensive line, this front seven could be one of the best groups in the conference, but they will need a leader to emerge in the absence of Marley.
Temple: This will be a young group, so they will need to grow up, but most returners have playing some playing experience. Seven of those players return with at least 10 games played, but leading tackler Jared Folks returns just 25 tackles. A leader will need to emerge in this young group, so it might take some time for this group to gel.
Tulsa: Craig Suits will need some help. The senior returns 63 tackles, but no one else returns more than 14. Petera Wilson Jr and Cooper Edmiston might take expanded roles, but there are a lot of questions within this group. Just like the defensive line, one spot is covered, but there are too many holes to be comfortable with this unit.
Room for Improvement
SMU: If the Mustangs are going to stop anyone this year, the linebackers will need to improve. Kyran Mitchell, Anthony Rhone, and RC Cox return the most experience, and three others return with playing time. But returning experience doesn’t mean much when your defense was porous last year. SMU’s key to success rests completely on the defenses shoulders, and this group can be catalysts to reach the team’s goals.
ECU: Jordan Williams was the top performer in this group, and should assume a larger role this year. With just one other returner with double digit tackles, this group will see plenty of competition to play alongside Williams. Ray Tillman could snatch the outside backer position opposite of Williams, but the inside is where the questions lie. Joe Carter and Anthony Gutierrez will be the veterans competing for the inside spots, but don’t have a ton of experience.
Cincinnati: There is plenty of work to do at this position. Just three players return with playing experience, and they only have 16 combined games played. Jaylyin Minor, Bryce Jenkinson, and Matthew Draper are those returners, but should expect a lot of competition. Four star freshman RJ Potts could see a lot of playing time.