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AAC Preseason Position Previews: Defensive Backs

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Stopping the pass was a struggle last year for this conference.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest, defense wasn’t the strong point of the AAC. With so many high powered offenses in the league, defenses struggled to keep up mightily. Only a couple teams proved they could stop the pass, but even they were average at doing so. A bunch of teams were dealing with injuries that forced young players to see the field sooner than anticipated, so hopefully that experience helps in 2018.

Once again, this is how we break up the conference: Elite, Second Tier, Wait and See, and Room for Improvement.

Room for Improvement: Your team can definitely get better. Even if your team has a returning starter, there’s still plenty of room for growth.

Wait and See: Most likely, your team is going through a transition to a new starter. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means the new face has to prove themselves.

Second Tier: Good not great. The players aren’t elite yet, but may be right on the doorstep.

Elite: The best of the best. Most likely competing for an All-Conference spot. Also helps to have depth at the position.

2018 Position Reviews: QB, RB, WR/TE, OL, DL, LB


Elite

NCAA Football: Houston at South Florida
Wilkins could be the best corner in the conference this year.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

1. USF: Losing Deatrick Nichols, Devin Abraham, and Najee Fullwood certainly hurts, but there’s still plenty of talent remaining. Plus, Charlie Strong will have this group ready to go again. USF allowed just 14 touchdowns through the air last year, but will they do better in 2018? Ronnie Hoggins may be small (5’8”), but he emerged as a great option at corner (two picks and eight passes defended). The Bulls have the luxury of getting Mazzi Wilkins back at corner as well. Many believe he erases half of the field, so Hoggins could be in for a bigger year.

2. Memphis: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Memphis’ defense was inexperienced and young last year. The Tigers struggles on defense can be attributed to its youth movement, even if it wasn’t by choice. Injuries forced many young players into action earlier than Mike Norvell wanted, but that means they should be more experienced in 2018. TJ Carter may be the best corner in the conference, and that was as a freshman last year. Josh Perry, Tyrez Lindsey, Nehmiah Augustus, La’Andre Thomas, Jacobi Francis, Thomas Pickens, and Carlito Gonzalez all saw time last year, and all are sophomores this season. Besides Carter, junior Austin Hall (who plays the STAR position), and senior Tito Windham should lead a vastly improved group.

3. Temple: Yes, the Owls have to replace safety Sean Chandler and corner Mike Jones, but they’re still in good hands. Geoff Collins’ second year with Temple should feature another solid secondary. Safety Delvon Randall is one of the best in the conference, while Rock Ya-Sin might have one of the coolest names. They combined for 112.5 tackles and nine interceptions last year, and could have even bigger years in 2018.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Navy
Gibson and Tre Neal will lead the Knights secondary.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Second Tier

4. UCF: The Knights gave up a lot defensively every game. Luckily, they had an offense that could carry the load. UCF struggled giving up points (25.2) and yards through the air (268.1), but that doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story. This is a group that picked off 20 passes while only allowing 24 touchdowns by opposing quarterbacks. Last year’s group was young an inexperienced, and Mike Hughes is the only player from the secondary gone. Safeties Kyle Gibson (tied Hughes for the team lead in interceptions) and Tre Neal are back to lead what should be a veteran group in 2018.

5. Houston: This might be the most intriguing group in this list. Major Applewhite’s summer of transfers saw Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson (safety) and Notre Dame transfer Nick Watkins (corner) come to Houston. This is a group that needed depth desperately, and they may have it now. Anderson is expected to start at safety alongside veteran Garrett Davis. Watkins will compete for a starting spot along with Isaiah Johnson and Alexander Myers. Last year’s group gave up a lot of yards through the air (268.1 yards per game), but only allowed 10 touchdowns while picking off 14 passes. So, while there are many unknowns for this group, they could be one of the best in the conference.

6. Tulane: It’s hard to believe that Parry Nickerson is gone, and the Green Wave will miss his production and abilities this year. Donnie Lewis Jr. could step into Nickerson’s shoes after picking off three passes last year. Chase Kuerschen, P.J. Hall, and Roderic Teamer Jr. all saw time at safety last year. Willie Fritz doesn’t lose a lot in the secondary, but Nickerson isn’t just another guy. Losing him will have a bigger effect than fans realize.

Wait an See

7. Navy: This was a group that was average in terms of yardage per game (221), but it was also a group that gave up 23 touchdowns through the air and only forced six interceptions. Safety Sean Williams is the leader of the group, and maybe even of the defense. A year after allowing 27.9 points per game, there is definitely room for improvement.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulsa
Whitfield is one of many returners that could turn around the Golden Hurricane defense.
Joey Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

8. Tulsa: Philip Montgomery’s defense was atrocious last season, but his secondary could lead the turnaround. The Golden Hurricane lose just two players that played last year, which could mean that another 2-10 season isn’t likely. McKinley Whitfield led the team in tackles, and can play all over the field. He will need to help this group force more turnovers after only picking off seven passes in 2017.

9. SMU: We all know that the Mustangs were bad on defense, but does bringing a coach like Sonny Dykes do anything for that side of the ball? We will find out. It’s not usually a good sign when your safety is your leading tackler, but that says more about what’s going on with the front seven. Mikial Onu’s physicality isn’t a question after leading the Mustangs with 105 tackles. Cornerback Jordan Wyatt is a natural playmaker who returned two interceptions for touchdowns and another one off of a fumble recovery. The Mustangs have the pieces, but we will need to be convinced they are better before we start believing this side of the ball.

Room for Improvement

10. Cincinnati: Safety will features a few veterans, while corner will consist of youthful players. This is a group that gave up 23 touchdowns and picked off just five passes. Now, they’re losing multiple starters at corner. Luke Fickell certainly has work to do, but he’s been bringing in promising talent that could see the field in 2018. His defense will be solid on the line, but the players behind that line will continue to be the question until players emerge as reliable options.

11. ECU: The Pirates were bad last year, like many other positions on their team, but injuries didn’t do this group many favors. Corner may still be a question, but there are a few safeties returning. Auburn transfer Tim Irvin and Devon Sutton return, and hopefully will stay healthy. At corner, Colby Gore is the only returner of note. There’s a long way to go for this group.

12. UConn: When you finish last in the nation in passing, not returning many starters could be good and bad. There’s literally no way to go but up, but Jamar Summers isn’t around anymore to lead the group. The Huskies gave up 333.6 yards per game and allowed 34 touchdowns through the air.