They say “it all starts up front” defensively, and that is true for the teams in the AAC. There’s talent on the defensive line in this conference, but there are also teams that struggled mightily last year. The AAC was, arguably, one of the worst conferences defensively in 2017, but will that change? Ed Oliver is the star of the league, but he can’t do everything alone....at least we don’t think he can.
Oliver is in a league of his own in terms of talent, but he needs help. Cincinnati has three potential stars on their team, but will the defense be more consistent than last year? ECU, UConn, and Tulsa all were awful defensively, and it was because they lost the battle in the trenches more often than not.
Once again, we split our positions into four groups: 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.
1. Cincinnati: Marquise Copeland, Kevin Mouhon, and Cortez Broughton all bring it on a daily basis, and all three could be All-Conference selections this year. The Bearcats should be a problem in the trenches, and there’s a ton of experience behind these three. Not to mention that Luke Fickell’s also doing great things on the recruiting trail, so this group could be dominant for a while.
2. Houston: Will Ed Oliver get some help this year? It surely seems that way. Oliver is the best defensive tackle in the country, and arguably the best player. Not only does he have the talent, but his nonstop motor is what makes him a star. No one has the energy to compete with him. Which means that double teams will come his way and teams will try to run the ball away from him. So who will help? Jerard Carter was limited with injuries last year, but can be great. TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers has yet to play a down of college football, but has fans raving about his potential. Payton Turner was thrust into action last year, and he’s added some valuable weight to his frame. This group could be one of the best in college football, and I’m sure Oliver wouldn’t mind if his production decreased because his teammates took some tackles away from him.
3. Temple: It was tough to tell how Geoff Collins and his defense would gel in his first year. Things were rocky at first, but eventually it became a steady relationship. The defensive line was relatively unknown coming into 2017, but it’s a different story this year. Even with the losses of Sharif Finch, Jacob Martin, and Julian Taylor, the Owls should be good again. Quincy Roche had 11.5 tackles for loss last year, and players like Michael Dogbe, Dan Archibong, and Freddie Booth-Lloyd could become stars at defensive tackle. Collins has a lot of experience to work with in his second year, and the Owls could be dangerous defensively because of it.
4. UCF: Tony Guerad and Jamiyus Pittman did so much for this group last year, and it will definitely be difficult to reproduce their impact. However, Trysten Hill (6’2”, 330 pounds), A.J. Wooten (6’5”, 285), and Joey Connors (6’1”, 313) are all great pieces to work with. Scott Frost also brought in some serious talent in this year’s recruiting class, so it’s not like the Knights will be scrambling for answers.
5. USF: Like the rest of the team, it seems that USF has a lot of talent on the defensive line. But does that mean they will be good? The Bulls lost three great players in this unit, and Charlie Strong will now have to find new bodies to step up. Luckily, the players he will pick from have 94 games of experience from last year. Marquies Price and Kirk Livingstone are the veterans of the group, and shouldn’t have to worry about inexperience being an issue. If Strong can unleash this group’s potential, watch out.
6. Navy: Experience may be lacking at linebacker, but that’s not the case at defensive line. Just one player who played in 13 games is gone. Everyone else is back. Nose guard Jackson Pittman (6’3”, 304 pounds) and defensive ends Josh Webb (6’5”, 250) and Jarvis Polu (6’3”, 292) will be the leaders of the group. Maybe even of the entire defense. One thing is for sure, the front seven should rely heavily on the men in the trenches early on.
Wait and See
7. Memphis: The Tigers lose just one player who played in double digit games last year, but there’s still a lot for this group to prove. O’Bryan Goodson can be an All-Conference player at nose tackle, and has underrated quickness. Players like Emmanuel Cooper, Jonathan Wilson and Joseph Dorceus saw quality time last year, and could translate that into more production this year. Memphis can’t rely on its offense to outscore their opponents every game, even if they have a ton of talent again this year. It all starts with this group defensively, and the talent is definitely there to improve.
8. Tulane: Ade Aruna took his talents to the NFL, and he was one of the few bright spots on the line. A lot of experience is also gone, but young talent like Cameron Sample and Patrick Johnson saw time as sophomores. Willie Fritz has many believing that this is the breakout year for his team. We will see if that is true. Injuries hurt this group last year, so health will be the primary concern for them going forward.
9. SMU: Sonny Dykes has a lot of work to do defensively. The Mustangs were not good to say the least, and now they have to replace 53 games of experience. Who will replace Justin Lawler? Tyeson Neals and Delontae Scott seem like they’re on their way after recording a combined 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. It’s no secret that this side of the ball needs help, and Dykes will need his defense to step up if his first season on campus is to be a successful one.
Room for Improvement
10. UConn: The Huskies defense was supposed to be the steady group last year, but something happened to make that change. Now, they need to replace five players that played a combined 59 games. Randy Edsall has a lot of work to do everywhere it seems, and defensive line is no exception.
11. Tulsa: Let’s put it this way: if your team’s strong safety has 90 tackles in a year, it means one of two things. He’s either a stud, or your team is getting dominated up front. Unfortunately for Tulsa, it was the latter. McKinley Whitfield led the team in tackles because the Golden Hurricane struggled mightily on defense. No returning player had more than 16 tackles or 2.5 tackles for loss last year, and that group returns just two sacks. Yikes.
12. ECU: Like nearly every other position, the only way to go is up, right? Jalen Price and Alex Turner will return with good experience, but the Pirates have a long ways to go defensively. Scottie Montgomery truly needs a miracle.