Ed Oliver, Cortez Broughton, Nate Harvey, and Michael Dogbe headlined the defensive line for First Team All-Conference in the AAC. All are gone. In fact, only one defensive lineman returns out of the All-Conference selections in 2018 (Brendon Hayes).
New starters are needed nearly everywhere in the conference, and there doesn’t seem to be much elite talent. No one could ever match Oliver’s play, but there will be some solid depth on certain teams. Until you get to the bottom two teams, every squad has at least one guy that’s good. The depth becomes a concern for many, but there’s plenty of time to sort all of that out.
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 position isn’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. Memphis: The Tigers return the most solid experience of any team in the conference. Jonathan Wilson and O’Bryan Goodson return after having solid season. Joseph Dorceus and John Tate IV are also back, and both could have breakout seasons in 2019. All four players listed have big play ability, and will have an experienced group of linebackers behind them as well.
2. USF: Greg Reaves is as gifted as they come in the AAC. He made the switch from defensive end to middle linebacker after a season-ending injury to Nico Sawtelle. Reaves will move back to his natural position this season, and with fellow senior Kirk Livingstone at the other end, the Bulls will bring the heat. Two juniors named Kelvin - Kelvin Kegler and Kelvin Pinkney - are expected to man the middle of the interior line.
3. Tulane: If you don’t know Patrick Johnson’s name yet, get to know it quick. You’ll be hearing it a lot this season. Johnson returns after producing 49 tackles (14 for loss) and 10 sacks. At the other defensive end is promising junior Cameron Sample, who should benefit from teams shifting blockers towards Johnson. De’Andre Williams and Jeffrey Johnson also return at defensive tackle and nose tackle, respectively.
4. Cincinnati: Most of the time when you lose four of the top six sack leaders, you have a major problem. That’s not the case for Luke Fickell. Michael Pitts will likely man a defensive end spot, and Kevin Mouhon is expected to play after an injury kept him out all of last season. The Bearcats have recruited very well along the defensive line so expect to see a rotation of Curtis Brooks, Elijah Ponder and Marcus Brown hold down the defensive tackle positions.
5. UCF: Brendon Hayes is a problem, as not too many found ways to block him last year. UCF’s in good hands with him, but they need three other starters to emerge. Randy Charlton showed promise as a freshman, and should win the other end spot. Mason Cholewa is a tall man (6’7”) that can knock down a ton of passes with his length.
6. Temple: The Owls have become a breeding ground of NFL defensive linemen as five D-lineman have been drafted over the past four seasons. Quincy Roche could be the next in line after recording 57 tackles (nine for loss) and six sacks last season. Zach Mesday, Dana Levine, Dan Archibong and Karamo Dioubate will also big contributors.
7. Houston: It’s weird to see the Cougars so low, and even more strange to not see Ed Oliver on their roster. Isaiah Chambers showed in just four games that he can be an elite defensive end. He produced six tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks in those first four games before being injured. Payton Turner and Aymiel Fleming also return, but need to show improvement. Dana Holgorsen brought in a few junior college transfers to help boost this group.
Wait and See
8. ECU: Nate Harvey was not talked about enough last season after racking up 24.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He will not be easy to replace, but there are options. Defensive ends Kendall Futrell and Chance Purvis will look to replace some of those numbers, and seniors Jalen Price and Alex Turner are a solid duo up the middle.
9. SMU: Delontae Scott produced 10.5 tackles for loss last year, and his partner Turner Coxe had six. The Mustangs are looking to make a bowl game this year, and the defense is trying to fill some key openings. The front four all return from last year, giving the Mustangs some stability in this position group.
Room For Improvement
10. Tulsa: While it is a somewhat experienced group returning, they did little in terms of production last season. Trevis Gipson was disruptive, recording four sacks and five forced fumbles. The rest of the team? Not so much. The Golden Hurricane had just 14 sacks on the season, of which Gipson, Tyarise Stevenson and Cullen Wick accounted for six of them.
11. Navy: There’s really only one way to go from last year for the Midshipmen. After struggling defensively (especially against the run), Navy’s looking for answers up front. Jackson Pittman is the only returning starter, but even his spot could be up for grabs.
12. UConn: Get used to seeing the Huskies here in our rankings after being the worst defense in the history of college football. Travis Jones is the only real bright spot that returns, if 5.5 tackles for loss and a half sack are something to hang your hat on. It could be another long year for this young group.