Special teams are kind of like offensive lineman. You don’t notice them unless they’re screwing up. Kick and punt returners get a little more love because they can make electric plays, but the kicker and punter don’t get that same luxury. The AAC boasts two of the best punters in the game, and they also have some dangerous returners. Whether you’re trying to flip the field or put points on the board, the AAC should thrive in both this year.
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. Temple: A new punter must emerge, but the Owls return one of the most dangerous return men in the country. Isaiah Wright returned two punts and one kickoff to the house, and no one else in the conference comes close to that. Will Mobley returns at kicker, where he went 11-for-15 on field goals last year.
2. Memphis: Year after year, the Tigers have one of the top special teams units in the country. Riley Patterson was second in the AAC in points scored, trailing only his former teammate Darrell Henderson. Tony Pollard also departed for the NFL, but it was John “Pop” Williams who led the conference in punt return yards. Punter Adam Williams should improve entering his sophomore season.
3. Houston: Dane Roy returns as one of the most consistent punters in the country, and he’s improved his average every year. Dalton Witherspoon made all of his 72 extra points last year and went 7-for-9 on field goals. Returners Marquez Stevenson and Bryson Smith didn’t score on any returns, but they’re dangerous with the football in their hands.
4. USF: If you needed any evidence of the Bulls’ special teams abilities, the Georgia Tech game provided it. USF returned two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets, and return a good group of returners. Colby Weiss’ four missed extra points last year could be a concern, but otherwise he’s alright. Trent Schneider’s 42.9 yard average per punt could help flip the field this year.
5. Tulane: Amare Jones is a player to keep an eye on this season. He led the AAC in yards per kickoff return, which was seventh best in the country. Punter Ryan Wright finished third in the AAC in yards per punt, while Merek Glover has been solid in his two seasons as the kicker for the Green Wave.
6. Cincinnati: Luke Fickell’s team finished second in the nation in net punting as James Smith did a phenomenal job of flipping the field when his number was called. The major concern is Cole Smith finishing last season with more field goals missed (7) than made (5). James Wiggins is one of the top players in the conference, but was just so-so as a kick returner, and the same can be said for Aulden Knight as a punt returner.
7. Tulsa: Thomas Bennett finished tied for first in the conference in punting with an average of 46.6 yards. That’s a booming leg. It also put him tied for fourth in the country. NFL teams will take a note of that for sure. Both Sam Crawford and Keylon Stokes will handle the kick return duties, while Jarion Anderson returns as the punt returner. Kicker John Parker Romo only kicked 18 extra points (he made 17) and only kicked five field goals (he made two).
Wait and See
8. UCF: The Knights will still be dynamic in the return game with Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson, but losing both Matthew Wright and Mac Loudermilk are huge blows to the kicking game. Both were arguably the best in UCF history at their respective positions and will tough to replace.
9. SMU: Kevin Robledo was solid as a kicker, and should get more opportunities this year. Punter Jamie Sackville has a great name, but could improve his average. James Proche is the leading kick and punt returner for the Mustangs, but Sonny Dykes should look to find other guys to pick up those duties. Proche will see a lot of action offensively at receiver, and will need a break on special teams.
Room for Improvement
10. ECU: Jake Verity was a first-team All-AAC selection last season as his 90.5 field goal percentage was tied for fourth best in the country. Jonn Young was second in the AAC in punting yards (2.875), but was also second in punt attempts (71) so take that for what it’s worth. Anthony Scott and Trevon Brown were the primary returners last year, but neither will return.
11. UConn: Luke Magliozzi saw the field quite a bit last year as a freshman. He punted 63 times and posted a 42.9 yard average. Unfortunately, it’s looking like he’ll see the field even more as a sophomore. Keiyon Dixon gives the Huskies a decent option at kick returner.
12. Navy: Bennett Moehring leaves Annapolis as the program leader in PAT made in a single season and career. Punter Owen White has a big leg, and has seen action at kicker and kickoff duties. Malcolm Perry, Navy’s jack-of-all-trades, led the team in return yards, but if he’s going to be the starter at quarterback, there is almost no chance he’s returning kicks as well.