We’ve reached the Top 20. These are the 20 best players in the conference, but some won’t be the best at their position. That says a lot about the conference as a whole, and should scare your team if it’s not one of your guys.
20. DE Greg Reaves, USF
It’s rare to see someone be successful at a new position, but Reaves made a seamless transition from defensive end to inside linebacker in the middle of the 2018 season.
He took over for an injured Nico Sawtelle, and posted 66 of his career-best 89 tackles in the final seven games at linebacker. He racked up double-digit tackles in four of those games, including a USF bowl record (14) against Marshall.
Reaves will move back to his natural position to start the season, and with Kirk Livingston manning the other defensive end spot, USF is hopeful the duo can bolster a defensive line that was run over for much of the year. The Bulls also have some added insurance in Reaves should the linebacker group struggle once again.
19. OL Dustin Woodard, Memphis
Memphis found the best way to replace Drew Kyser without cloning him. Woodard played guard last year, but will make the move to center in 2019. Mike Norvell liked what he saw out of him last year, but that also means a new guard is needed. Luckily, Woodard can help the new starter get settled. Woodard’s yet to miss a game in his career, making him the most experienced lineman the Tigers have to offer. He’ll be a valuable leader in an offense that should be explosive again this season.
18. CB Nevelle Clarke, UCF
The Knights are featured quite a bit in this piece, including three in a row that earned first-team All-AAC honors a year ago.
Clarke is first up, who filled Mike Hughes’ role more than admirably, finishing third in the conference in passes defended (13), along with two interceptions. Many thought he would follow Hughes in departing early for the NFL, but he ultimately decided to stay in Orlando for one more season.
Now entering his senior season, Clarke is a part of a secondary that is one of the best in the AAC. Clark and Brandon Moore make up the best cornerback duo in the American, which is a plus in a conference that loves to air it out. All-AAC honors should be expected once again after this season.
17. OL Jordan Johnson, UCF
In the 39 games that Johnson’s played in his career, he started 38. UCF’s offensive success is largely credited to the playmakers, but it’s their center who deserves just as much acknowledgement. The Knights are 31-7 in his tenure, and he’s made First Team All-Conference twice now. He should eclipse 40 wins and add another All-Conference honor to his resume this year, and more national awards are heading his way too.
16. LB Nate Evans, UCF
When you watch the film on UCF’s defense, Evans pops out because he is literally all over the field. The All-AAC first teamer was second on the team in tackles (99), and made plays in the backfield and coverage.
Evans racked up 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four passes defended, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. He was one of three Knights defenders to score a touchdown last season after taking one of those fumble recoveries for a 94-yard touchdown against ECU. He was basically unstoppable in the blowout of the Pirates.
Now entering his senior season, Evans will be asked to take on more as Pat Jasinski is longer with the program. With his sideline-to-sideline play, Evans will stuff the stat sheet and once again earn all-conference honors.
15. CB Mike Hampton, USF
When you play on the opposite side of Mazzi Wilkins, teams are going to test you more frequently. Hampton found that out quickly, but didn’t shy away from the tests. Now, he’s the man, and should be tested less frequently.
He defended 16 passes last year, and picked off two. He also finished Top 10 in tackles for the Bulls. Charlie Strong’s team should be better defensively this year, and that improvement could help them compete for the AAC East this year.
14. WR Darnell Mooney, Tulane
Gone are the days of the Green Wave being a predominantly run-first team thanks to having an explosive player at wide out in Mooney. The 5-foot-11-inch receiver led the conference in yards per reception last season at 20.7 yards, which was also eighth best in the nation. Those numbers should increase this season.
Mooney will make a mark on the Tulane history books when it’s all said and done. He should move into the top 10, and maybe even top five in school history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns when the 2019 campaign comes to an end.
The emergence of quarterback Justin McMillan, the addition of Oklahoma State transfer Jalen McCleskey and the return of both running backs makes this group the best the program has seen since the Tommy Bowden era. Tulane’s window to win will be short lived as much of the talent on offense are seniors.
13. LB Cooper Edmiston, Tulsa
Edmiston and Zaven Collins give the Golden Hurricane arguably the best linebacker duo in the conference. Which is weird when you think about how bad the Tulsa defense has been lately. Not Edmiston though. He’s been as productive as anyone.
Last year, he recorded 113 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. You name it, he did it, and he’s back to do it again. Tulsa needs a strong showing this year if Phillip Montgomery wants to keep his job, and the defense plays a big role in that outcome.
12. WR Damonte Coxie, Memphis
Many wondered if anyone on the Tigers roster could fill the void of Anthony Miller’s departure for the NFL. They found their next man up quickly.
Coxie was the go-to guy in the passing game as his 72 receptions were almost double Tony Pollard’s, who was second on the team with 39 receptions. He was in the top five in the AAC in every receiving category, and ranked 16th in receiving yards (1,174) in the FBS.
The Louisiana native still has two years of eligibility and could potentially top the Memphis charts if he decides to play all four years. Another 1,000-yard season will put him in third place in receiving yards, and if he matches last year’s touchdown total (7), he would be tied for fifth. Coxie is going to be a problem for AAC defenses again this season.
11. RB Greg McCrae, UCF
McCrae surprised most of us, and even some Knights fans by exploding last year. As if the Knights didn’t have enough weapons in their backfield, they added another. Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson gave teams a ton to worry about defensively. In steps McCrae and adds another wrinkle.
The sophomore averaged 8.9 yards per carry last year. 8.9. By himself. He nearly picked up a first down anytime he touched the ball. His 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing led the team, and he’s back for more.