We’ve officially reached “elite” territory. Everyone on this list is a dude, and is well known among coaches in the conference. One player likely won’t step on the field this year, but we include him because of his impact the past two seasons. Buckle up for the Top 10 players in the AAC.
10. CB TJ Carter, Memphis
The 5-foot-11 cornerback from Nashville has been an instant star for the Memphis Tigers, recording a fumble recovery on his very first collegiate snap. He was the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2017 as a true freshman, breaking the school record for most interceptions in a season (5).
Even with offenses avoiding Carter as much as possible last season, he still led Memphis in passes defended (14), and is not afraid to stick his nose into the action with 58 solo tackles, good for second best on the team.
Carter is a two-time, second-team All-AAC selection that will likely earn first-team honors in 2019 as he was named to the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, which is given to the best defensive back in college football. Should he live up to what many expect of him this year, Carter could be a hot commodity for pro teams once bowl season comes around.
9. QB McKenzie Milton, UCF
Before a huge debate rages, let’s clarify something. If he were healthy/never got hurt, Milton would be second. The severity of his injury worries us about his future even if he does come back and play. We couldn’t make this list and not include him. UCF’s offense sorely missed him last year in the bowl game, and looks to Brandon Wimbush to keep their magical run going.
The reigning Conference Player of the Year is highly unlikely to play this year, but hopefully he can come back next year and continue dominating. He’s a dual threat with abilities that only few can match.
8. S James Wiggins, Cincinnati
The play of the Bearcats’ defense was the major catalyst in Luke Fickell’s squad winning 11 games last season, and Wiggins was a major piece to the puzzle. No one would have expected it after recording just a tackle in one game of action his freshman season.
He was all over the field for Cincinnati in 2018, totaling four interceptions, nine passes defended, five pass breakups and 36 total tackles, tied for most on the team. He also averaged 20.9 yards per return on kickoffs. Even more is expected as Wiggins enters his second full season as a starter.
In a conference that is known for airing it out, the Bearcats can take pride knowing they have the best secondary in the AAC. Paired with fellow safety Darrick Forrest, and Cam Jefferies and Coby Bryant also returning, it will be tough to throw on this unit in 2019.
7. WR Marquez Stevenson, Houston
Stevenson didn’t waste any time introducing himself to college football fans, and he’s back for more. Only a junior, we could see him in a Cougars uniform another year after this one. In his first full season as a starter, Stevenson amassed 1,019 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. Houston also handed him the ball 14 times for 126 yards and two more scores on the ground.
Besides his lightning quickness, Stevenson’s balance stands out. Though he isn’t the biggest guy on the field, he plays big and refuses to go down easily. Teams will shift their attention his way this year, but Dana Holgorsen and his staff will find ways to get him the ball no matter how many guys watch him.
6. WR James Proche, SMU
The Mustangs are putting out a lineage of wide receiver products and Proche is the latest to etch his name in the school’s history books. The senior from Dallas is fifth all-time at SMU with 24 career receptions touchdowns and seventh all-time in both career receptions (190) and receiving yards (2,724).
Proche is coming off a junior season in which he was one of the top receivers in the nation. He finished with 93 catches for 1,199 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading the AAC in each category. His numbers were fifth in the nation in receptions, eighth in receiving touchdowns and 12th in receiving yards.
It remains to be seen if Proche can post the same figures with Ben Hicks no longer at SMU. Whether its Shane Buechele or William Brown at quarterback this season, they have a NFL-caliber receiver to get the ball to.
5. DE Patrick Johnson, Tulane
A rising star, Johnson could be a first round pick in the NFL Draft. His 14 tackles for loss and 10 sacks led the team last year, and he’s set to post even bigger numbers. In addition to living in the opposing backfield, Johnson can move out in space to cover receivers. That versatility is something scouts will love watching.
4. RB Patrick Taylor, Memphis
Darrell Henderson got A LOT of the attention last season, and it was well deserved as the now Los Angeles Rams running back led the nation in yards per touch. Losing such a big piece of the offense would cripple some teams, but Henderson wasn’t the only Tigers back giving defenses fits.
Taylor and Henderson each rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, one of four college football teams to have two players reach the milestone (surprisingly, one of the other four teams was UConn). With Henderson and Tony Pollard no longer with the program, it’s Taylor’s turn to be the cowbell and cement himself as one of the best to play the position at Memphis.
There is no shot of reaching DeAngelo Williams’ absurd career numbers, but Taylor trails his former teammate by 1,011 rushing yards and five rushing scores to move into second place all-time in Tigers history. Based on what we have seen from Taylor when splitting the work, there is no reason to think otherwise as the lead back, and he could be in the discussion of AAC Player of the Year when it is all said and done.
3. S Richie Grant, UCF
It’s not great that the Knights’ safety led the team in tackles last year, but if proves he can do it. Grant’s not afraid to stick his nose into alleys and make a play. His 108 tackles led the team, but he’s also great in coverage.
Many have picked him as a Top 10 safety in all of college football. When you pick off six passes, people tend to notice. While Grant would appreciate more time spent intercepting passes, he’s shown that he’ll do just about anything for this group. With some uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball for the first time in two years, the defense might have to run the show early for UCF. Guys like Grant are up for the challenge if needed.
2. RB Michael Warren II, Cincinnati
When we did our running back previews last season, we assumed that Gerrid Doaks would be the feature back for the Bearcats. He was the team’s leader in rushing in 2017 after all, despite missing three games due to injury. Unfortunately, a groin injury sidelined him for the entire 2018 season.
That left the door open for Warren to be the primary ball carrier, and he literally ran away with the job. He led the AAC in rushing attempts (244) and plays from scrimmage (269), while also finishing second in rushing yards (1,329) and third in points (120). His 19 rushing touchdowns was fourth best in the nation.
The return of Doaks, and the promising play from Taivon Thomas and Charles McClelland might take away some of Warren’s touches, but he can make himself a household name if he can continue racking up big numbers.
1. QB D’Eriq King, Houston
We’ve said it for a while and we’ll say it again: D’Eriq King is the best player in this conference, no question. He was robbed for Conference Player of the Year last year, and deserves more respect from all of college football.
King was one of three players to account for 50 or more touchdowns last year. He did that in 11 games, and might have led all of college football in touchdowns if he didn’t get hurt. Dana Holgorsen’s staff gives him yet another playbook, but that won’t slow him down at all. Holgorsen said he won’t run King as much this year, so his passing numbers should improve. Regardless of what happens, King’s talent is too good to ignore, and we need to give him the respect he deserves.