Will there be any stars in the front seven this year? The AAC boasts quality talent up front, but we haven’t seen someone like Shaquem Griffin or Ed Oliver since they left. Many teams should adopt a “by committee” approach this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Relying on one player can be a hindrance at times (just ask Oliver and Houston), so depth can be a valuable asset. More cohesive units tend to be better anyways, and the AAC coaches know the explosive offenses they’ll face on a weekly basis. So maybe not having a star is better?
Elite: This is the goal. The top of the mountain. Everyone wants to be here.
Second Tier: Good not great.
Wait and See: Your team could be good or they could be bad. Just let them play it out.
1. Navy: We talk about the triple option offense for the Midshipmen quite a bit, but the defense also proved it’s worth a conversation. Diego Fagot and Jacob Springer combined for 170 tackles (28 for loss) last year along with 13.5 sacks. If they can get solid play up front, they should repeat or even improve upon those numbers in 2020.
2. SMU: It finally happened. We finally got to see what an attacking Mustangs defense looked like, and it helped give SMU 10-win season. Granted, there were still some flaws in the defense, but they at least didn’t just sit back and watch it happen. They lose playmakers like Rodney Clemons and Patrick Nelson, but the linebackers will keep this group steady. Richard McBryde led the team in tackles (99) last year, and he’s joined by Delano Robinson who finished fourth on the team in tackles.
3. UCF: Losing a stud like Nate Evans would hurt any group of linebackers. The Knights might not have another Evans on the roster yet, but they have good depth to get the job done. Eriq Gilyard and Eric Mitchell are the experienced veterans that will lead the group, and combined for 154 tackles (16 for loss).
4. Cincinnati: With how many linebackers the Bearcats used last year, it’s not a surprise that they’ll be just fine even without Perry Young and Bryan Wright. Jarell White returns as the most experienced of the group, but he’ll find himself in a fierce competition for playing time. Michael Pitts (8.0 TFL) and Ethan Tucky (9.0) were disruptive in their limited reps, while Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers are also in the mix.
5. Memphis: Bryce Huff is gone, meaning someone needs to step up and be the disruptive player that he was for the Tigers. If Huff could replace Genard Avery, someone can do the same for Huff. It might just be by committee. JJ Russell, Tim Hart, Xavier Cullens, and Thomas Pickens all return, and that experience helps in a new scheme.
6. USF: Despite the team struggles overall, the Bulls should be just fine defensively this year. That gives Jeff Scott more time to focus on fixing the offense. Dwayne Boyles had a solid season in 2019, recording 74 tackles (12.5 for loss) and 3.0 sacks. Antonio Grier was right behind him with 57 tackles (8.5 for loss). After that, there’s solid depth with Andrew Mims and Demaurez Bellamy competing for playing time.
7. Houston: There’s plenty that needs to improve with the Houston Cougars defense this year, and linebacker isn’t an exception. However, the Coogs have plenty of potential at the position. They just need to find ways to get guys on the field. Donavan Mutin, Zamar Kirven, and Terrance Edgeston all return to compete for the two linebacker spots, meaning one won’t be on the field at any give time. Edgeston’s injuries limited his reps last year, giving Mutin and Kirven time to grow. All three can be great, and Year 2 will give us a chance to see how much they learned in their first season.
Wait and See
8. Tulane: It depends on where you put Patrick Johnson. If you consider him a linebacker, then the Green Wave are here (maybe even higher). If you take him away, then they’re at the bottom of the conference. We’ll just give Tulane a little help by including him. Marvin Moody also returns with 56 tackles, but that’s it for good experience. Nick Anderson could play a bigger role after producing 26 tackles last year, but it’s fairly wide open at the position in 2020.
9. Tulsa: Zaven Collins is a stud who will take over for Cooper Edmiston as the leader of the defense. Collins proved that he can do a little bit of everything, and now inherits the challenge of becoming the leader of the linebackers. There’s not much (if any) proven talent behind him, so there should be some growing pains associated with the transition, but Collins will make plays until the new guys get into the swing of things.
10. Temple: Here’s the thing: Temple could very well be one of the best defenses again this year even with all of the talent lost. But it’s tough to project that. The Owls lose their top three tacklers who also happened to be their top three linebackers on the team. The leading returner is Isaiah Graham-Mobley, who recorded just 36 tackles last year.
11. ECU: Xavier Smith, Gerard Stringer, and Bruce Bivens combined for 205 tackles last year, but none were that disruptive (a combined 6.0 tackles for loss). ECU’s defense has a lot of pressure on them, especially if the offense takes off like it’s supposed to this year.