Finding diamonds in the rough is one of my favorite things to do in the offseason. Guys who most aren’t watching that you’re high on can give you a sense of pride when those players come through for you. Breakout players seemingly come out of nowhere except for those who have been predicting those feats early on in that players career. The AAC has a handful of players who are ready to do so, and now have the necessary playing time to do just that. With how heavily this conference leans towards the offense, it’s no surprise that all five below are on that side of the ball. Who are your breakout players in the AAC? Here are mine.
QB Holton Ahlers, ECU
ECU’s been hurting for winning seasons ever since Ruffin McNeil was let go, but it feels like this year is the one that brings them back. Mike Houston’s instilled belief in this fanbase, and they have a rising star in the conference at quarterback leading the charge. Ahlers already has four games of 400+ yards passing (including a career high 535 against Cincinnati) on his resume, and it seems like he’s ready to break out this year. If he can avoid a slow start in the first half of the season, the Pirates are going to be a nightmare to stop. Are you buying the hype? I know I am.
WR Rashee Rice, SMU
No James Proche, no problem right? Finding a replacement for the Mustangs great won’t be easy, but there are talented players remaining. Rice and Tyler Page should step up, but Rice’s performance last year (403 yards on 25 catches) leads many to believe that he’s ready for a bigger role. With teams focusing on Reggie Roberson and tight end Kylen Granson, the field should open up for Shane Buechele to find Rice more frequently this season.
WR Calvin Austin III, Memphis
Damonte Coxie draws all of the attention in the passing game, but now he finds himself in a position where he’ll need help. Austin returns after averaging 18.5 yards per catch on just 17 catches, making him the most experienced returning receiver after Coxie. He’s a speedster who can burn any defensive back, but now he’ll shoulder more responsibility. Memphis’ offense should remain one of the most explosive in the country, and Austin can keep the passing game that way if he can step up.
RB Bentavious Thompson, UCF
In a loaded backfield, I think it’s Thompson who stands out this year. UCF hasn’t had a back lead the team in rushing two years in a row since 2008-09, and that trend continues. Thompson’s the biggest of the three man rotation, and that’s going to help him endure more hits than the other two. Otis Anderson (5’11”, 174) and Greg McCrae (5’10”, 175) rely more on speed and quickness, so they’re limited running between the tackles. Thompson still has plenty of speed to go with his power, and it’s the biggest reason he’ll be the leading rusher.
RB Amare Jones, Tulane
If you liked Kenneth Gainwell for Memphis, it’s beginning to look like Jones is the next Gainwell. With Darius Bradwell gone, there are more touches to go around. Jones’ versatility gives the Green Wave a weapon that’s rare in college football. A running back who can run between the tackles but also become a wide receiver (and not just out of the backfield) is a threat that most teams don’t possess, and it’s the biggest reason why Jones will break out this year. He returns 738 total yards and six touchdowns, but more touches means that those numbers should jump up quite a bit.