A new season typically brings a bunch of new faces in the college football world. With how unique the 2020 season became, we’ll see less new faces in 2021. That doesn’t mean new stars won’t emerge, however. The AAC’s done well at reloading its talent year in and year out, and that won’t change this season. Today we take a look at the names of the guys that will have breakout seasons for their respective teams.
Cincinnati: S Bryan Cook
There’s good reason to believe Cook will ease the transition from Darrick Forrest and James Wiggins. He started against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, and former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman treated Cook like he’d been the starter all year. A fearless player, Cook can be utilized as a deep safety and near the line of scrimmage with success. He flies around the field against any competition, giving Bearcats fans a reason to breathe easier even with the loss of two great starters.
UCF: RB Bentavious Thompson
Thompson’s sat behind Adrian Killins, Otis Anderson, and Greg McCrae for three years, and now it’s his turn to run the backfield. Thompson rushed for a career high 604 yards in 2019, but has been limited in touches with the talent ahead of him. Now he’s the guy with the most experience, and the Knights offense gets a slightly different rushing attack with the power Thompson can bring.
Tulsa: RB Deneric Prince
This one’s tough because Tulsa returns so much talent, but Prince was clearly the best back overall. He only rushed for 475 yards in 2020, but he gives Tulsa the best chance to move the football consistently. The power in his legs allows him to break tackles even if a defender yanks his facemask. With Zach Smith gone, the offense might rely on the run game early in the season, and Prince handled loaded boxes the best of Tulsa’s options last year.
SMU: WR Danny Gray
Maybe he needed to get familiar with the offense, but Danny Gray didn’t break out in 2020 like many originally thought. With his speed, it won’t take long for him to make an impact on games this year. Even with another year of talented playmakers, Gray will get the least amount of attention of everyone returning. That’s not exactly the smartest decision a team can make when facing his speed, but guys like Rashee Rice and Reggie Roberson will command more attention from defensive backfields. That opens the field for Gray to tear up the field with his speed.
Houston: DE D’Anthony Jones
There are few players in the country who can time a snap like DeAnthony Jones. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s figured out how to time his jump when the ball is snapped, and it’s not just in one game. Now, with a new defensive coordinator and starting spots available, he gets a chance to prove he can be an every down defensive end. There’s plenty of competition, but Jones’ explosiveness is too good to leave him on the sidelines.
Tulane: QB Michael Pratt
Tulane needed a spark offensively, so they turned to the freshman Pratt early. He had his ups and downs, but showed good potential in his first season of college football. With a full year of experience under his belt, he should build on a year in which he threw for 20 touchdowns. With Deuce Watts and Jha’Quan Jackson returning at receiver, it shouldn’t be hard to see the Green Wave offense take a step forward in 2021.
Memphis: WR Javon Ivory
Memphis returns three great pass catchers in Calvin Austin III, Tahj Washington and Sean Dykes, but they have another great option in Ivory. It might be tough to find touches, but Ivory should fly under the radar even after averaging 15.5 yards per catch last year. He’s an athletic pass catcher who gives the Tigers a bigger target on the outside.
Navy: FB Jamale Carothers
Okay so Carothers already established himself two years ago, but I think he’s set to break back out this season. After a weird season, Navy’s looking to bounce back, and they’ll do that behind the legs of their fullback. If he gets back to his 2019 form of 6.6 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns, the Midshipmen will get back on track.
ECU: QB Holton Ahlers
I only get one more chance to say this, Holton Ahlers will have a breakout year this year. Yes, it’s in his final season as an ECU Pirate, but I’m ready for it to happen. ECU’s offense has the weapons to make AAC defenses sweat, but we haven’t seen them take that step yet. This is it for Ahlers, and it would be a great way to go out if he put up career numbers.
USF: QB Jarren Williams
Williams’ tenure in Miami was less than stellar, but a change of scenery could be just what he needs. USF is desperate for some sort of offensive explosion, and has been since Quinton Flowers left. Jeff Scott’s trying to rebuild the culture, and a guy like Williams has the talent to turn things around for the better.
Temple: QB Re-al Mitchell
If D’Wan Mathis is granted eligibility, I’d put him ahead of Mitchell. Temple struggled with having enough healthy players last year, including the quarterback position. Mitchell never seemed to get comfortable with the Owls, but hopefully that changes in 2021. With his speed, the Temple offense could have a dangerous running game, but they’ll need to create room for him to run and time for him to throw.