Every spring brings a new beginning for college football teams, but it also means that they have to move on without some key pieces. Players break out, but that also means the NFL takes notice. Others simply run out of eligibility, and that can be tough for some programs to overcome. The AAC had a number of big names turn pro this year, and all of them leave giant holes at the position they vacate. Today we pick the 10 toughest players to replace in the AAC for the 2021 season.
1. RB Kenny Gainwell, Memphis
We’ve already seen the effect Gainwell’s absence had on the Memphis offense. He sat out the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, and the rushing attack suffered. Gainwell produced over 2,000 yards of total offense and 16 touchdowns back in 2019, and decided to take his talents to the NFL this year. Memphis needs to find a playmaker at running back, even if they don’t find another Gainwell, but they’ll definitely miss his production and talent.
2. LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa
Replacing 236 tackles isn’t easy, but it’s not that or the 25.0 tackles for loss or any of the other statistics Zaven Collins produced that Tulsa will miss. It’s the timing of it all. Especially last year, Collins made a number of clutch plays for the Golden Hurricane, including a game sealing interception against SMU and a game winning touchdown against Tulane. Tulsa’s defense returns every starter in 2021 except for Collins, but the question is if they have one player that can recreate his magic.
3. DE Payton Turner, Houston
No one did more for their draft stock than Payton Turner last year, even if he was snubbed in postseason awards. The Cougars defensive end produced 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, but also created pressure that won’t show up in the box score. He was easily Houston’s best defender, and it will be tough to replicate not only his production, but also his size and skillset too.
4. WR Marlon Williams, UCF
At times, Williams was a man among boys in 2020. The Knights leading receiver was dominant downfield for the offense, and they’ll need to find a physical presence to replace him. Jaylon Robinson and Ryan O’Keefe have the speed to open up the field, but there’s not anyone with Williams’ skillset that’s proven themselves yet.
5. QB Zach Smith, Tulsa
A lot of pressure is on Davis Brin and Seth Boomer. While Smith didn’t have the best year in 2020, he still elevated the play at quarterback for Tulsa the last two years. There’s still room for improvement going forward, as Tulsa still relies on the run game to get the ball rolling, but they’ll have the talent at receiver to be explosive through the air. Smith’s absence creates a need for consistency at a minimum at quarterback, and we’ve yet to see it from Boomer and Brin only played one game last year.
6. S Darrick Forrest, Cincinnati
The fact that Forrest had 200 tackles at safety shows he can play near the line of scrimmage. His six career interceptions show that he can also play well in coverage. Forrest was just one of the versatile players on the Cincinnati defense, and that could provide some obstacles for new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel to navigate. It’s one thing to replace a safety, but when that guy does so many things for you, it’s tough to find one guy that’s just like him.
7. QB Shane Buechele, SMU
This isn’t an insult on Buechele’s talent to have him this low, but rather an indication of how talented the offense will be this year. Don’t get it twisted, Buechele’s a talented quarterback who will be sorely missed, but the winner of the new quarterback battle gets to work with a ton of returning talent. Even though they lose 7,000 yards of offense, the new starter doesn’t have to be a hero to be successful.
8. DE Patrick Johnson, Tulane
Tulane will miss a couple players on its defensive line, with Johnson being the biggest departure. Whether he was rushing the passer or dropping back in coverage, everyone needed to know where he was at all times. He produced 35.0 tackles for loss and 21.0 sacks in his career to go with 11 passes defended, so he wore many hats for the Green Wave defense.
9. WR Marquez Stevenson, Houston
Stevenson’s been a blazer for the Cougars offense for years now, and his speed will be noticeably absent this year. He was a homerun threat at any moment both at receiver and kick returner, and it’s tough to see anyone on the current roster that can replicate that. At times, Stevenson was the loan bright spot in an offense lacking much firepower, so this could be a huge loss if someone doesn’t step up.
Cam Sample has had a great week. Consistent wins as a pass rusher. Flashing a lot of mobility that this class lacks at DT pic.twitter.com/jXzQLpQPuj— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 29, 2021
10. DE Cam Sample, Tulane
Finding one pass rusher is tough, but Tulane has to find two, and Sample was one of the most dominant players in the AAC last year. He’s currently making other players around the country look bad at combines and other draft events like the Senior Bowl, and Tulane’s busy finding his replacement. If that’s possible. The defense returns a bunch of key players from last year’s team, but filling Sample and Johnson’s spots will be there biggest challenges.