I think the biggest thing I’ve come to learn in the years I’ve covered this conference is the number of potential NFL Draft picks that develop every year. Some are obvious, while other emerge as the season progresses. In the first two parts, some of those guys could develop into NFL players, but now we’re getting to the portion of players where it’s more obvious. Once you reach the Top 30 in the AAC, it’s tougher to pick a list, and I know I made multiple adjustments to these next three parts. That’s how good this conference is though, and it’s what makes this conference so exciting to watch year in and year out.
30. QB Holton Ahlers, ECU
If Ahlers can find a way to start out hot, watch out AAC. Normally a slow starter, the Pirates quarterback typically figures things out by the second half of the season. In the last two years, he’s averaged 211.3 yards per game with 11 total touchdowns and eight interceptions in his first four games, while he’s averaged 329.1 yards per game with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his last four. The roller coaster keeps fans on the edge of their seat, but they’d like it if the ride toned down a tiny bit. Raising the floor is the obvious fix that’s most desired, and ECU becomes a serious contender if he’s able to do that.
29. S Kendarin Ray, Tulsa
After losing Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans to Missouri, the Golden Hurricane’s secondary suddenly finds themselves in need of playmakers. Luckily for them, safety won’t be a concern with Ray running the show. Tulsa’s defense likes to see their linebackers all over the field, and Ray does a little bit of everything from covering deep to playing near the line of scrimmage. He had 62 tackles and seven passes defended last year, and those numbers could rise without two key players in the lineup.
28. OT Samuel Jackson, UCF
UCF's Samuel Jackson doesn't get enough credit for his versatility pic.twitter.com/wc06sf4m1W— Joe Broback (@joebroback) March 1, 2021
Mr. Versatility, Jackson played every position on the line except for center for the Knights. With 40 games of experience already, Jackson provides the steadying force and depth all by himself, which is something not many teams have in the entire country. Even with the Knights returning every starter on the line, it’s Jackson who brings the most value to that unit. He might not be the best linemen on the team, but you can’t stress the importance of his versatility to this line.
27. CB Damarion Williams, Houston
I’ll continue to say this: Damarion Williams does not get nearly enough recognition for his play. His performance against former Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb was largely overshadowed by the Sooners blowout win, but Williams held his own against one of college football’s best, and hasn’t stopped since then. With Marcus Jones improving as a corner, Williams should expect teams to continue testing him as there’s not a good side to throw at with Houston’s corners. Williams in his two years at Houston produced 100 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and 12 passes defended. Until the offense shows it can be explosive, it might be Houston’s defense that keeps the team in games for now.
26. RB Shamari Brooks, Tulsa
Tulsa found out how deep it’s running back group was last year quickly thanks to an unfortunate injury to Brooks, who missed the entire season. That’s 2,700 yards and 23 touchdowns of experience that they lost a week before the season began. Fortunately, they had three other backs that could carry the load, but now two of those guys are gone. Brooks’ return has been highly anticipated, and Golden Hurricane fans hope that he can return to his 2019 form when he rushed for 1,046 yards and six touchdowns.
25. C Matthew Lee, UCF
Here’s the thing. Matthew Lee was one of the worst players in the AAC to start the season, and most of that wasn’t his fault. The coaching staff asked him to process things at speeds that he wasn’t ready for, and the results were a plethora of miscommunications and false start penalties. Yes, he shouldn’t have committed those penalties, but also the coaching staff made a freshman do things he wasn’t prepared to do. Fortunately, Lee put it altogether and turned himself into a First Team All-Conference player at the end of 2020. The penalties went down, and Lee reminded people why the Knights brought him to campus by pancaking anyone he could.
24. RB Deneric Prince, Tulsa
With Corey Taylor II off to the NFL and T.K. Wilkerson medically retiring, Tulsa found itself with less depth than they anticipated for 2021. Fortunately, Prince returns alongside the aforementioned Shamari Brooks. So running back will once again be just find. Prince brings a great blend of speed and power to his game, and the former Texas A&M transfer is ready to have a monster season. Tulsa returns everyone on the offensive line, making it more likely than not that Prince exceeds his 475-yard, four touchdown output from last year. We could see two 1,000 yard rushers for the Golden Hurricane too if the quarterback position doesn’t pan out.
23. OT Chris Paul, Tulsa
No, not CP3, but yes still Chris Paul. And no, not the guy from the insurance commercials. The only insurance this Chris Paul provides is one that insures his team that his quarterback is protected and his running backs have room to run. At 6’4”, 331 pounds, Paul provides another big body to a massive offensive line who can dominate in the trenches. His 33 games of experience give the Golden Hurricane a reliable blocker on the outside as well.
22. OT Jaylon Thomas, SMU
The Mustangs tackle continues getting interest from analysts and scouts at the next level, and he’ll see the spotlight shine on him a little brighter this year. With a new quarterback entering the picture, their protection becomes even more vital if the offense wants to get back to being explosive. Time to throw will come at a premium early in the season, and Thomas plays a big role in determining that. A preseason First Team All-AAC selection, Thomas should be in the same place when the season ends, and is one of many key pieces returning on the offensive line.
21. DE Big Kat Bryant, UCF
Gus Malzahn brought some Auburn talent with him to Orlando, but Bryant is generating the most buzz. Stuck behind some studs and in a rotation at Auburn, he should step in right away and start for the Knights. He has a career 56 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, three interceptions, and four passes defended, and it feels like he’s capable of putting that kind of production up in 2021 alone. UCF’s defense took a step back last year mostly due to injuries and inexperience, but Bryant comes in to help in that regard.