In 2021, the American Athletic Conference fielded some of the country’s premier defensive lines. Houston took the nation by storm by ranking among the elite in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, while Cincinnati qualified for the College Football Playoff with a slew of NFL talent.
But 2022 is a new year and zero 2021 First Team All-AAC defensive line selections return to the conference. Overall, just two of the eight all-conference defensive line honorees are running it back in the AAC for 2022 — Houston defensive end Derek Parish and SMU defensive tackle Elijah Chatman.
Parish and Chatman lead some of the conference’s premier d-lines in 2022. In this positional preview, each AAC team’s defensive front is analyzed and classified into one of three categories based on expectations for this coming season. That being said, which teams are most prepared to apply backfield pressure and disrupt ball carriers at the line of scrimmage this fall?
Elite: Self-explanatory tier but these teams are dominant at defensive line and will be at the top of the conference in terms of production.
Second Tier: These teams have talent at defensive line but questions exist at the position.
Wait and See: These teams have more than a couple of questions left to be answered at defensive line.
Houston: What’s not to like about a defensive line that has its own nickname? “Sack Avenue” took college football by storm last fall as Houston produced the fifth-highest sack total in the FBS with 45.
A vast majority of those sacks were produced by the defensive line, as all seven Cougars to produce at least 3.5 sacks were part of that esteemed group. Houston lost Logan Hall and David Anenih to the NFL this offseason, but the traffic on Sack Ave. still resembles rush hour. Derek Parish is a menace to opposing offensive lines and returns for his fifth season after posting career highs in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (12.0) last fall. Latrell Bankston served as a very promising transfer from Iowa State with 3.5 sacks before a midseason injury hampered his availability. Projected starting defensive tackle Sedrick Williams is another Cougar eager to return to the lineup after an injury-riddled 2021.
This defensive line possesses coveted depth. Defensive tackle Atlias Bell (3.5 sacks, 7.0 TFLs in 2021) and defensive ends D’Anthony Jones (6.0 sacks, four forced fumbles) and Nelson Ceasar (3.5 sacks, 22 tackles) are additional weapons Houston can flex to carry over its dominant pass rush and top-ten rushing defense into another memorable season.
SMU: The Mustangs’ front seven is going to wreak havoc in 2022. The pairing of Elijah Chatman and DeVere Levelston might be one of the most underrated defensive line duos in all of college football. Chatman earned All-AAC honors last year behind 40 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and a pair of fumble recoveries. Levelston leveled quarterbacks to the tune of 6.5 sacks (second in the AAC) and led all Mustangs with 10.5 tackles for loss. Splitting the middle is 6’0”, 324 pound Terrance Newman who enters his fifth year with the program.
Not only is SMU stacked with its current defensive line group — some of the Mustangs’ former defensive ends converted to outside linebacker and are thriving there. Turner Coxe and Gary Wiley fit this description and combined for 16 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2021. SMU checks off the pass rushing, run stopping, size, and strength boxes in its 2022 defensive line, making the group in Dallas one of the most formidable in the conference.
UCF: In the Scott Frost and Josh Heupel eras, explosive, up-tempo offenses were always the focal point in Orlando. But the Knights underwent a rebrand around midseason last year and started winning games like the Iowa Hawkeyes — emerging victorious with scores like 20-16, 24-7, 14-10, and 17-13.
Much of UCF’s defensive turnaround under coordinator Travis Williams can be attributed to accelerated defensive line play. The unit’s leader, Big Kat Bryant, departed to the next level after one season in Orlando, but the Knights still return a slew of more-than-viable bodies.
Defensive end Tre’mon Morris-Brash is the most adept pass rusher who should fill Bryant’s role on the line, while defensive end Josh Celiscar and defensive tackle Ricky Barber are other disruptive veterans with All-AAC potential. That’s plenty of returning talent for a team which ranked third in the conference with 2.8 sacks per game last year. The unit lost defensive tackle and Gasparilla Bowl standout Cam Goode to Michigan in the transfer portal, but Gus Malzahn’s SEC roots can make amends for that loss with transfer portal additions of Kentucky defensive end K.D. McDaniel and Auburn defensive tackle Lee Hunter.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats ranked third behind Georgia and LSU in most NFL Draft selections last April, so the 2022 season is certain to be a massive rebuilding project for Luke Fickell. Myjai Sanders is a major loss at defensive end after shredding through offensive lines to the tune of 24.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks over the last three seasons. Even defensive tackle Curtis Brooks warranted an NFL Draft selection, leaving two-thirds of the Bearcats’ starting defensive line spots vacant.
The lone returner is defensive end Malik Vann, who posted career highs across the board in 2021 including 8.5 tackles for loss. But Jowon Briggs should certainly provide a supporting hand at defensive tackle, as he entered the starting lineup toward the end of 2021 and produced impressive numbers around late November. The final spot is likely reserved for Jabari Taylor. He started 11 games in 2019 and 2020 and served a prominent role in the defensive line rotation last season 5.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Cincinnati may have experienced major overhauls, but Fickell still has a favorable hand of cards to work with as the Bearcats aim to sustain their top five scoring defense.
East Carolina: The Pirates’ defensive line depth should look similar in structure when compared to the previous iteration. East Carolina returns all three of its three starters up front from its best defense since 2015.
No Pirate registered more than three sacks last year, but it was a collective effort in rushing the quarterback, as the Pirates still averaged a respectable 2.2 per game — tied for 69th in the FBS. Defensive end Immanuel Hickman was the lone member of the line to reach this three-sack threshold, and the 6’3”, 257-pound athlete is expected to lead the war on opposing backfields after recording a team-best seven tackles for loss. Rick D’Abreu, who finished first among all linemen in tackles last year, will occupy the defensive tackle slot in Blake Harrell’s 3-4 defense after completing his second full season as a starter.
Lining up in between the aforementioned veterans will be nose tackle Elijah Morris, who pitched in 2.5 sacks last year after garnering national recognition in 2020 for ranking third nationally in fumble recoveries. East Carolina didn’t experience too much transfer portal movement, but the depth is bolstered with the addition of Charles Southern all-conference defensive tackle Shaundre Mims, who led the FCS’s Big South conference with 10 sacks in 2019.
Tulane: No AAC defensive line lost more firepower from 2020 to 2021 than Tulane. The Green Wave lost First Team All-AAC defensive ends Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample to the NFL level, thus leaving a massive void in the trenches.
Don’t let the 2-10 record fool you — Tulane’s defensive line restocked brilliantly in 2021. The Green Wave finished second in the AAC in both per game sacks (31st nationally) and tackles for loss (25th nationally). It all starts with Darius Hodges, who lines up in the signature ‘joker’ position which is essentially a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. Hodges created relentless chaos in 2021 with an AAC-best 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and two forced fumbles — and was shockingly snubbed from the all-conference teams.
Tulane also boasted some of the most impressive interior depth in the league, but Joseph Dorceus turned pro and 330-pound nose tackle Jeffery Johnson transferred to Oklahoma, but the Green Wave are prepared for these losses. Sophomore Adonis Friloux served as a reliable part of the defensive tackle rotation in 2020 and 2021 and now he’s poised for a full-time starting role. Also, Patrick Jenkins is a welcomed addition from the portal after accruing four tackles for loss in a TCU uniform last fall.
Tulsa: First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Tulsa cannot simply replace the Jaxon Player-sized vacancy at defensive tackle. Player transferred to Baylor after an extraordinary career on the plains which featured two All-AAC selections, 31 tackles for loss, and eight sacks. But transfer portal taketh, transfer portal giveth. In return Tulsa received Colorado defensive tackle Jayden Simon, a former scout team MVP who saw eight games of action for the Buffaloes in 2021.
Outside of Player, Tulsa experienced considerable turnover by losing senior defensive end Cullen Wick and defensive tackle Elijah Taylor — fourth and fifth on the team in sacks, respectively. But the Golden Hurricane return with their main sack headman in Anthony Goodlow, who played a significant role during Tulsa’s magical 2020 campaign before elevating his game to another level last season. Factor in steady contributors Joseph Anderson (23 tackles in 2021) and Haydon Grant (1.5 tackles for loss in 2020), and Tulsa has enough talent to remain solid on the defensive line.
Wait and See
Memphis: The 2019 Cotton Bowl squad has almost been completely overhauled. Year three of the Ryan Silverfield era presents a young Tiger team bereft of its major contributors from yesteryear.
Second Team All-AAC defensive tackle John Tate IV graduated and defensive end Morris Joseph Jr. — the star of the 2020 defense with eight sacks — transferred to Auburn. With minimal assistance via the transfer portal, the Tigers must develop the next crop of defensive linemen. Despite the losses of Tate and Joseph, Memphis still trots out its three players with the most sacks in 2021 — Jaylon Allen, Wardalis Duckworth, and Maurice White. Those three comprise of 75 percent of the starting defensive line.
The last spot comes down to Cam’Ron Jackson, who posted 1.5 sacks in November last year, and Zy Brockington, who racked up five tackles in a 10-game true freshman campaign. Overall, fielding a respectable defense must be a point of emphasis for Memphis to sustain its AAC-best bowl eligibility streak, especially after dropping from 56th to 91st in points allowed per game from 2020 to 2021.
Navy: Navy’s involvement in the transfer portal pales in comparison to all of its AAC rivals. Thus, Annapolis usually serves as a one-way street as recruits typically wind up suiting up for the Midshipmen until graduation. The key graduate Navy lost was J’arius Warren who led all defensive linemen in tackles last season. But the Midshipmen will run it back with two linemen who started all 12 games in 2021. Jacob Busic produced 5.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks from the defensive end slot, while Donald Berniard Jr. clogged the interior with 23 tackles from the nose guard position. Replacing the departed Warren is Clay Cromwell who produced promising numbers as a backup rotation piece last season. Cromwell ranked second on the team and first among returning members in tackles for loss while forcing fumbles against SMU and Tulsa. Considering Cromwell’s impressive bull rush ability, he’ll be tasked with molding into the star pass rusher Navy desperately craves after no individual registered three sacks in 2021.
South Florida: When it comes to rebuilding South Florida, the focus should be on fortifying the trenches. On the defensive side, the Bulls met a lot of resistance from opposing offensive lines last season. No team generated fewer sacks than South Florida’s nine in 2021 and only six teams racked up fewer hits in the backfield.
Jeff Scott and company responded to these statistical rankings with urgency this offseason by recruiting an impressive defensive line transfer class. They brought in a pair of former four-star defensive tackles in Rashad Cheney (Minnesota) and Clyde Pinder Jr. (North Carolina). Additionally, Missouri defensive end Jatorian Hansford and Temple defensive tackle Nick Bags also made new homes in Tampa this spring. The multitude of transfers form a versatile mix with the program veteran defensive ends Jason Vaughn and Rashawn Yates — experienced leaders who hail from as early as the Charlie Strong era. South Florida ranked in the gutter in a majority of defensive categories last year, but given a fresh slate, the 2022 crew certainly have the blueprint for jumpstarting a turnaround.
Temple: Temple’s run defense ranked 122nd in rushing yards allowed per game last season, but don’t be deceived by that number. Teams ran the ball on the Owls more than any other team in the nation. While Temple’s defensive stats weren’t otherworldly, the Owls still finished 33rd in the FBS in tackles for loss per game.
Plenty of this was due to the presence of breakout freshman Darian Varner who collected seven and tied for the team-lead with three sacks. Increasing quarterback pressure is certainly a point of emphasis for Temple this year after ranking in the bottom 15 in sacks, but the defensive line is trending in the right direction. Kentucky transfer Jerquavion Mahone (27 tackles, 2.5 TFLs in 2021) will be a key cog in his second year as a collegiate starter.
The Owls also retain Xach Gill on the roster, a steady contributor at North Carolina who is certain to expand his role this year. All three of the aforementioned players are primarily defensive tackles, so Temple’s focus should be developing a quick-footed, pass rushing defensive end to complement the skillsets of Varner, Mahone, and Gill on the exterior.