Want to take a moment to thank the following head coaches for their time in talking about players on their roster and across the league: Mike MacIntyre — Florida International, Willie Taggart — Florida Atlantic, Sonny Cumbie — Louisiana Tech, Rick Stockstill — Middle Tennessee State, Seth Littrell — North Texas, Dana Dimel, Jeff Traylor — UTSA, Tyson Helton — Western Kentucky. I’d also like to thank the Conference USA assistants who spoke about the league’s players on condition of anonymity.
Over the past three seasons, Conference USA has seen 20 players drafted and over 30 players land on NFL rosters. Despite the loss of three programs, the league is still littered with talent across the remaining 11 member programs. While only 27 will be recognized at the end of the season as an All-Conference first-team performer, here’s our choices for the top-35 players heading into the 2022 season.
We round out the list with the top-10.
10. Tyler Grubbs: LB — Louisiana Tech
Back-to-back 90-plus tackle seasons help land Louisiana Tech linebacker Tyler Grubbs a spot among the top-10 players in Conference USA. The 6-1, 225-pound New Orleans native was a two-star prospect coming out of high school and chose La Tech over a quartet of Bayou state G5 and FCS programs. Grubbs has played in the opposition’s backfield during his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, totaling 19.5 tackles for loss and adding three-and-a-half sacks. He’s earned all-freshman and conference second team honors in his first two seasons and lands on the preseason first team list entering 2022.
9. Tyrese Chambers: WR — FIU
As a two-star prospect coming out of Baltimore Poly High, Tyrese Chambers held offers from a pair of HBCU programs and landed at Fort Scott Junior College and FCS Sacred Heart University before signing with FIU in 2021. All the 6-1, 190-pounder did in his first season at the FBS level was become one of the top deep threats in the nation. Chambers set single-season program records for touchdowns in a season (9) and receiving yards (1,074) while finishing second in FBS in yards per catch with 23.8. He has earned several preseason accolades, most notably being named to the Biletnikoff Award Watchlist entering 2022.
“He (Chambers) is a really dynamic player, you have to account for him at all times because all it takes is one pass with him and he can take it to the house,” said Charlotte head coach Will Healy.
8. Dewayne McBride: RB — UAB
The number eight spot on this list belongs to a player who is primed to take over as the top running back in Conference USA. UAB’s Dewayne McBride has been a dynamic force in the backfield since his first action in 2020. The 5-11, 215-pounder averaged an eye-popping 9.3 yards per attempt as Spencer Brown’s understudy as a freshman — and carried the success over to his sophomore campaign in leading C-USA with 6.7 yards per carry and 1,371 yards rushing.
7. Quantavious Leslie: G — Western Kentucky
As a three-star recruit out of Rome, GA, Quantavious Leslie had Power Five interest before choosing Western Kentucky as part of the 2020 signing class. After spending his freshman season as a reserve, Leslie stepped into a starting role in 2021 and became one of the top guards among the Group of Five ranks. Leslie was named to the C-USA all-conference second team and the Pro Football Focus first team all-C-USA last season. The 6-3, 310-pound sophomore returns in 2022 as the undoubted anchor of the Hilltoppers offensive line and has been named to several preseason all-conference teams.
6. Jordan Ferguson: DE — Middle Tennessee State
Entering his sixth season of college football, there’s no doubt that Middle Tennessee State defensive end Jordan Ferguson is among the top defensive players in the league. After being named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team as in 2017, the Atlanta native battled injuries in 2018 and 2019 before returning to his starting role in 2020. Last season, a fully-healthy Ferguson finished second in the league in tackles for loss (16.5), sacks (9) and fumbles forced (3). Ferguson also launched a non-profit called “Hands Worldwide” that serves the Nashville, Murfreesboro and Atlanta areas.
“I’m just so motivated to accomplish great things not only on the football field, but off of it in the community,” said Ferguson.
5. Rashad Wisdom: S — UTSA
There may not be a more crucial piece to the rise of UTSA football over the past two seasons than senior safety Rashad Wisdom. The senior captain was predicted to go to Boston College coming out of Judson High in 2018, but chose to remain close to home and play his college football 20 minutes up the road at the Alamodome. He became an instant starter and has racked up 226 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five interceptions as the anchor of the Roadrunners defense. Wisdom was named to the preseason all-conference team entering 2022 and the Jim Thorpe Award watchlist.
4. Zakhari Franklin: WR — UTSA
Modestly-recruited out of Cedar Hill High School, Zakhari Franklin has more than outdone his two-star ranking entering the collegiate ranks. The 6-1, 190-pounder earned a starting job in the second half of his true freshman season and hasn’t looked back since, hauling in 168 passes for over 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns — including rewriting the program record books with 81 catches for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Entering 2022, Franklin is arguably the top wideout in the league and forms one of the top QB-WR tandems with quarterback Frank Harris.
3. KD Davis: LB — North Texas
While the North Texas defense has been a work in progress over the past three seasons, linebacker KD Davis’ play has been a consistent bright spot for the Mean Green. A three-year starter, Davis led the conference in tackles with 121 and was among the top-five in tackles for loss with 15.5. He’s also been a pass-rush presence in Denton, recording 11 sacks in his career. Davis returns the C-USA in 2022 as the league’s top linebacker and should be among the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year come season’s end.
2. Frank Harris: QB — UTSA
Because of Bailey Zappe’s record-setting 2021 season, UTSA signal-caller Frank Harris’ outstanding season may have gone somewhat under the radar. With Zappe off to the NFL, Harris is rightfully getting his due as the top quarterback in the league and one of the best in the nation. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2017, Harris showed flashes of his potential but struggled with injuries during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. After getting a clean bill of health, the dynamic dual-threat led the Roadrunners to a bowl berth in 2020 — then exploded for over 3,700 total yards and 34 total touchdowns last season. Over the past two seasons, Harris has thrown for over 4,800 yards with 39 passing touchdowns while adding over 1,100 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
1. Praise Amaewhule: DL — UTEP
Taking the top spot on my list is the biggest on-field force behind the resurgence of the UTEP football program. At 6-3, 245-pounds, redshirt junior Praise Amaewhule has been one of the top defensive ends in the nation over the past two seasons. In an abbreviated 2020 season, Amaewhule had 18 tackles, seven tackles and 5.5 sacks en route to being named to the C-USA all-conference second team — and followed that performance by earning a first-team spot after tallying 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year. Amaewhule is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in college football and is my top player in Conference USA for 2022.