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Conference Preview: AAC: Ain't Worried About Sutton

John McKechnie

John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since early 2014.

American Athletic Conference

First-Team

QB: Quinton Flowers, South Florida (8)
RB: D’Angelo Brewer, Tulsa (30)
RB: D’Ernest Johnson, South Florida (31)
WR: Anthony Miller, Memphis (4)
WR: Courtland Sutton (6)
TE: Mitchell Wilcox, South Florida (NR)

Second-Team

QB:Zach Abey, Navy (23)
RB:Ryquell Armstead, Temple (32)
RB:Mike Boone, Cincinnati (34)
WR:Linell Bonner, Houston (8)
WR:Tre’Quan Smith, UCF (29)
TE: Alec Bloom, Connecticut (NR)


Third-Team

QB: Kyle Allen, Houston (25)
RB: Ramadi Warren, Tulsa (46)
RB: Dontrell Hilliard, Tulane (48)
WR: Justin Hobbs, Tulsa (34)
WR: Marquez Valdez-Scantling (40)
TE: Joey Magnifico, Memphis (NR)

Sleepers

Tony Pollard, Wide Receiver/Running Back, Memphis: The Tigers stand to have one of the most explosive offenses in the AAC this year and it’s looking increasingly likely that Pollard will play a big part in that. Anthony Miller will draw most of the attention from fans and opposing defenses alike, but Pollard has a skill set that’ll sting the opposition if defenses don’t properly account for him. Pollard plays a hybrid role for the Tigers and garnered 60 offensive touches last season (31 carries, 29 receptions) totaling 457 yards. He showed enough as a runner (5.13 YPC) to garner steady work out of the backfield, and the season-ending injury to Sam Craft will likely create an opportunity for Pollard to be the team’s No.3 receiver. Tack on Pollard’s sterling ability as a kick returner (2 KR TD in 2016) and we have a dangerous, multi-faceted player ready to leave his mark in a dynamic attack.

Arkeel Newsome, Running Back, Connecticut: Coming in just outside of our Top 50 at the position, Newsome is an established running back with a solid track record of respectable outputs. He’s not overly exciting, but he gets the job done. Newsome now has the benefit of playing for what should be a rejuvenated run game under former Auburn offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee. While on The Plains, Lashlee orchestrated three-separate Top 20 rushing attacks, including two finishes in the Top 10 nationally. Lashlee’s long line of success bodes well for Newsome entering his senior year. The main concern is Nate Hopkins, a redshirt freshman who physically (6-1, 210) is more along the lines of what Lashlee worked with at Auburn. Still, Newsome should be the bell cow in an improved run game, making him a potentially viable RB2 in most deeper formats.

McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF: Milton was thrust into action as a true freshman last year and had the standard growing pains typical of a young quarterback: a low completion percentage (57.7), a bad TD:INT ratio (10:7) and a poor YPA (5.9). You can’t look back at his box scores and point to much that’ll suggest he’s ready for a huge year in 2017, but looking at his film you can see some encouraging signs. Milton has nice improvisational skills to go with a quick release, making him dangerous when plays go off-script. He’s also adept at keeping his eyes downfield, looking for talented targets like Tre’Quan Smith. Another factor to keep in mind is that Milton will be in his second year at the helm of a Scott Frost-orchestrated offense -- that’s never a bad thing when looking for production. Milton still has a ways to go before being considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the AAC, but he has the tools and the team context to take that next step in 2017.

David Pindell, Quarterback, Connecticut: Wait a second...am I drinking the Kool-Aid on UConn this year with a pair of mentions in the sleeper section? Well, not exactly, but Randy Edsall’s return should give some spark to what had become a shiftless program. I know, I know, Edsall and spark shouldn’t be used in the same sentence, but here we are. Pindell arrived on campus and beat out two-year starter Bryant Shirreffs for the gig, an impressive feat even considering Shirreffs’ struggles. Pindell was one of the top-rated quarterbacks in this year’s JUCO crop and the fact that he won the starting job so quickly into camp when coaches are wont to let those battles drag well into August is a positive sign. We’re not saying Pindell is this year’s Jerod Evans, but he’s certainly the most interesting quarterback Connecticut has had in some time.

Xavier Jones, Running Back, SMU: A lot went wrong in what was supposed to be a highly competitive season for the Ponies in 2016, including injuries to Jones that limited him to just two games. He did some serious damage in those two games, however, shredding defenses for 140 yards and a score on just fifteen carries (9.33 YPC). Braeden West filled in admirably with 202 carries for 1,036 yards and will still be a factor in the SMU offense, but Jones is healthy again and has 20 pounds on his backfield counterpart, which should give him the nod in short-yardage and goal line situations. Again, SMU would be wise to mix both backs -- particularly considering the questionable quarterback situation -- but Jones should see plenty of carries and could lead the team in rushing touchdowns.

Busts

Duke Catalon, RB, Houston- Catalon entered last year with all the makings of a breakout season. He had the starting job. He was running behind one of the better lines in the AAC. He was playing alongside a quarterback that other teams had to account for in the run game. The result? 528 yards and four touchdowns over 145 carries (3.64 YPC) for Catalon. It’s fair to point out that Catalon battled injuries for part of the season, but failing to record a single 100-yard game as the lead back of a team of Houston’s caliber is concerning. Houston will be bringing back one of the FBS’ more experienced offensive lines, but Catalon won’t have Greg Ward to add stress to opposing run defenses. New quarterback Kyle Allen should limit the amount of eight-man fronts Catalon sees, but will those positive factors alone help Catalon live up to his billing? He certainly had enough going in his favor last season, and ultimately burned those who spent a high pick on him.

Ventell Bryant, WR, Temple: Bryant the player is a stud. He’s 6-3, physical, and has decent quicks for a player his size. It’s Bryant’s team context that’s worrisome. Phillip Walker, the school’s All-Time leading passer by over 3,000 yards, is gone, leaving the Owls with a ragtag group at quarterback. New coach Geoff Collins is a great hire for the Owls, but he’s been alluding to using upwards of four quarterbacks this season. That does not bode well for Bryant’s production. While that QB carousel may only last a few weeks, it’s still enough of a red flag to where we have to assume a massive dropoff in passing game production is in store. Bryant should still lead the Owls in receiving, but that 16.57 YPR mark might suffer a steep decline if Temple’s quarterback play is as shaky as expected.

Devin Gray, WR, Cincinnati: To be clear, Gray is in the Bryant category for me in that he’s a good player in a rough situation. Like Geoff Collins at Temple, the Luke Fickell hire could be a home run for a program that had gone off the rails under Tommy Bahama Tuberville. While I like Cincinnati’s quarterback situation (Hayden Moore/Ross Trail) better than Temple’s, teams running a new system tend to have some growing pains, and that would have a negative impact on Gray’s production. His numbers from last year (58 rec, 102 tgt, 860 yds, 5 TD) suggest that Gray would be a worthy addition in deeper formats, but he went undrafted in a recent experts league I was in that features 14 teams and 20 roster spots. I think the field was right in that case. Gray should be WR1 for the Bearcats, but I’m fading him anyway.

Dontrell Hilliard, RB, Tulane: With full acknowledgement of Hilliard being listed on the third team All-AAC, there’s still some serious bust risk here. Sure, he’ll have more volume with Josh Rounds gone, but Hilliard is still playing on a team that’s bringing back just 37 total starts along the offensive line. Coach Willie Fritz tends to make the most of what he has and manages to churn out effective rushing attacks, but how much can Tulane justifiably run the ball when they’re trailing by multiple scores every week? And how much can we trust that Hilliard will consistently have clean running lanes behind a patchwork line? Hilliard should still push for 1,000 yards regardless, but it could be tough sledding for him on a weekly basis.

Gardner Minshew, QB, East Carolina: I was shocked to see Minshew had beaten out graduate transfer and former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk for the starting gig and I’ll be shocked if he hangs onto it for the whole season. Minshew made six starts last season, including the final four games. In that last stretch, Minshew completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 927 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception, which is fine production for a guy thrown into the fire. However, he won’t have the NCAA’s All-Time receptions leader (Zay Jones) at his disposal this year. Jimmy Williams should be a decent substitute, but East Carolina is looking at some steep offensive regression in 2017 in the post-Zay era. If Minshew struggles, Sirk could very well supplant him behind center, and Sirk’s past experience with coach Scottie Montgomery from his Duke days only strengthens that notion. In the end, I strongly doubt we’ll see Minshew at the helm for 12 games this season.