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Even though they fall just outside the lines of the Power Five conferences, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) has been stout since its debut in 2013. The American took place of the Big East which in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) days, would receive an automatic BCS bid. In the seven years of the college football playoffs, the American has almost put two teams into the mix.
In 2017 it was undefeated UCF who put the country on notice week in and week out, ultimately toppling Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Last year it was Cincinnati who came up just short against Georgia in the Peach Bowl as well. Maybe Cincy can get over the hump or possibly another team shows it’s grit nationally and competes for a playoff spot.
Either way, this conference has a ton of talent top to bottom. With this piece we’re going to look at the gems hiding on the defensive side of the ball:
Cincinnati Bearcats: DE Myjai Sanders
Sanders is a picturesque weak side edge rusher, coming in at 6’5” and 258 lbs. He doesn’t look overwhelming at first sight but once you turn on the tape, you see what’s so special about him. The lateral quickness and balance to turn the corner on offensive tackles is incredible.
Not only does he have the burst but he has the power to collapse the pocket by pushing blockers backwards. Sanders also has the veteran mindset to put hands into the passing lanes and create tipped balls. No reason why Sanders doesn’t lead the conference in sacks after coming up with seven last season.
East Carolina Pirates: CB Ja’Quan McMillian
In his first two seasons for the Pirates, McMillian has been nothing but consistent. As a freshman he picked off three passes, then in year two in 2020 he added four more interceptions. It seems like he’s able to read and react as good as anyone in the conference, then breaks to the ball with great closing speed.
McMillian is also a willing tackler in the open field who loves contact. The screen game isn’t a safe bet when he’s in the area as he can run past blockers on the edge to drill the receiver. This should be an NFL defensive back in a few years if he continues to create turnovers.
Memphis Tigers: FS Quindell Johnson
Safeties who can be just as effective in the run game as in the passing game are irreplaceable. Johnson was the epitome of this, as he led the Tigers in tackles with 81, 60 of which were solo, and three interceptions. He also forced two fumbles and recovered another.
I feel like he plays better coming downhill than he does going over top. He’s a fearless tackler and has great closing speed on ball carriers as well as the ball in the air. Johnson should find a home in the league as a safety that plays in the box.
Navy Midshipmen: MLB Diego Fagot
In my time of watching football, I learned that typically those guys that wear neck restrictors are some bad dudes. Some of my favorite college linebackers to watch all time were Virginia Tech’s Xavier Adibi and Penn State’s Navorro Bowman. Both were absolute animals and sported that neck support piece.
Fagot falls right in line with the dress code of these punishers at the linebacker position. He can rush the quarterback at any moment, and has a ton of strength and straight line speed which makes him difficult to escape. In a full 2019 Fagot was able to hit the 100 tackle mark, and in a full 2021 I expect much of the same.
SMU Mustangs: MLB Delano Robinson
The Mustangs got a huge lift in January when Robinson declared that he was staying for a fifth year. He’s a tackle machine who is dependable to get the job done by himself. In back to back years he has accumulated a total of 102 solo tackles, collecting 51 in both seasons.
The Mustangs don’t really ask him to be more than a run stopper but that’s completely fine. He’s strong enough to fight off blocks and stuff the hole, and quick enough to play down the line. Adding more sacks to his resume will help him show more to NFL scouts.
Temple Owls: CB Cameron Ruiz
The graduate transfer from Northwestern should provide some stability in the secondary for a team that went 1-6 last season. The Owls were abysmal on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 103rd in rush yards allowed per game and gave up 9.24 yards per passing attempt. Ruiz is capable of cutting down ball carriers in the open field and will pose enough of a challenge to receivers in this conference to force incompletions.
Tulane Green Wave: JOKER Angelo Anderson
Anderson hails from the New Orleans, LA powerhouse John Curtis. Even though he barely got any game action as a freshman in 2020, the potential is prevalent on the tape. He has a ton of lateral quickness and his burst off the line is highly underrated.
The most important piece of this prediction is that his predecessors are both off to the NFL. Patrick Johnson and Cam Sample both were drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft, which left both edge spots up for grabs. As the joker in Tulane’s 4-2-5 defense, Anderson will be able to either put his hand in the ground or rush from a standup end position. Either way he does both very well.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane: STAR Treyvon Reeves
Even though Zaven Collins is off to the NFL, the linebacker room retains a ton of experience. Reeves is a fifth year senior who is poised to have a massive season in 2021. He’s very athletic and really fits the mold of what a 3-3-5 linebacker is.
Being the STAR he should be allowed to blitz at will, especially on obvious passing downs. As I mentioned in the offensive piece, Tulsa gets week two and three showdowns with Oklahoma State and Ohio State. If Reeves can prove himself by being able to run with tight ends and bring down ball carriers, then he’ll have a shoe-in with the scouts before the end of September.
UCF Golden Knights: DE Big Kat Bryant
Outside of having one of the coolest names I’ve ever seen from a football player, Bryant brings a lot to the table. A similar scenario to my UCF offensive gem, Nate Craig-Myers, Bryant is a transfer who originally played at Auburn and is following his head coach Gus Malzahn to Orlando. His stat line wasn’t over the top in the SEC but he has picked up multiple sacks in every year and even has three interceptions to his name.
Currently he’s slated to be a 4-3 defensive end for the Golden Knights, which really does make sense with his 6’5” 250 lb. frame. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if on rush situations he’s a standup end on the weak side and can go one on one with the backside tackle. He could skyrocket his draft stock, as UCF still gets a ton of tv exposure for not being a Power Five school.
USF Bulls: DT Thad Mangum
It’s rare to see a player who transfers from a FCS school actually improve his stat line, and Mangum did just that. He’s a run stuffer who has fast hands to fight of blocks and stop the ball carrier. His 37 tackles in nine games put him at 16 more tackles than any other defender on the defensive line.
If he gets a little bit stronger and develops some more rush moves besides the swim and rips, he’ll be pushing 50 tackles. That’s remarkable for an interior lineman.