In the 411 series, four players, one coach, and one team are profiled from each conference. There are the obvious standouts and elite coaches/teams who dominate your Twitter feed, but lest we forget those personnel and programs on the rise, immediate impact transfers, and under-the-radar talent.
Going in alphabetical order, the series begins with the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
As a reminder, the AAC will lose Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF to the Big 12 and gain Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA in 2023.
Chandler Rogers, QB, North Texas
The obvious names at quarterback are J.T. Daniels (Rice), Seth Henigan (Memphis), Frank Harris Jr. (UTSA), and Michael Pratt (Tulane)…and for good reason. Meanwhile, other teams like East Carolina, SMU, and Tulsa are looking for the next man up after their respective starter either declared for the NFL Draft or transferred. At least in North Texas’ case, the Mean Green recently went head-to-head with the likes of Cal, Indiana, and Liberty and picked up a solid dual-threat quarterback in Chandler Rogers. It is a big win for North Texas’ newly hired head coach, Eric Morris.
Despite the 4-8 record, Rogers was a bright spot for the ULM Warhawks. He kept the team moving: completing 216-of-319 pass attempts (67.7%) for 2,403 yards, 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 145 carries, 353 rushing yards, and five rushing touchdowns. A closer inspection reveals Rogers posted those numbers without a lot of help. ULM’s offensive line allowed 76.0 tackles for loss, 35.0 sacks, and 20 quarterback hurries. And Rogers’ 79.4% adjusted completion rate indicates receiver drops, at times, plagued the offense.
Rogers joins a Mean Green team that is retaining key offensive weapons, including its top three receivers and top three rushers. Returning such personnel and Eric Morris’ history with dynamic – or at least effective – quarterbacks provides a conducive environment for success.
In 2022, ULM’s offense ranked 12th (of 14) in the Sun Belt. Despite the circumstances, Rogers was able to display consistent decisiveness and accuracy. He worked through his progressions and delivered a friendly ball to his weapons. However, a TBD is his ability to throw the deep ball. In 2022, Rogers attempted just 26 deep (20+ yards) passes and completed ten for 315 yards and four touchdowns. Considering Morris’ prior offenses and North Texas’ receiver room, it is safe to say that Rogers will take more shots downfield.
But first, Rogers and Grant Gunnell will vie for the QB1 spot.
Jha’Quan Jackson, WR, Tulane
In only what can be described as a magical, feel-good story, Tulane went from 2-10 in 2021 to 12-2, conference champions, and top ten nationally ranked in 2022. The “chef’s kiss” was a Cotton Bowl comeback 46-45 win over USC and Heisman winner Caleb Williams. Green Wave starting quarterback Michael Pratt is back in 2023 but gone are his top two receivers, Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts, to the Draft.
All eyes should now be on Jha’Quan Jackson, and, quite frankly, he deserves the attention.
In 2022, Jackson totaled 33 receptions for 554 yards and three touchdowns. Targeted no more than six times in a game, Jackson is a threat in the open field and makes each catch count. Case in point, the Cotton Bowl. Down just one score with six minutes left in the first half, Pratt connected with Jackson over the middle on 2nd & 10. Forcing a defender to miss and turning on the jets, Jackson caught the ball at Tulane’s own 21-yard line and added another 79 yards after the catch and a touchdown for good measure. If you need more convincing, look no further than his team-leading 8 touchdowns in 2020.
With such speed, vision, and elusiveness, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s an explosive mainstay on punt returns. On the season, he had 21 returns for 213 yards and a touchdown. Make that two punt return touchdowns had it not been for a holding penalty during the Houston matchup.
700 yards within a single season is not something a Green Wave receiver has achieved since Darnell Mooney in 2019. Without Wyatt and Watts, as well as being the most experienced returning receiver, it is feasible that Jackson gets the lion’s share of targets and surpasses 700 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023.
Blake Watson, RB, Memphis
Running back Blake Watson will be playing in his third conference in as many seasons. After transferring to Memphis in December, the previous Old Dominion Monarch will have played in Conference USA (2018-21), the Sun Belt (2022), and the AAC (2023) during his career.
Remain cautious as Memphis also returns lead rushers Jevyon Ducker and Asa Martin, as well as touchdown leader Brandon Thomas. No matter, Watson’s production is something to consider. The former wide receiver made the switch to running back in 2020; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ODU opted to not play. In 2021, Watson made his debut at running back and amassed 215 carries for 1,112 yards (101.1 yards per game), 5.2 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns. And last season, he once again led the Monarchs on the ground (159 carries, 921 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and five touchdowns). He displayed a level of versatility akin to that of former Tiger Tony Pollard. In the same campaign, Watson had 37 receptions for 315 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2022, the Tigers averaged 142.4 rushing yards per game and just 3.8 yards per carry. For a team on its 23rd consecutive game without an individual player rushing for 100+ yards, Watson could be an answer to both the ground game concerns as well as losing receiver Gabriel Rogers to the Draft. With good vision, decisiveness, and an average of 1,201 yards from scrimmage throughout the past two seasons, he’s someone to be mindful of in your league(s).
RJ Maryland, TE, SMU
I had narrowed my tight end pick between SMU’s RJ Maryland and North Texas’ Var’Keyes Gumms. My hesitation with Gumms is that newly hired head coach Eric Morris doesn’t have a notable history with tight end production thus far. If you have Gumms on the roster, you utilize him. Do I hope that Gumms picks up where he left off? Yes. Do I know for a fact that Gumms will produce the same numbers with a coaching change? No, but I am optimistic.
As a true freshman, Maryland – a former four-star recruit and the No. 17 tight end in his recruiting class – appeared in all 13 games and made six starts. He registered 28 receptions for 296 yards and six touchdowns. Those touchdowns were the second-most in a single season for an SMU tight end. With any position (especially in the G5), there’s always the question of “…But how does he measure up against tougher talent?” Answer: Maryland rose to the challenge, as some of his best performances were against quality opponents.
Maryland’s early playing time, coupled with production, is significant; he’ll be a strong performer in CFF Dynasty.
Kevin Wilson, HC, Tulsa
After the dismissal of head coach Philip Montgomery, Tulsa hired Ohio State offensive coordinator/tight ends coach and former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson as the team’s next head coach. Understandably, Ohio State coordinators hired as head coaches routinely pique interest: coaches like Ryan Day (Ohio State), Tim Beck (Coastal Carolina), and Luke Fickell (Cincinnati, Wisconsin), just to name a few. Wilson is a solid hire – he has certainly proven his offensive acumen – but he immediately faces a tough task: replacing the team’s passing, rushing, and receiving leaders. However, the situation seems a bit more manageable than some other AAC league mates.
Wilson – himself – is one of the early pioneers of the modern spread offense, dating back to his days at Northwestern (1999-2001). And while at Oklahoma (2002-2010), Bob Stoops and Wilson married a power-spread run with Mike Leach’s Air Raid passing concepts. With Ryan Day at the helm, Ohio State’s offense has been influenced by the likes of Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer.
A look back at Wilson’s tenure with Ohio State:
The Tulsa staff becomes even more intriguing with the hiring of Steve Spurrier Jr. as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Spurrier Jr. – the son of longtime [former] Florida and South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier – has spent the past five seasons with the late Mike Leach and his Air Raid system. In that stretch, Spurrier Jr. served as the wide receivers coach (Washington State 2018-19) and outside receivers coach (Mississippi State 2020-22).
The player personnel associated with both Wilson and Spurrier are vast and impressive, but now the two are responsible for rebuilding an offense that’s depleted of its production. The offensive style could be high-yielding, especially should Braylon Braxton – the presumed QB1 – maintain momentum from his November 2022 starts.
If you are already considering 2023 conference championship contenders, let me introduce you to the UTSA Roadrunners. The back-to-back Conference USA Champions join the AAC and are in a position to make an immediate splash.
Let’s get straight to the point. UTSA returning quarterback Frank Harris, wide receiver Joshua Cephus, and running back Kevorian Barnes are enough to make opposing AAC fan bases worry. And should Zakhari Franklin and De’Corian Clark stay, that would be monumental. A quick recap:
- Over the past two seasons, Harris has gone 591-of-869 (68.0%) for 7,236 passing yards (3,618 per season), 8.3 yards per pass attempt, and a 59:15 touchdown to interception ratio. During those two seasons, the dual-threat QB had 237 carries (118.5 per season) for 1,166 rushing yards (583 per season), 4.9 yards per carry, and 15 touchdowns.
- As a redshirt freshman, Barnes had 136 carries for 851 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, and 6 touchdowns.
- Assuming the Franklin/Cephus/Clark all return, they will be one of the best – if not THE best – trios in the nation. Combined, they accounted for 231 receptions, 2,863 yards, and 29 touchdowns in 2022.
Notable Incoming Transfers
Running back Rocko Griffin, who began his college career at Vanderbilt, will be joining UTSA ahead of the 2023 season. In 2021, Griffin led the Commodores’ ground game with 145 carries for 517 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, four touchdowns, and he had three 100+ yard games against the likes of Stanford, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. He should form a solid duo with 2022 CUSA Freshman of the Year, Kevorian Barnes.
The Roadrunners lose offensive linemen Ahofitu Maka and Kevin Davis and safety Clifford Chattman. In 2022, Chattman had 72.0 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and a quarterback hurry.
The Roadrunners lose co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, Matt Mattox, to Purdue. With the Boilermakers, Mattox will serve as the offensive line coach.
Stay tuned for the next 411 as I take a look at the ACC.