In the 411 series, I’ll briefly profile four teams, one player, and one coach you should get to know in each conference. I’m taking a look at teams on the rise, immediate impact transfers, under-the-radar talent, and more. First up has been the crown jewel of the Group of 5: The American Athletic Conference.
What to skip ahead? In this article:
- Memphis Tigers
- ECU Pirates
- UCF Golden Knights
- Cincinnati Bearcats
- Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
- Rhett Lashlee, HC, SMU
In the AAC’s 2021 preseason media poll, Memphis was picked to finish fifth behind Cincinnati, UCF, SMU, and Houston. Ultimately, the Tigers went 6-6 (3-5 AAC) and finished seventh in the conference.
Memphis was a puzzling, young team. They had impressive wins over Mississippi State and SMU and kept it close against solid UTSA, Tulsa, and East Carolina teams. However, the Tigers lost to bottom-feeder Temple and were nearly upset by an inferior squad in Tulane. No matter, they ended the season with an Elo Rating of 1535 and plenty of positives to remain optimistic going forward.
Barring major changes, the Tigers have a winnable 2022 schedule and the key returners to help them take advantage.
If you haven’t heard of QB Seth Henigan, now is the time to get to know him. As a true freshman, he completed 235-of-393 pass attempts (59.8%) for 3,322 yards, 8.5 yards per pass attempt, 25 TDs, 8 INTs, and QBR of 62.9. The accuracy should resolve itself over time and experience, so let’s take a look at a couple of his advanced stats using Campus 2 Canton’s Player Metric Tool. He’s a young gunslinger who is already playing better than his league counterparts.
In addition to those stats, historically, pass yards per attempt is consistently one of the most highly significant determinants of scoring margins. Henigan’s 8.5 yards per pass attempt was not only ace for a freshman but was the second-most among AAC quarterbacks, only behind Desmond Ridder.
Notable Incoming Transfers
With some questions surrounding lead rusher Brandon Thomas’ return and health, the addition of Northern Illinois transfer Jay Ducker puts the Tigers in a good position with or without Thomas. Ducker, the MAC Freshman of the Year, had 218 carries for 1,184 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, and three TDs in 2021.
Losing Calvin Austin III is the most obvious (and biggest) loss. In back-to-back seasons, Austin led the Tigers’ receiving corps and was arguably one of the best in the league. His 121 targets made him the most targeted player on the team, and he had more looks than the second and third combined.
Henigan had a great freshman year. But now he’ll be without his first (Austin) and second (TE Sean Dykes) options. Memphis will look to guys like Javon Ivory and Eddie Lewis to replace those playmakers.
After Duke hired Memphis OC Kevin Johns, head coach Ryan Silverfield announced he would be adding Tim Cramsey to fill that role. Cramsey spent the last four seasons as Marshall’s OC and QB coach. In 2021, Marshall’s offense averaged 33 points per game, 162 rushing yards per game, 295 passing yards per game, 6.3 yards per play, and 457 yards per game. Memphis averaged 30 points per game, 137 rushing yards per game, 299 passing yards per game, 6.1 yards per play, and 436 yards per game. Comparing one season isn’t going to illustrate much, but Cramsey tends to run a balanced attack that will translate well in Memphis. However, his effectiveness at quarterback development remains somewhat inconclusive.
East Carolina Pirates
Avast Ye, hearties! I’m not sure it is time to belt East Carolina’s chantey, but I’d definitely ready the spyglass and further inspect their returning seadogs.
Mike Houston’s East Carolina Pirates may not be the 2022 AAC Title heavy favorite, but they’re worth bookmarking.
The AAC’s 2021 preseason media poll had East Carolina tied with Navy for eighth place. As the season progressed, all eyes were on Cincinnati and Houston. With all of the buzz leading up to the AAC title game and, ultimately, the CFB Playoff debate, you might have missed that East Carolina exceeded expectations. After a 4-8 2019 season and 3-9 2020 season, the Pirates went 7-5 in 2021.
The seven victories may not have been overly impressive to strength-of-schedule true blues, but close losses to South Carolina, UCF, and Houston had the Pirates within reach of a 10-2 record. They should build on that momentum because entering the 2022 season, ECU returns key playmakers like…
QB Holton Ahlers and RB Keaton Mitchell are the core of the Pirates’ offense. Ahlers has been the Pirates’ starter for the past 3.5 years and, during that time, has accumulated 10,219 passing yards (second all-time for ECU) and is 1,772 yards within reach of Shane Carden’s program record. Last season, Ahlers went 256-of-414 (61.8%) for 3,126 yards, 7.6 yards per pass attempt, 18 TDs, and ten INTs. He added 204 yards on the ground and six rushing scores.
During the 2021 campaign, Mitchell built upon a very promising true freshman 2020 season: nearly doubling his number of carries and accumulating 2.5 times more rushing yards. In 2021, Mitchell led the ground attack with 174 carries, 1,132 yards, and nine TDs. He added 22 receptions for 253 yards, and a receiving TD.
Notable Incoming Transfers
ECU is fairly well-set at the skill positions so bringing in those types wasn’t a top priority. The Pirates did land Georgia WR transfer, Jaylen Johnson. ECU also added two key offensive linemen in Parker Moorer (West Virginia) and Ben Johnson (Marist). The Pirates struggled in pass protection and run blocking with 36 sacks, 216 yards lost, a stuff rate of 22%, 2.4 average line yards, and 41.9% opportunity rate. If the skill position players were able to do what they did in 2021, then what might they be able to accomplish with an improved front five?
ECU lost leading receiver Tyler Snead to the NFL Draft after totaling 67 receptions for 855 yards, 12.8 yards per reception, and four TDs in 2021. ECU’s third-leading receiver, Audie Omotoho, graduated and isn’t returning.
Re’quan Boyette replaces Drew Dudzik as outside receivers coach. Boyette spent the past nine seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Duke, where he served as the running backs coach from 2013-2020 and co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach in 2021. Aside from a reputation as an experienced and talented in-state recruiter for both running backs and receivers, Boyette had two 700-plus yard receivers during his first season as co-OC/WR coach. Jake Bobo had 74 receptions for 794 yards and a TD, while Jalon Calhoun had 56 receptions for 718 yards and three TDs.
UCF Golden Knights
In his first season with UCF, head coach Gus Malzahn led the Golden Knights to a 9-4 (5-3 AAC) record and defeated in-state foe, Florida, in the Gasparilla Bowl. Upon his arrival, Malzahn promised to “recruit Florida like nobody else” as well as “recruit like our hair’s on fire.” That promise brought in transfers like RB Isaiah Bowser (Northwestern), LB Bryson Armstrong (Kennesaw State), EDGE Big Kat Bryant (Auburn), and DL Ricky Barber (WKU). Despite some preseason and early-season adversity (eg., QB Dillon Gabriel’s season-ending injury), Malzahn had a productive and respectable season.
Malzahn hit the portal again and, this time, picked up the likes of TE Kenmore Gamble (Florida), WR Kobe Hudson (Auburn), and QB John Rhys Plumlee (Ole Miss).
With some rosters like Cincinnati “depleted” (I say that loosely and with some skepticism), UCF has a solid shot at their fifth AAC conference title before moving to the Big 12 in 2024.
Incumbent quarterback Mikey Keene returns, but there is no starting guarantee, especially considering the talent competing for the QB1 role. In eleven games, Keene went 173-of-272 (63.6%) for 1,730 yards, 17 TDs, and six INTs.
UCF also returns Johnny Richardson, Bowser, and Mark-Antony Richards in the backfield. In 2021, the three combined for 311 carries, 1,745 yards, and 17 TDs. Returning two 700+ rushers in Richardson and Bowser is huge for the Knights.
Three of UCF’s top four receivers will be back: Ryan O’Keefe, Jaylon Robinson, and Richardson. O’Keefe led the unit with 84 receptions, 812 yards, and seven TDs. Robinson – who nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2020 – was largely absent due to injury in 2021 but, when healthy, offers field-stretching speed.
Notable Incoming Transfers
Those returners plus the addition of the aforementioned Gamble, Hudson, and Plumlee make UCF an intriguing team and a likely conference title contender. In 2021, Gamble had 31 receptions for 414 yards and four TDs. Hudson had 44 receptions for 580 yards and four TDs. The combination of O’Keefe, Robinson, Gamble, and Hudson could shape up to be explosive and stretch opposing defenses thin.
Plumlee – a QB-turned-WR – started eight games as a true freshman at Ole Miss. During that time, he went 79-of-150 (52.7%) for 910 yards, four TDs, and three INTs. But more notably, he was a mobile threat with 154 carries for 1,023 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs. Matt Corral was promoted to the starter when Lane Kiffin was hired, while Plumlee switched to WR. It remains to be seen where Malzahn intends to line up the versatile player.
Had Gabriel returned, UCF might have set themselves apart as the heavy favorite. No matter, Gabriel – a back-to-back 3,000+ yard passer in 2019 and 2020 – transferred to Oklahoma. Through 26 games, Gabriel went 554-of-913 (60.7%) for 8,037 yards (309 per game), 70 TDs, and 14 INTs. He added 372 yards and eight TDs on the ground.
UCF took quite a hit on the defense: losing leading tackler LB Tatum Bethune to Florida State, EDGE Bryant to the NFL Draft, and DT Cam Good to the portal.
Former Troy head coach Chip Lindsey will reunite with Malzhan and serve as the Golden Knights’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. During Malzhan’s tenure at Auburn, Lindsey was the Tigers’ offensive analyst in 2013 and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2017 and 2018.
Wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt departed for Boston College.
After ending the 2021 season No. 4 in the Coaches and AP Top 25 Poll and becoming the first Group of 5 team to make it to the College Football Playoffs, it is probably fair to say you’ve heard of Cincinnati. But the Bearcats are losing their star quarterback (Desmond Ridder), top two rushers (Jerome Ford & Ridder), and leading receiver (Alec Pierce). The three have been mainstays of the offense and paramount in the program’s success for the past few seasons. Since 2018, Luke Fickell’s Bearcats have gone 44-7 (27-3 AAC), been in the AAC Championship game three times (2019, 2020, 2021) with two victories (2020 & 2021), won back-to-back bowl games (2018 & 2019), ranked in the Top 25 each year and played in the College Football Playoffs. Whew.
So what now? Better yet…who now?
The Bearcats will return and reload with RB Ryan Montgomery, WRs Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker, and TEs Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. They don’t boast the same numbers as their predecessors, but production, experience, and depth always pay dividends when replacing big-time playmakers.
- Montgomery had 46 carries, 312 yards, and three TDs
- Scott, a speedy, versatile, split-end, was second to Pierce with 30 receptions for 520 yards, and five TDs.
- Tucker, had 34 receptions for 426 yards, and two TDs. He also served as the team’s go-to kick returner with 22 returns for 557 yards and a score.
- Whyle and Taylor combined for 54 receptions, 600 yards, and ten TDs. Whyle in all his versatility – quick, shifty, and good blocker – is poised to have a big year and is already expected to go high in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Notable Incoming Transfers
Quarterback Ben Bryant was with Cincinnati from 2018-2020. He then, transferred to Eastern Michigan for a single season, where he went 279-of-408 (68.4%) for 3,121 yards with 14 TDs and seven INTs. With incoming freshman Luther Richesson and Bryant transferring, it seems like there will be a competition between those two and Evan Prater.
Likely filling a void left by Pierce, wide receiver Nick Mardner transfers by way of Hawaii. There, he had an outstanding 2021 season with 46 receptions for 913 yards, 19.8 yards per reception, and five TDs…doing so with only 3.5 receptions per game.
Aside from Ridder, Ford, and Pierce, the Bearcats also lose their top three tacklers in LBs Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers as well as S Bryan Cook. The three combined for 307 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, 12 pass deflections, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. They will also be without DL Curtis Brooks who accumulated 56 total tackles, led the team with 7.5 sacks, forced one fumble, and had a fumble recovery.
Losing key playmakers happens every year to every team. But it seems like Cincy is losing all of their top-shelf guys at once.
When offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock took the same role at LSU, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli was promoted to OC (and kept QB coach duties, as well). And with the passing game coordinator position open, wide receivers coach Mike Brown stepped into the role. Brown will coach wide receivers and direct the passing game. Both Guidugli and Brown tout having coached and mentored some stellar players in Ridder and Pierce.
From a stylistic point of view, there are some unknowns surrounding Guidugli. Thus far, he has maintained that not much will change and adjustments will be made throughout the season.
Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane
Overshadowed by other headlines, happenings, and players in the conference, Tulane junior running back Tyjae Spears had a quietly impressive stretch from October to the end of the season. Throughout the last three games, Spears had 57 carries for 479 yards and four TDs. And despite Tulane’s disappointing 2-10 season, nothing stopped him from putting on a clinic during the Green Wave’s finale 28-33 loss to Memphis: amassing 30 carries for 264 yards and two scores. His production the latter half of the season warrants the question of “What if he had done this all season long?”
He’s certainly a compelling player. Without a doubt, talented, Spears feels like an unfinished story each season. In 2019, Spears appeared in four games. During those games, Spears had 32 carries for 192 yards and a TD and five receptions for 133 yards and a receiving TD. That year, he earned a redshirt to retain eligibility. In 2020, Spears saw action in three games before he suffered a season-ending ACL injury. But in those three games, Spears had 37 carries for 274 yards and two TDs as well as two receptions for 30 yards. In addition to his productive October-November stretch in 2021, Spears totaled 129 carries for 863 yards and nine touchdowns, as well as 19 receptions for 145 yards.
Two metrics worth mentioning would be Spears’ experience adjusted 1) EPA per play and 2) backfield dominator rating.
Spears’ efficient 0.36 EPA per Play bested his peers in 2021 and surpassed players’ EPA per Play three years out of high school. It just goes to show how much upside Spears possesses when he has the ball.
When referencing especially Year 1 and 2 out of high school, keep in mind that Spears was lower due to having played in a limited number of games in 2019 and injury in 2020. Even so, Tulane was still getting good production and usage out of him. When healthy, you can see his backfield dominator rating (and EPA) increase.
Heading into the 2022 season, Tulane’s backfield looks to be pretty locked and loaded between Spears, Cameron Carroll, and former 4-star Colorado transfer Ashaad Clayton. If Spears can pick up where he left off, he could have a huge year.
Rhett Lashlee, HC, SMU
Of new hires within the AAC, including both head coaches and coordinators, Rhett Lashlee has one of the more proven backgrounds littered with success.
Since 2011, Lashlee has served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the likes of Samford (FCS; 2011), Arkansas State (2012), Auburn (2013-16), UConn (2017), SMU (2018-19), and Miami (2020-21). Known for his up-tempo style, Lashlee spearheaded SMU’s high-scoring, record-setting offense in 2019. That year, the Mustangs boasted 544 total points (No. 8), 42 points per game (No. 7), and 489.8 yards per game (No. 9). After joining Miami, the Hurricanes’ offense notably and statistically improved.
With key pieces like QB Tanner Mordecai, RBs Tre Siggers and Ulysses Bentley IV returning, Lashlee certainly has an experienced, productive foundation through which he can implement his up-tempo offense. However, they lost their top four receivers from 2021. SMU will look to younger guys like WR Roderick Daniels Jr. as well as transfers TE Kameron Allen (Michigan State), WR Beau Corrales (North Carolina), and WR Joshua Moore (Texas) to continue the momentum.
|2017 (before Lashlee)||2018 (1st season)||2019 (2nd season)||2020 (after Lashlee)|
|2019 (before Lashlee)||2020 (1st season)||2021 (2nd season)|