The Preseason All AAC nominees spotlighted as part of the CFB Huddle season preview series may not include many household names — not yet, anyway.
But the emergence of stars like Keenan Reynolds and Paxton Lynch a season ago proved the star power residing in the American Athletic Conference. This year’s crop is rife with similarly talented breakout performers.
ALL AAC 2016 OFFENSE
Offense fueled the American’s eye-opening 2015 season, starting with quarterback play. The AAC produced a serious Heisman Trophy contender in Navy’s Keenan Reynolds; a first-round NFL draft pick in Paxton Lynch; and an early 2016 Heisman contender in Greg Ward Jr.
QB Greg Ward Jr., Houston: Greg Ward Jr. generated more-than-modest Heisman Trophy buzz before an injury slowed him late in the 2015 season.
Other non-power conference quarterbacks have embarked on seasons with as much Heisman hype as Ward, if not more: David Carr in 2001; his brother Derek in 2013; Kellen Moore in 2011; Jordan Lynch in 2013. Of them, only Lynch reached New York City.
Houston’s season opener against Oklahoma provides Ward a potentially huge springboard to New York. If the Coogs live up to their Playoff potential, the dual-threat play-maker might well bring the first Heisman back to Houston since Andre Ware in 1989.
RB Marlon Mack, USF: After two seasons as the American’s top rushing running back, Marlon Mack should be a hidden gem no longer.
Mack rushed for 1,381 yards to surpass such notable names as Devontae Booker and Shock Linwood. His eight rushing touchdowns matched Sony Michel. With an average of 6.58 yards per carry, Mack also broke off more per touch than Royce Freeman, Ezekiel Elliott and Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey.
Mack might be the best-kept secret in college football, but the secret’s going to get let out sooner than later.
RB Jahad Thomas, Temple: What Jahad Thomas lacks in size at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, he compensates with great field vision, slippery moves and breakaway speed.
Thomas scored multiple rushing touchdowns in five games last season, and eclipsed the century mark as many times.
Not bad for a player Temple head coach Matt Rhule said had no other FBS offers coming out of high school. Thomas is sure to make even more recruiters look silly in 2016, when he’ll be the cornerstone of Temple’s offense in pursuit of an American Athletic Conference championship.
WR Zay Jones, East Carolina: NCAA record-setting receiver Justin Hardy left a big void in the East Carolina offense, but Zay Jones filled it admirably in 2015. His 1,099-yard campaign earned Jones All AAC recognition a season ago, and he’s capable of more in 2016 — in part because he put up those numbers on a bum shoulder.
I've played this entire season with a torn labrum/ dislocated shoulder and it did not stop me. Surgery is just another test I have to overcome. I'm so thankful and grateful for this opportunity to show the strength the Lord has given me. God's been there every step of the way and He is so good. I have so much faith in Him. On the road to recovery because we have to kick ass next season. Thank you for all the support. Love you guys.
WR Keevan Lucas, Tulsa: Tulsa’s pass-heavy offensive philosophy yielded some big yards for receivers in 2015. Keevan Lucas wasn’t around to join in the festivities, sustaining a knee injury early into the campaign.
His return bolsters the Golden Hurricane in a promising Year 2 under Phil Bennett. Lucas will complement top returning pass-catcher Josh Atkinson nicely operating out of the slot, and vice versa.
TE Alec Bloom, Connecticut: Head coach Bob Diaco’s Notre Dame influence shows in Connecticut’s use of multiple tight ends as pass-catchers. The Huskies feature two noteworthy returners at the position in 2016, Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers.
Their statistics in 2015 were quite similar: Bloom grabbed 22 passes to Myers’ 19 and had a slight advantage in yardage. Realistically, either could be the American’s top tight end by season’s completion.
I lean Bloom, as he’s a big body (6-foot-6, around 260 pounds — Gronkian proportions, if you will) who should shine the more opportunities he gets, particularly in the red zone.
C Deyshawn Bond, Cincinnati: Deyshawn Boyd is one of two returning starters on the interior of an experienced and talented Cincinnati offensive line. Boyd’s on the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list, and a key piece to the Bearcats offense in 2016.
OG Ryan Leahy, Cincinnati: The other veteran on the inside of Cincinnati’s front five, Ryan Leahy will again help key a potentially explosive Bearcat offense.
Leahy was an All AAC selection in 2015, helping to pave Cincinnati’s nearly 34-point per game average. With the Bearcats loaded at running back, expect a more active ground attack out of the Bearcats this season, and Leahy to play a big part.
OG J.T. Boyd, East Carolina: 2015 All AAC 1st Team selection J.T. Boyd returns as the veteran anchor of a front five experiencing some turnover in the offseason, with three of last year’s starters gone, including standout tackle Ike Harris.
OT Dion Dawkins, Temple: Another 2015 All AAC selection, Dion Dawkins played a big part in Temple’s resurgent season — at 325 pounds, that’s big in the most literal sense.
Dawkins faces trial on allegations of assault in the winter of 2015, the ruling of which casts uncertainty on his status for the fall. In the meantime, he is eligible and participating with the Temple football team.
OL Robert Lindsey, Navy: Keenan Reynolds’ incredible 2015 was due in no small part to the outstanding play of Navy’s offensive line — an offensive line undergoing plenty of turnover this offseason.
Robert Lindsey’s experience playing both tackle and guard last season should help alleviate some of the challenge in replacing a front five that ranked among the nation’s best.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s fielded outstanding offensive lines throughout his career, and 2016 should be no exception. Lindsey could be the guy around whom the Mids build — no matter if he’s at guard or tackle.
“Robert is going to be in the lineup somewhere,” offensive line coach Chris Culton promised the Capital Gazette during spring practices.