2020 Players to watch in the American Athletic Conference
UCF has an interesting situation at QB. Dillon Gabriel had a great year as a freshman for the Knights, and Darriel Mack has been expected to provide competition. However, they may also get back star McKenzie Milton, who missed last season due to a gruesome injury. Milton was high on scouts' radars and set plenty of records before the injury. How healthy he actually is remains to be seen, but any semblance of his former self would be a huge boost. Elsewhere in the conference, both SMU's Shane Buechele and Memphis's Brady White return from last year's All-Conference honorees. They were the top 2 in passing yards a season ago. Also returning are Temple's Anthony Russo and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder. Russo was a top 5 passer in the conference and has some deceptive athleticism. Ridder is a dual-threat with a knack for making plays. Houston looks to replace D'Eriq King, most likely with Clayton Tune. Navy will try to find the next great running QB. East Carolina's Holton Ahlers is another promising player to keep an eye on. Tulsa's Zach Smith also returns.
The conference's leading rusher, Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis), returns after a monstrous freshman season. He was named 1st team All-Conference. Tulsa's Shamari Brooks is also back after earning 2nd team All-Conference. UCF's Otis Anderson was the only RB to earn honorable mention last season and will be joined in the Knights' backfield by Greg McCrae. Anderson is an all-purpose threat in the running game, passing game, and return game, while McCrae is mostly used in the running game. Houston brings back its leading rusher, Kyle Porter. Temple gets back Freshman All-American Re'Mahn Davis.
Houston's Marquez Stevenson returns after a 1st team All-Conference season. Memphis's Damonte Coxie and Temple's Jaden Blue are the top 2 returnees in terms of receiving yards. Both were 2nd team All-Conference. Blue is joined by Branden Mack, who finished last season with 904 yards and 7 TDs. Reggie Roberson returns to SMU after posting over 800 receiving yards last year. Tulsa's Keylon Stokes also returns after reaching the 1000 yards receiving mark. East Carolina welcomes back the duo of C.J. Johnson and Tyler Snead. Johnson was a Freshman All-America team honoree, and Snead is a preseason All-Conference pick. South Florida's Randall St. Felix is a candidate to have a breakout season, while UCF's Tre Nixon looks to build on a stellar junior season.
Most of the notable tight ends from this conference a year ago are gone. SMU's Kylen Granson is the only one returning from the 2019 All-Conference teams. Memphis's Sean Dykes could emerge as a suitable replacement for Joey Magnifico. Cincinnati's Noah Davis could be in for a big year after transferring from Michigan State.
SMU's Jaylon Thomas and UCF's Cole Schneider return from the All-AAc 2nd team. Four offensive linemen return after earning honorable mention: Tulane's Corey Dublin, ECU's D'Ante Smith, Navy's Billy Honaker, and Memphis's Dylan Parham.
Fair warning: you'll be reading a lot about Cincinnati's defense for the rest of this article, much of which includes the defensive front. The Bearcats return 1st team All-AAC performer Elijah Ponder at defensive tackle. Ponder is joined on the interior by Curtis Brooks. Ponder and Brooks will be surrounded by promising defensive ends, Malik Vann and Myjai Sanders. Temple's Ifeanyi Maijeh is back after earning 1st team All-AAC honors and posting great numbers in several key tackling categories. Players returning from the conference's honorable mention list include UCF's Kenny Turnier and Memphis's Joseph Dorceus and O'Bryan Goodson.
Ethan Tucky and Michael Pitts will play out on the edge for Cincinnati. Darrian Beavers and Jarell White will likely join them. Tulane's Patrick Johnson is a one of the best pass-rushing DE/OLB hybrids. He and Tulsa's Zaven Collins both return from last year's 2nd team All-Conference defense. Navy returns 1st team All-AAC LB Diego Fagot. SMU brings back its leading tackler, Richard McBryde.
Cincinnati returns many key players from its secondary. 1st team All-AAC performers Darrick Forrest and Ahmad Gardner are back, as is honorable mention honoree Ja"Von Hicks. Starting corner Coby Bryant is also back. James Wiggins will join them after missing 2019 with a torn ACL. UCF's Richie Grant is also returning after possibly going to the NFL. Memphis's T.J. Carter is an interception machine looking to return from serious injury. The conference also gets back interceptions leader Antwan Collier (UCF). Also returning from All-Conference seasons are UCF's Aaron Robinson, Houston's Grant Stuard, and USF's KJ Sails.