AAC Preview: Top 10 offensive skill players
Over the next couple of weeks, we'll take an in-depth look at the upcoming American Athletic Conference football season from various angles. Players, pivotal matchups, prevailing story lines -- all will be dissected. Today: The conference's top 10 skill players (alphabetical order).
WR Rodney Adams, Sr., USF
For all his length and fleetness, Adams' resilience just might be his greatest attribute. Remember the debacle at Maryland, when he let a sure 44-yard TD pass from Quinton Flowers slip right through his hands on third down? Forty of his 45 catches in 2015 came after that loss. After totaling only five receptions his first three games, Adams totaled 11 over the next three, then really got cooking. Now, that resilience is complemented by confidence, and the most deceptive speed in the AAC.
WR Chance Allen, Sr., Houston
With 2015 receptions leader Demarcus Ayers now drawing an NFL paycheck (from the Steelers), Allen (56 catches last season) presumably steps up as Greg Ward Jr.'s top target. He's already a rangy one (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and proven one. In the Cougars' three biggest victories last season (Navy, Temple, FSU), Allen totaled 13 catches for 128 yards and two TDs.
QB Riley Ferguson, Jr., Memphis
We repeat: Don't expect a major dropoff for the Tigers in the post-Paxton Lynch era. Ferguson, a 6-foot-4 former Tennessee quarterback, averaged more than 325 passing yards (with 35 TDs) at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College last fall. With two returning receivers who totaled 47 or more catches last year, and four returning starters up front, Ferguson has the components to flourish in new coach Mike Norvell's high-tempo scheme.
QB Quinton Flowers, Jr., USF
It's hardly a secret the Bulls' season turned around last fall when Willie Taggart acquiesced and put the offense in the feet and hands of Flowers. The result was 3,287 total yards and a school-record 22 passing TDs. Despite a challenge from heralded transfer Asiantii Woulard and redshirt freshman Brett Kean in the spring, Flowers further entrenched himself as the guy. He'll enter '16 with command, confidence, and arguably the best batch of surrounding skill guys in program history.
WR Zay Jones, Sr., East Carolina
Even amid instability at quarterback, the receiver formerly known as Isaiah still managed 98 receptions for 1,099 yards last season. We don't expect Jones to match those video-game numbers this year, mainly because new coach Scottie Montgomery could opt for more of a pro-style scheme. But he'll remain ECU's primary possession guy from his
WR Keevan Lucas, Sr., Tulsa
Before tearing his right patella tendon last Halloween against Houston, Lucas was arguably the conference's most productive player. He totaled 101 catches for 1,219 yards in 2014 alone, and enters his final season with 2,070 career receiving yards and 17 TDs. Pass-centric system or not, those are staggering numbers.
RB Marlon Mack, Jr., USF
We expect Mack to become the Bulls' career rushing leader before FSU comes to town Sept. 24. Despite missing a game with a sore hamstring, he still set USF's single-season rushing record (1,381 yards) in 2015, and enters the fall needing only 310 yards to break Andre Hall's all-time mark (2,731). Enjoy Mack's blend of size (he wants to play at 210 pounds this year), burst and brute force while you can; the NFL could beckon next spring.
WR Courtland Sutton, So., SMU
Though mostly neutralized (three catches, 56 yards, one TD) by Tom Allen's unit at Raymond James Stadium last October, Sutton had 46 catches and eight TDs in his other 11 games. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, this dude's an NFL wideout waiting to happen. But first, there's at least one more year (Sutton took a medical redshirt in '14) in Chad Morris' high-octane scheme, which should take another positive step this fall.
RB Jahad Thomas, Sr., Temple
On a cold November night in Philly, with a trip to the league title game at stake, Thomas shredded a sound Connecticut defense for 119 yards and two TDs. Which is to say, another night at the office for this converted defensive back. If the UConn effort doesn't convince you, check out his Penn State performance (29 carries, 135 yards, two TDs) or his effort at Cincinnati (26 carries, 193 yards, 100-yard kick return for TD).
QB Greg Ward Jr., Sr., Houston
If Ward played in a Power Five conference, he'd be generating every bit the Heisman buzz as Dalvin Cook, Deshaun Watson or Christian McCaffrey. Cut from the Quinton Flowers mold (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), Ward totaled nearly 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns last season while leading the Cougars to a conference title and New Year's Six bowl win (over FSU). Don't be shocked if Ward, whose supporting cast is solid as ever, leads the Coogs to a season-opening upset of Oklahoma in Houston's NRG Stadium.