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AAC Preview: Top 10 newcomers

After sitting out a season, USF receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is expected to emerge as one of the American Athletic Conference's top newcomers in 2016.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

After sitting out a season, USF receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is expected to emerge as one of the American Athletic Conference's top newcomers in 2016.

22

June

This week, we're continuing our in-depth look at the upcoming American Athletic Conference football season from various angles. Players, pivotal matchups, prevailing story lines -- all are being dissected. Today: top 10 newcomers (in alphabetical order)

RB Duke Catalon, R-So., Houston
A Texas transfer, Catalon will get the chance to wield an immediate impact in a Cougars backfield gutted by graduation and attrition. Deemed the No. 10 running back nationally by 247Sports coming out of Houston's Eisenhower High, Catalon (6-foot, 210 pounds) might be a bellcow back in most offenses. Alas, Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. is pretty nimble also.

MLB Cecil Cherry, R-Fr., USF
Few Bulls have over-achieved like MLB Auggie Sanchez the last two seasons, yet even Sanchez will have to bring it daily in practice to hold off Cherry. A sturdy (6-foot, 240 pounds) four-star recruit from Lakeland's Victory Christian, Cherry has been on campus nearly a year after transferring from Texas. If he continues building off his solid spring, Bulls coaches simply won't be able to afford to keep him off the field.

QB Riley Ferguson, R-Jr., Memphis
This 6-foot-4 heir to NFL draftee Paxton Lynch has the chops to keep Memphis' program on the uptick. After redshirting at Tennessee in 2013, Ferguson moved to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where he threw for 35 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards last fall. He displayed his big-game moxie at North Carolina's Butler High, where he threw five TD passes in the 2012 state title game. It was Butler's second state title in three seasons with Ferguson at the helm.

WR Devin Gray, Jr., Cincinnati
Someone has to catch passes for the Bearcats, who lost their top five receivers from 2015. We're betting Gray, who had 69 receptions at Sierra (Calif.) College last fall, will assume a lot of that slack. Won't hurt that whomever's on the other end of those passes -- likely Gunner Kiel or Hayden Moore -- has a bunch of experience.

WLB E.J. Levenberry, R-Jr., Connecticut
Levenberry had 39 tackles for FSU's 2013 national title team, but transferred a year later after his role diminished. Huskies coach Bob Diaco, who recruited Levenberry (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) while defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, had a roster spot waiting for him in Storrs. A starting spot? That's up to Levenberry, though his strength and lateral movement might make it tough to keep him off the field. In UConn's spring game, Levenberry had five tackles including half a tackle for a loss.

QB Gardner Minshew, So., East Carolina
When junior QB Kurt Benkert transferred after spring practice, new Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery was left with senior Rutgers transfer Phillip Nelson and some rookies. Hence the signing of Minshew, who threw for nearly 3,300 yards while leading Northwest Mississippi Community College to a juco national title last fall. A defiance of the juco stereotype, Minshew threw for more than 11,000 yards at Brandon (Miss.) High and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Don't be stunned if he's starting sooner rather than later.

DE Ed Oliver, Fr., Houston
The conference's lone five-star signee (and a Parade All-American to boot), Oliver is a home-grown talent whose signing really could help Coach Tom Herman corner the market on Houston prospects (if Herman sticks around long enough). The defensive MVP at the Under Armour All-America game in January, Oliver (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) is a tweener-type d-lineman who could play inside or on the edge.

DE Michael Scott, R-Fr., SMU
No AAC team will be benefit from young blood as much as SMU, and Scott could lead the transfusion. A Power Five recruit who de-committed -- then re-committed -- to the Mustangs, Scott (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) reportedly had a breakthrough spring and is expected to provide a pass rush to a defense that previously had none. The Mustangs ranked 111th last season in sacks (1.33 per game).

WR Dredrick Snelson, Fr., UCF
Having inherited a winless team, it stands to reason new Knights coach Scott Frost will be inclined to play a lot of rookies. The most heralded of the incoming group is Snelson, an Under Armour All-American who spurned a bushel of Power Five programs to come to Orlando. In Frost's offense, Snelson, who helped lead Pembroke Pines Flanagan to the Class 8A state title last season, could line up at a smorgasbord of spots.

WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, R-Jr. USF
After a tantalizing one-year dress rehearsal, Valdez-Scantling (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) debuts as the likely starting X receiver alongside former Lakewood High classmate (and starting slot receiver) Rodney Adams. "He will be known," Coach Willie Taggart said at a recent booster gathering. "People will know his name -- fast." Valdez-Scantling, who sat out last season after transferring from N.C. State, didn't have the most consistent spring, but his length and muscle are unmistakeable.

[Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2016 10:41am]

    

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