A locked-in college football schedule with no sudden changes. Tailgates with friends and family. Stadiums packed to the brim. Students storming the streets after a major upset win. It’s all coming soon — the college football landscape is returning to normal.
The 2021 college football season kicks off in just under two months, and what better way to prepare than by running through PFF’s preseason awards. The 600-page PFF College Football Magazine and PFF Preseason All-America Team dropped on Monday, and 10 all-conference teams will be hitting PFF.com throughout the week.
Below is the PFF 2021 Preseason All-Conference USA Team. The side below was selected with the help of PFF grades and advanced statistics, which are now available to PFF’s CFB Premium Stats+ Subscribers.
First-Team: Austin Aune, North Texas
A good chunk of Aune’s dropbacks last season came via play-action concepts, and most of those ended in shots downfield. In fact, he recorded the third-highest play-action pass rate in the FBS at 58.8%, and his average depth of target on those was 16.0 yards downfield. He executed the offense at a high level, finishing sixth in the FBS in passing grade (92.2) and second in big-time throw rate (14.9%) on play-action passes. That’s precisely North Texas’ path to success in 2021.
First-Team: Frank Gore Jr., Southern Miss
After watching Frank Gore Sr. put together a 16-year NFL career, we now get to see his son dominate in the collegiate ranks. Gore Jr. finished with the 18th-best rushing grade in the FBS (86.8) as a true freshman last year. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound back regularly shook defenders, recording the eighth-most broken tackles per attempt in the FBS (0.33). If Gore can improve upon his 84 snaps on the receiving front, an area where he only flashed last season, then he’ll be making waves.
First-Team: DeWayne McBride, UAB
McBride is one to keep an eye on for the 2021 season after posting a 93.8 rushing grade on 47 carries as a true freshman in 2020. He broke a tackle on 21 of those and turned 11 into a gain of 10 or more yards.
First-Team: Victor Tucker, Charlotte
Tucker isn’t consistent on a game-to-game basis, but he has yet to disappoint. He’s been the third-highest-graded receiver in the C-USA since becoming a starter in 2018 and has the third-most receptions of 15-plus yards among that group with 48. Expect his inconsistent yet effective play to continue this fall.
First-Team: Jacob Cowing, UTEP
Cowing’s ball skills have to get better in 2021. He owns a 16.3% drop rate and 30.4% contested-catch rate for his career. Either way, he’ll be a quality deep threat for the Miners, just as he has been as an underclassman. He is tied for the 10th-most deep receptions in the FBS since 2019 with 18.
First-Team: Justin Garrett, UTEP
Garrett has proven he can play in the slot or on the outside at a high level over the last two seasons, and he has also proven to be one of the most reliable targets in the conference. He has the second-lowest drop rate in C-USA since 2019 (2.3%) as well as the highest contested catch rate (61.9%). Each of those marks also ranks among the five best in the FBS over that span.
First-Team: Rivaldo Fairweather, FIU
The Panthers have a prime breakout candidate on their hands in Rivaldo Fairweather. He came to FIU as a three-star recruit who just started playing football as a junior in high school. Hall only ran eight routes in his first three games as a true freshman but far exceeded expectations, finishing the year with a 90.8 receiving grade and 3.44 yards per route run. The 6-foot-4, 233- pound tight end has the ideal blend of size, strength and all-around athleticism, and he didn’t look out of place as a route runner. He looks like the real deal.
First-Team: Cole Spencer, Western Kentucky
Spencer is the best pass-protecting tackle in the conference and among the best in the Group of Five. He actually leads all Group of Five tackles in pass-block grade over the last two seasons. Even when filtering to those important true pass sets, he still holds the top spot.
First-Team: Will Ulmer, Marshall
Ulmer’s run-blocking prowess paved the way to a first-team spot. He posted the highest positively graded run block rate of any tackle in the conference last season en route to an 89.6 run-block grade that ranked 13th among all FBS tackles.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
First-Team: Alex Salguero, Marshall
Salguero patiently waited four years before registering his first career start in 2020, and he clearly made the most of that opportunity. He earned a respectable 68.6 PFF grade that ranked ninth among Group of Five centers.
First-Team: Alex Mollette, Marshall
Mollette has been a mainstay on the Herd’s line since 2017. He has played over 1,305 pass-block snaps in his career, and he has still yet to allow a sack. This last year, Mollette didn’t even allow a single pressure and finished with a 90.5 pass-block grade. With his former teammate Cain Madden now with Notre Dame, Mollette becomes the clear-cut best guard in the conference.
First-Team: Joshua Mote, Louisiana Tech
After a strong year in pass-protection in 2019 that featured a goose egg in the sacks and hits allowed column, Mote was an even cleaner performer in that facet in 2020. He recorded an 82.0 pass-block grade and the second-lowest pressure rate on true pass sets in the conference. If he can be a more in-control player in the run game, then he can really take that next step forward in the Group of Five ranks.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
First-Team: Keenan Stewart, UTEP
Stewart is in the conversation for best interior defensive linemen in the entire Group of Five. He had a rough first two games at nose tackle with UTEP in 2020 after transferring in from JUCO but was kicked over to defensive tackle in his third outing and was excellent the rest of the way. Over his last six games, Stewart was the highest-graded player at the position in college football with a 92.7 mark.
First-Team: Tyree Turner, UAB
Turner is back for his seventh season in the collegiate ranks (yes, his seventh), and he is fixing to be one of the most forceful interior defensive linemen once again in the Group of Five. Last year was his first with UAB after transferring in from South Alabama, and he earned a 91.2 run-defense grade and 77.2 pass-rush grade for the season. His positively graded run play rate was the third-highest in college football while his pass-rush win rate was 12th. Opposing offensive lines are going to have their hands full from trying to stop this well-oiled machine from making plays in 2021.
First-Team: Alex Wright, UAB
Wright is a candidate to follow in his former teammate Jordan Smith’s shoes and become one of the few elite Group of Five edge rushers in 2021. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound edge defender has the pop in his hands, length and routinely good rush plan that makes him a lot to handle for C-USA offensive linemen. In his two years on the field for the Blazers, Wright has recorded an 82.9 pass-rush grade and 18% pass-rush win rate.
First-Team: Charles Wiley, UTSA
Wiley was a four-star recruit in 2016 who spent his first four years in college at Ole Miss. he struggled when playing on the interior his first few years but was moved to outside linebacker in 2019 on a limited basis and flashed some skills as a pass-rusher. He put it all together as a starter for UTSA in 2020. He’s an explosive athlete who dominated on a regular basis with an 84.3 pass-rush grade and 19.2% pressure rate. The latter was the fifth-best in the FBS.
First-Team: Akileis Leroy, FAU
Leroy was ineligible for the 2020 season but is set to return for 2021, which means FAU has a legitimate Butkus candidate on the roster. In 2019, Leroy produced a 74.0-plus grade in every facet (run defense, pass rush, coverage and tackling), something only four other FBS off-ball linebackers accomplished. That led to an overall PFF grade of 87.3, eighth in the FBS.
First-Team: Abraham Beauplan, Marshall
It only took Beauplan one year of playing FBS-level football after transferring in from JUCO to make his name known as one of the top off-ball linebackers in a conference that is loaded at the position. He finished the 2020 season as the lone Group of Five linebacker to earn a grade north of 80.0 as both a run and coverage defender.
First-Team: Quincy Riley, Middle Tennessee
Riley has only played a hair over 204 coverage snaps in his collegiate career, but he has put the clamps on his opponent when he’s been out on the gridiron. He has allowed a 34.5% catch rate across 29 targets and seven first downs while making five plays on the ball. Riley, who is also a member of the Middle Tennessee track team, is a tough man to beat deep and has held his own in man-to-man coverage thus far. He is a prime breakout candidate for the Blue Raiders this fall.
First-Team: Romain Mungin, FAU
Mungin won’t let his 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame get in the way of him doing his job at a quality level. Last year – his first season consistently on the field — Mungin saw 40 targets thrown his way, and he allowed only 15 to be caught en route to a 37.5% catch rate and 73.2 coverage grade.
First-Team: Nazeeh Johnson, Marshall
Johnson went back to spending a majority of his time in the slot in 2020 and had the best year of his career. He was the eighth-highest-graded slot defender in the FBS last season. One thing that remained the same was his elite tackling — he has owned one of the 15 lowest missed tackle rates among FBS safeties in each of the last three years, with only 11 misses on 204 attempts over that span. His time in the slot should increase this fall, so expect another big year from the former walk-on.
First-Team: Damon Miller, UAB
UAB returns one of the rising young talents of the Group of Five in safety Damon Miller. He was thrust into a starting job last season and showed no learning curve whatsoever, earning an 87.0 coverage grade that ranked fifth at the position in the FBS.
First-Team: Dy'jonn Turner, UAB
Turner has been one of the best coverage defenders in the slot over the last couple of years. In fact, his slot coverage grade is the highest among that group in that span. It doesn’t matter if it’s college or pro – slot corners are among the most important and undervalued players in the game of football, and having one of the best at the position is a massive asset to the defense. Because of Turner, safety Damon Miller and outside corner TD Marshall, this UAB secondary is right there behind Marshall for the best in the conference.