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Top 10 players returning in the AAC in 2020

The American Athletic Conference was pretty top-heavy last season, with five teams eclipsing 10 or more wins on the year — Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy, UCF and SMU. There are some key players from the AAC leaving, such as James Proche, Antonio Gibson, Samonte Coxie, Bryce Huff and Quincy Roche (transferred), but the conference returns a great group that features eight schools in the top-10 returners in 2020:

1. CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati

One year ago, Ahmad Gardner was just a three-star prospect coming to the University of Cincinnati. Now, he’s the best returning player in the AAC and is one of the best returning cornerbacks in the entire country. Gardner produced an elite 90.0 coverage grade in his true freshman campaign, ranking eighth in the FBS and among the five best corners returning next season. On his 58 targets in coverage, he allowed just 23 to be caught with zero touchdowns and 11 combined pass breakups and interceptions. He gave up a few explosive plays down the stretch, but the Gardner consistently forced the quarterback into a mistake and rarely lost at the catch point. Take a look at his stat line when he forced tight coverage — he’s stickier than glue:

PFF grade rank 1st of 355
Targets 35
Catches 6
Yards 62
First downs 1
Interceptions 3
Forced incompletions 15
Passer rating allowed 3.9

2. QB Shane Buechele, SMU

After a so-so career at Texas and losing his starting job to Sam Ehlinger, Shane Buechele decided to transfer to SMU and stay in the Lonestar State. In his one year as the Longhorns' starting signal-caller, Buechele had a career year, producing an 83.0 overall grade that ranked 28th. He routinely went deep with the ball, leading the country in 20-plus yard attempts. And while his accuracy was shaky, he made some nice throws on those to tight windows, posting the fifth-highest passing grade on such plays. The improvement in decision-making is a very promising sign entering next season, too. Buechele is returning the 11th most WAA among quarterbacks in 2020, and while the accuracy is concerning as said, his high-end on deep balls is among the elite.

3. QB Dillon Gabriel, UCF

Dillon Gabriel was not only was the highest-graded true freshman of the 2019 season but he finished with the third most WAA by a true freshman quarterback in the PFF College era. We went over Buechele’s deep ball extensively, and Gabriel is right there with him at the top — he had a crisp 29 big-time throws to just two turnover-worthy plays on 20-plus yard attempts. His decision making overall was really impressive given his age — he and Joe Burrow were the only quarterbacks to produce a turnover-worthy play and big-time throw rate among the 15 best quarterbacks in all of college football (both were actually in the top five). We’d like to see him improve on horizontal and stick throws, but Gabriel’s only going to get better from here, and that’s scary for the rest of the AAC.

4. EDGE Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati

Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders didn’t see much action in 2018 but came back in 2019 and showed how dominant of a player he is as a pass-rusher. While he didn’t generate a whole lot of pressure across his snaps, he won on a consistent 17% of his reps, ranking 17th among returning edge defenders. Among all edge defenders, Sanders was the 16th most valuable and is among the top five returners. Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 260 pounds, Sanders is going to be one to watch.

5. WR C.J. Johnson, East Carolina

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound former three-star recruit C.J. Johnson was one of the best true freshman wide receivers in college football last season, producing an 82.1 receiving grade ranking behind only Georgia’s George Pickens among first-year wideouts. Almost half of his receptions were an explosive play of 15 or more yards, with most of those coming from go routes. When running a go route, Johnson picked up 10 explosive plays, tying for 14th in the FBS. Johnson can also create after the catch, as he had 10 broken tackles on his 55 catches with an average of 5.8 yards after the catch per reception.

Oct 19, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; East Carolina Pirates wide receiver C.J. Johnson (5) catches a pass in front of UCF Knights defensive back Tay Gowan (23) during the second quarter at Spectrum Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

6. CB K.J. Sails, USF

The redshirt senior K.J. Sails spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career at North Carolina, where he had little success and missed most of the 2018 season due to injury. He subsequently transferred to USF in 2019, where he put together one of the best comeback seasons in college football. Sails produced a WAA total that is 26th among returning cornerbacks and allowed just 28 catches on his 375 coverage snaps. He may have given up five touchdowns on the year, but more often than not, Sails was locking up his opponent. He trails only Gardner as the top AAC corner entering into the 2020 season.

7. RB Amare Jones, Tulane

Amare Jones was given fewer opportunities among most running backs a season ago and still managed to produce the sixth-most wins above average at his position. Versatile is the perfect word to use when describing Jones' play. He actually lined up in the slot 220 times last season and just 97 times in the backfield. He picked up the fifth-most yards per route run at his position while also being an elusive, breakaway threat rushing the ball. On his 60 carries, Jones forced 20 broken tackles and racked up 12 explosive plays of 10 or more yards.

8. RB Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

In his 2019 redshirt freshman season, Kenneth Gainwell went from unknown to top-10 running back in college football. He finished the season seventh in overall grade and was one of the top receiving backs. In that facet, Gainwell ranked fourth in receiving grade and sixth in yards per route run at his position. He was quite literally an explosive play waiting to happen, owning the most 15-plus yard plays when combining rushing and receiving. Being just a “good” runner doesn’t quite cut it in today’s age of college football — you need to be a dual-threat player, and Gainwell is exactly that.

9. LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa

Off-ball linebacker Zaven Collins impressed in his redshirt freshman season in 2018 and came back in 2019 as one of the top players at his position in coverage. His PFF coverage grade was among the 30 best at his position, and he was responsible for very few negatives in that facet of play. Collins was targeted 16 times, allowing just 10 catches for 98 yards while notching three pass breakups on his 303 coverage snaps — paving the way to the fifth-lowest yards per coverage snap mark in the entire FBS. He needs to clean up his missed tackles (17 misses on 104 attempts last year), but coverage play at his position is the most important — and Collins has proven to do that at a high level.

Aug 30, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) against Tulsa Golden Hurricane linebacker Zaven Collins (23) during the first half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

10. WR Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU

Reggie Roberson Jr. struggled in his first season with SMU as a transfer from West Virginia in 2018. That year, he dropped 15% of his catchable targets. He cleaned that up in 2019, dropping that rate by 13 percentage points. An injury caused Roberson to miss the second half of the season, but in that first half, he was among the 15 most productive wide receivers on a per-route basis by racking up 3.43 yards per route run. As said earlier, his quarterback Shane Buechele lives and dies by the deep ball. His go-to option was Roberson, who tied with Ja’Marr Chase for the highest deep receiving grade in the FBS. His teammate James Proche, who is NFL bound, predicted Roberson to win the Biletnikoff in 2020 and based off what we saw when healthy, he is a legitimate darkhorse candidate.

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