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Top 10 players returning in the Conference USA in 2020

There hasn’t been a whole lot of elite NFL talent produced by the Conference USA over the past few years. Marcus Davenport, Bryce Callahan, Will Hernandez and Devin Singletary, among others, highlight some of the former members in the NFL, but we are still waiting for one to become a household name. Perhaps Harrison Bryant, PFF’s tight end number six in the 2020 NFL Draft as of now, can break that streak. If he doesn’t, maybe one of the members now can break that streak. Using PFF’s advanced database that all 32 NFL teams and 72 FBS programs take advantage of, these are the top 10 players returning to the Conference USA in 2020:

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1. CB Dy’jonn Turner, UAB

Out of 118 qualifying slot corners in 2019, UAB’s Dy’jonn Turner recorded the second-highest PFF coverage grade. He allowed a first down on just 13% of his targets in the slot, which was the second-lowest rate and over 25 percentage points below the average. Turner actually forced more incompletions than first downs allowed while defending the slot. Those are pretty absurd numbers, even more so when looking at his 2018 campaign — when he allowed more yards in coverage in nearly half the snaps. Including those who are declaring for the NFL Draft, Turner was the 11th most valuable cornerback in the FBS. Derek Stingley Jr. and Patrick Surtain II will get most of the eyeballs, but don’t forget about Dy’jonn Turner as we head into next season.

2. EDGE Keion White, Old Dominion

Most players play both sides of the ball in high school and stick to one in college. It’s rare to see a player start out at one position in college and switch to another after a season and play at a high level immediately. Old Dominion’s Keion White is in that group, as he went from tight end in 2018 to edge defender in 2019 and finished as the 11th most valuable player at the position. Clearly, there were no growing pains. He generated a whopping 45 pressures on 279 pass-rush reps, which formed a top-20 rate in college football. By accomplishing that in just his first season on the edge, I think I speak for everyone when I say I can’t wait to watch White continue to develop.

3. EDGE Jordan Smith, UAB

Smith spent a year with the Florida Gators in 2016 and was a redshirt freshman, but an off-the-field issue caused him to sit out 2017. He then played 2018 at a community college before transferring to UAB after that season. As a result, no one expected him to be the fourth most valuable edge defender in 2019, ranking among the elite of college football:

Most wins above average (WAA) by an edge defender in 2019
Player Wins above average
1. Chase Young, Ohio State 0.57
2. Quincy Roche, Miami FL (Temple transfer) 0.55
3. Curtis Weaver, Boise State 0.54
4. Jordan Smith, UAB 0.48
5. Zack Baun, Wisconsin 0.47

The 6-foot-7 Smith was stout against the run and one of college football’s best edge defenders. He was just one of two edge defenders to produce elite 90.0 grades in run defense and in the pass-rush. He proved he could more than handle Power-5 competition, too. UAB had one game against a Power-5 school, a Week 10 bout versus Tennessee. That day, Smith recorded nine pressures on 24 pass-rush reps. No wonder why he was once offered by Alabama, Ohio State and LSU back in 2015-16. He might just be the most underrated player at his position.

4. CB Brontae Harris, UAB

He may have missed the entire 2019 season due to a foot injury suffered a few weeks before Week 1, but what we saw from Brontae Harris in the two years prior was too good not to have him on this top 10 returners list. In his true freshman and sophomore seasons at outside corner, Harris combined to allow just a 36% catch rate and only 12 first downs while forcing 21 incompletions. Not to mention, he allowed more than 45 yards in a single game just once. That catch rate was one of the lowest in college football, and his two-year coverage grade at the alignment was among the 15 best. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds after not playing an entire season, but if he gets back on track, he could very well end up at the top of the list at the end of the 2020 season.

5. QB Chris Robison, Florida Atlantic

Chris Robison originally was with the Oklahoma Sooners as a freshman in 2017, transferred to Florida Atlantic prior to the season and redshirted the year. He was named the starter in 2018 but was average at best, producing a 67.8 passing grade. Robison vastly improved that mark in 2019, recording an 80.7 passing grade. He isn’t going to beat you deep with his arm, as he was just 104th in big-time throw rate, but Robison avoided negatively graded throws at one of the 15 lowest rates in the country and had above-average accuracy. Robison was the 27th most valuable quarterback a season ago and is the top signal-caller in the Conference USA.

6. WR Austin Watkins, UAB

Austin Watkins was given a bigger role as a true sophomore and seized the opportunity, producing the 14th best receiving grade at his position. No one was targeted more on 20-plus yard throws downfield than Watkins, and he might just be the biggest Group of 5 deep threat heading into 2020. He was top 15 once again by grade on such targets and had to suffer through a high rate of uncatchable passes deep downfield. On top of that, Watkins had some of the best hands in the country (just one drop on 60 catchable targets) and was one of the most productive receivers on a per-route basis, giving UAB the top receiver in the conference.

7. WR Victor Tucker, Charlotte

In his first season of collegiate action as a redshirt freshman in 2018, Charlotte’s Victor Tucker was an above-average receiver by producing a 77.1 receiving grade. He took a big step forward in 2019, raising his receiving grade to 84.5, which ranked 33rd. Tucker is a versatile receiver and is by no means limited to one role on the offense. While he was good when playing on the outside, Tucker was at his best in the slot, where he ranked among the 10 best in receiving grade.

8. EDGE Deangelo Malone, Western Kentucky

Deangelo Malone joins White and Smith as one of the 15 most valuable edge defenders from the 2019 season and one of the top players returning in the conference in 2020. There really wasn’t anything Malone didn’t do at an above-average rate. In PFF run-defense grade, he was above the 75th percentile among edge defenders, and his tackling was as good as anyone's — he missed just five of his 88 attempts. Among 186 qualifying returning edge defenders, Malone recorded the 15th highest pass-rush grade (82.2). While he didn’t generate a rate of pressure that impresses you, he did win at a rate that would (18.7%).

9. QB Chris Reynolds, Charlotte

When free from pressure, Chris Reynolds was one of the best quarterbacks on a throw-for-throw basis. Among qualifying FBS signal-callers, Reynolds was one of just four to rank among the 15 best in both positively graded and negatively graded throw rate. For what it’s worth, Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Jarren Willams were the other three quarterbacks. Since those are the most predictive and stable metrics, Reynolds cracks this top 10 returners in the Conference USA list. The thing that almost kept him off was his performance when in unfavorable situations. When under pressure, Reynolds was 111th among 134 quarterbacks in passing grade. His accuracy on those throws was rather bad and will be a category he has to improve in.

10. QB Asher O’Hara, Middle Tennessee

Asher O’Hara performed fairly well in his first year starting for Middle Tennessee. He finished the year as one of the 35 most valuable quarterbacks in college football and also was worth more to his team than 2020 draft first-round prospect Justin Herbert was to Oregon. But his passing didn’t quite get him there. O’Hara was 31st in positively grade throw rate, but his decision-making was brutal overall, as he also was 92nd in negatively graded throw rate. Middle Tennessee used O’Hara in the designed rushing attack quite a bit, and he thrived in that role by producing an 86.2 rushing grade that ranked behind only Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. and Navy’s Malcolm Perry among non-quarterbacks. Including scrambles, O’Hara carried the ball 176 times and averaged an astounding 4.44 yards after contact per attempt while also breaking 53 tackles.

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