The Watch List: 2018 AAC Preview

Updated: July 21st 2018

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Favorite:  McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF.  Milton thrived under coach Scott Frost last season, throwing for 4,037 yards and 37 TDs.  It remains to be seen how Milton progresses under new head coach Josh Heupel but I assume he’ll do just fine with such a strong supporting cast.  He may be the next in the line of “great college quarterbacks who can’t make it as a pro” but that won’t diminish my enjoyment watching him in 2018.
  • Darkhorse Heisman Candidate:  Ed Oliver, DT, Houston.  Picking a defensive lineman for the Heisman is about as darkhorse as it gets.  Oliver is a beast who will be in the conversation for a top draft pick so it stands to reason he may earn a Heisman vote or two like Roquan Smith received in 2017.
  • Offensive Player of the Year:  Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis.  Henderson will have a strong season but will never get the publicity of Milton so I wanted to honor Henderson here while giving Milton my AAC Heisman vote.  Per Phil Steele, Memphis ranks 11th in the nation in offensive line starts returning for 2018, so Henderson will have an experienced line blocking for him.  Add in the fact that the Tigers lose their star QB and WR and we’ll be looking at an offensive attack more focused on the run this season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Ed Oliver, DT, Houston.  I hope you’re not getting tired of hearing Ed Oliver’s name because there is more of him to come in this preview and I’ll be talking about him all season long.
  • Newcomer of the Year:  Tavion Thomas, RB, Cincinnati.  Thomas was a highly sought recruit who earned offers from the likes of Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama.  Thomas committed to the Sooners before changing his mind in January.  He was the 17th ranked back according to 247Sports and was #29 per Phil Steele.  Thomas has a shot at emerging from Cinci’s young but crowded backfield.  The Bearcats return two sophomores in Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren who had 520-2 and 334-1 respectively as freshmen.
  • Underclassman to Watch:  Gabriel Davis, WR, UCF.  The Knights are losing two of their top three receivers (Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins) so the door is open for Davis to take on a bigger role in 2018.  In 2017 as a true freshman his line was 27-391-4.  He has a big body at 6’3″ and 219lb so it’ll be interesting to see if the high volume offense of UCF vaults him into 2020 draft consideration.
  • Best QB-WR Tandem:  McKenzie Milton and Dredrick Snelson.  I thought about being flippant here and selecting Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry, see below, but I figured I should give some real analysis instead.  Ultimately I chose Milton and Snelson more out of necessity than desire.  The AAC only returns one of its top ten receivers from last year so my options were quite limited here.  That sole returner, East Carolina’s Trevon Brown, will be playing with a new passer this season so I couldn’t go with that tandem.  Snelson is the Knights leading returning receiver; he had 46-695-8 last year.  Snelson was Phil Steele’s 35th ranked recruit in his class so he has some potential and could land on NFL Draft radars as a junior.
  • Best RB Corps:  Navy.  I haven’t had such an easy choice yet in my season preview research.  The Midshipmen return two 1,000+ yard rushers in Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry.  They also return FB Anthony Gargiulo who rushed for 424 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.  Notice that I left off position designations for Abey and Perry because there’s an interesting battle, forgive the pun, between them heading into this season.  They both had starts at QB last year but Perry is the better athlete (Perry played at WR while Abey started at QB).  Reports are that Abey will be moving to WR which we know is not a premier assignment in a triple option offense.  I’ll bet that head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been game planning all offseason and keeping both players on the field at the same time will make Navy even harder to defend.
  • Coach on the Hottest Seat:  Randy Edsall, UCONN.  I don’t really get the allure of Randy Edsall.  He left the Huskies back in 2010 for a five year stint at Maryland that netted him just 22 wins.  Then Connecticut brought him back in 2017 after firing Bob Diaco.  Edsall has a 73-72 career record with Connecticut but the team was dreadful last year at 3-9.  Those three wins were by a combined seventeen points and one of them was over 4-7 Holy Cross from the FCS.  Not exactly a winning resume.  When I researched Edsall for this preview, I was reminded of his recent tirade about paying college players.  While I agree with the idea, going off on that tangent probably isn’t the best way to keep your job with an NCAA member institution.  Neither is suing the school’s Citizen Ethics Advisory Board.

Teams to Watch

 Memphis (10-3 in 2017)

I’m really interested to see what Memphis can do in 2018 after losing so much with QB Riley Ferguson and WR Anthony Miller moving on.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this preview, the Tigers have a number of offensive weapons leftover including RB Darrell Henderson, do-everything dynamo Tony Pollard and TE Joey Magnifico.  The Tigers won the West division last season with a 7-1 record.  They return 15 starters from that team and have a favorable non-conference schedule (easily winnable home games against Mercer, Georgia State and South Alabama).  An odd midseason matchup against SEC foe Missouri could end up being the make-or-break contest.  Memphis will easily hold onto the division mantle but a sneaky win against Missouri would catapult them into playoff contention (it would be a better Power 5 win than UCF had last year over Maryland).  Memphis may have the widest range of possible outcomes this upcoming season in the AAC, because of the uncertainty of replacing two huge pieces of the offense, but if I had to bet (and hey I may soon be able to, thank you New Jersey!) I would take the over and pick them to improve on last year’s 10 wins.

 Cincinnati (4-8 in 2017)

What is a Bearcat anyway?  Nobody seems to know for sure, unless you accept this tenuous explanation from the school.  One thing I do know about Cincinnati is that they will be on the come this season.  Per Phil Steele, Cinci returns 78% of their offensive yards, the most in the conference.  They also have a soft non-conference schedule after opening at UCLA.  They have an annual game against Miami Ohio which the Bearcats have won every season since 2006; two weeks later they have another winnable, albeit more difficult, MAC matchup against Ohio.  Between those two, Alabama A&M comes to town which Cincinnati should beat easily.  They get Navy and USF at home which will help them steal a win against one of the higher ranked AAC teams.  The offense features a number of underclassman running backs that could be either a blessing or a curse for head coach Luke Fickell.  The experienced QB Hayden Moore returns but may be beat out by true freshman Ben Bryant.  It may be a big if, but if Fickell can juggle his myriad backfield options, Cinci could surprise in the East and get to eight wins.  Even if that may be a stretch, I like Fickell’s chances of getting to 7-5 in his second season at the helm.

Players to Watch

Honorable Mentions

  • McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF:  Milton was fantastic in 2017 and should light up AAC defenses again this season, even under a new coach.  Jeff Heupel was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for fellow NFL prospect Drew Lock at Missouri; Heupel also worked closely with NFL quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones at OU.  So, Heupel’s quarterback coach credentials could help increase Milton’s stock.  Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for Milton as he is severely undersized at 5110/180.  It’s a shame because he has a great arm and makes some of his throws look effortless.  Another 4,000 yard and 35 TD season should be expected.
  • Ryquell Armstead, RB, Temple:  Armstead followed up a promising sophomore season (919-14) with a disappointing junior campaign (604-5).  Interestingly, he had the exact same number of carries in each season (156).  One positive of 2017 was that Armstead got involved with 14 receptions, although for only 75 yards.  Armstead has good size (5110, 205) but needs to show that he can be the lead back and wrest carries away from veteran David Hood.
  • Adrian Killins, RB, UCF:  Listed weights for Killins range between 150-170 but either way he’s light and slight at 5080.  What Killins lacks in size, he makes up in speed.  He offered up some bulletin board material last year leading into the Peach Bowl when he boasted that Auburn hadn’t seen speed like he and the Knights had. predicts Killins speed will range between 4.40-4.59.  After watching some highlights, this one specifically, I’m going to guess he’s safely in the 4.40 discussion.  Killins was involved as a receiver with 25 receptions in 2017; he totaled 959 yards and 11 TDs from scrimmage on 148 touches.  He also has some limited experience returning kicks which is where he could be deployed early in his pro career.
  • Tony Pollard, WR/RB/KR, Memphis:  Pollard is an all-purpose threat.  In 2017 he had 10 touchdowns: 2 rushing, 4 receiving, 4 kick return.  He only had 66 touches from scrimmage but averaged over 11 yards per touch.  He’ll still be behind RB Darrell Henderson in the offensive pecking order but with WR Anthony Miller gone, Pollard will see more snaps.  It’s not impossible that Pollard could parlay his size (5110/200) and versatility into a “Jaylen Samuels lite” draft profile.
  • Justin Hobbs, WR, Tulsa:  Hobbs finished 2017 with a respectable 55-830-3 line on a bad Tulsa team that averaged just 173 yards passing per game.  Hobbs has not showed a knack for finding the end zone (just 9 career TDs in three seasons) but has a redzone worthy frame at 6040/218.  I watched a 2017 highlight package of Hobbs and was disappointed to see how infrequently he used that size to his advantage by playing in the air.  I’ll monitor Hobbs this year to see if he improves in that regard.
  • Joey Magnifico, TE, Memphis:  Here we have another player who stands to benefit from Memphis WR Anthony Miller leaving for the NFL.  You may be quick to counter that I’m attributing too much added production to Henderson, Pollard and Magnifico but you need to remember what a black hole Miller was in this offense.  He had 100+ touches in both 2016 and 2017 that need to be replaced.  Magnifico is listed at 6040/235 which puts him on the smaller side of the last two tight end classes.  Size wise he comps to Evan Engram or Gerald Everett but predicts he’ll be significantly slower.  Magnifico has just 30 career receptions (365 yards, 5 TDs) so this is pure speculation here but he’s likely the best TE in the conference so so let’s keep an eye on him.

Ed Oliver, DT, Houston

Regardless of what source you’re looking at, Ed Oliver is about as unanimous a selection as you’ll find for the nation’s best at their position. He checks in at 6030/290 and is projected in the 4.90 range.  He ran a 4.87 as a high school prospect and in my experience, guys tend to get a tick faster once they are on campus and start training at a higher level. quotes some sick athletic feats as well in the vertical and broad jump categories.  No prospect in 2018, at 290+ pounds, would have a better profile.  Taven Bryan and Kolton Miller would come close, and both were first rounders, but Oliver would have them beat by nearly a full tenth of a second in the 40 yard dash.  Oliver is in the running for the top pick and I’ll bet that some team is going to get tremendous value for him at #2 or #3 after a quarterback inevitably rises up the draft board.  By no means am I an expert when it comes to defensive line play so I’m not going to try and break down his technique but it’s impossible to watch Oliver and not see the impact he has on the game every single snap.  Considering the attention offensive lines pay him, his stats are great: 73 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2017.  I watched a fair bit of Oliver last season so I did not do a new round of film study for this preview (honestly, seems kind of pointless… he’s good), but I encourage you to take four minutes and watch this highlight reel entitled “Absolute Domination” which just about sums him up.

Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis

Henderson is a 5090/200 running back who made fantastic use of his 154 touches last season.  On those touches, 24 of which were receptions, Henderson averaged 8.96 yards per and scored 11 TDs.  In my database of nearly fifty running backs for this class, Henderson led them all in yards per carry, by nearly a yard too.  He also had a productive freshman season with over 700 scrimmage yards and 8 TDs.  As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam in this preview, Memphis has a lot of offensive production to replace in 2018.  I expect to see Henderson’s touches creep closer to 200 and while his rate stats will surely decrease he will still be productive and could be a fast riser.  Henderson uses his squat body type to run with a balanced combination of speed and power, often pinballing off defenders.  He showed me great contact balance and an ability to stay upright, especially while avoiding ankle tackles.  He accelerates well and has a top speed in the 4.50 range, in my opinion.  His hands need some work and he appears to be a hesitant (and inexperienced) blocker but that may improve with experience.  Henderson offers the Memphis offense versatility which they used to create mismatches for Henderson and his teammates.  In one perfect example against SMU, Henderson motioned out of the backfield to line up in the slot.  The linebackers shift and it’s clear there’s some confusion.  Amidst that confusion, WR Anthony Miller splits the linebackers and scores on a touch pass over the middle.  If the defenders were not concerned about Henderson playing out of the slot the touchdown never would have materialized.  If I were ranking today, Henderson probably cracks my Top 20 at the position but I was impressed enough with his power/speed combination to reserve final judgment.  (Film watched: UCF 2017, SMU 2017)

Trevon Brown, WR, East Carolina

Brown was not on my radar when I started researching the AAC for this preview.  He stood out, however, when I realized how few productive receivers were returning to the AAC this season.  Brown finished 2017 with a line of 60-1,069-7 for the Pirates, making him the only one of the conference’s top ten receivers coming back to campus.  His 17.8 yards per catch average led the conference by receivers with 60+ receptions.  Brown had a solid sophomore season in 2015 (41-496-4) but was forced to sit out 2016 after being declared academically ineligible.  Since he’s not a buzzworthy name, there was not much film of Brown to find online.  I was able to watch one full game and a highlight reel package.  His game against Cinci ended up looking good on the stat sheet (9-270-2) but it was buoyed by a huge 95 yard score.  It concerned me that a number of Brown’s best routes went untargeted by the quarterback.  Part of that is likely the fact that Brown lines up almost exclusively on the left and his right handed QB just didn’t have the time or ability to read the full field.  Brown shows strong hands, in fact I did not note a single drop.  He runs a limited route tree but found success on numerous post routes.  On those posts, he used his body to shield the defender while making the catch with his hands.  In general, he has average speed and acceleration but he does have an extra gear when he wants to shift into it making him dangerous after the catch.  It did concern me that Brown appears to be uninterested on plays that are designed to go away from him, rarely did I see him try to sell a route or hold a block when he knew he wouldn’t see action.  I’m hoping that Brown’s upward statistical trajectory continues because he has decent enough size and speed (6020/211, predicts in the 4.55 range) to get drafted as a late round flyer a la Cedrick Wilson from this year.  (Film watched: Cincinnati 2017, Highlights 2017)

Notes: In an effort to standardize the description of key positional traits, I frequently use the following adjectives: elite, good, above average, average, below average, poor.  My experimental grading system uses a Madden-like approach by weighting position relevant traits on a 100-point scale; bonus or negative points are awarded based on production, size, injury history and character.  Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  Then watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  For top prospects I may add a third game, while for long shots I might only devote the time for one. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats:,,,,,
  • Film: 2019 NFL Draft Database by @CalhounLambeau, (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks:,,,,,
  • Draft history:
  • Combine info:,,
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

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