It is only February, which leaves about 6 months until the first snap of the 2020 season, but it is never too early for season previews. This will be the first installment of The Bluebloods’ Top Players for all Power 5 conferences (Plus the AAC). These players can be freshmen, but a majority are returning stars from last season and are projected to make a serious impact on college football.
We start with the American Athletic Conference (AAC), which is home to twelve different programs and has boasted multiple New Year’s Six Bowl appearances in recent years. UCF appeared in the Peach Bowl (2018) & Fiesta Bowl (2019) going 1-1 against Auburn and LSU. Houston had a huge victory in the Peach Bowl (2015) over Florida State, while this past season Memphis represented the conference in the Cotton Bowl and lost a tough game to Penn State. This conference has superb athletes that seem to stay under the radar due to their programs lack of national prominence, but I hope to shed some light on these players with this article.
Kenneth Gainwell (University of Memphis; Running Back #19)
2019 Stats: 1459 Yards Rushing, 610 Yards Receiving, 16 Total TDs
Gainwell was a breakout star last for the AAC champions last season. The Memphis Tigers are known for their explosive offense and Gainwell was sometimes overshadowed by his teammate Antonio Gibson (Wide Receiver #10). Gainwell was an unanimous 1st-Team AAC selection this past season and led the conference in yards from scrimmage. I am expecting another big year, since Gibson is now gone and new head coach Ryan Silverfield should lean on Gainwell to continue the tradition of explosive offenses.
Desmond Ridder (University of Cincinnati; Quarterback #9)
2019 Stats: 55.1% Comp%, 2164 Yards Passing, 18 Passing TDs, 654 Yards Rushing, 5 Rushing TDs
Desmond Ridder was the AAC Newcomer of the Year his freshman year, but injuries and a slow start hurt his sophomore campaign. Ridder is due for a bounce back year and should be a huge favorite for AAC Player of the Year. Cincinnati is loaded on both sides of the ball and many experts, including myself, have the Bearcats as favorites to win the AAC in 2020 and Ridder is a main reason for optimism being extremely high. Ridder is at his best when defenses fear his legs and for that reason, scrambling should be his #1 focus in the off-season. If Ridder finds a way to be a threat on the ground, combined with his deadly arm, then this kid has NFL potential. Look out for the Bearcats and Ridder next season, because something special is brewing in Cincinnati.
Jacob Springer (Navy; Linebacker #1)
2019 Stats: 70 Total Tackles, 16 Tackles for Loss, 8 Sacks, 3 Forced Fumbles
Springer is a hybrid Safety/Linebacker for the Midshipmen and this kid is a true playmaker. Springer was an All-Conference Honorable Mention for the 2019 season and many would argue that he should have been at least 2nd team. This Navy defense was defined by physicality and effort throughout the 2019 season, in which the Midshipmen won 11 games. Springer is due for a breakout campaign and should have a chance to reach 100 tackles throughout the 2020 season. I am expecting a 1st Team All-AAC season from Springer, who should be the unquestioned leader for this Navy football team moving forward.
Richie Grant (UCF; Safety #27)
2019 Stats: 78 Total Tackles, 4 Tackles for Loss, 1 INT, 1 TD
Grant will be an integral part of the Knights return to the top of the AAC. Interceptions dropped this past season; after posting 6 INTs in his sophomore year Grant only mustered 1 INT. I do not expect this trend to continue in the 2020 season and I expect Grant to have an outstanding year. The UCF defense is the biggest determinant in this program winning the AAC again, because the offense is returning loads of talent and will be explosive as always. If UCF is holding the AAC Championship trophy in December, then I expect Grant to be one of the best defenders in the country.
Patrick Johnson (Tulane; Defensive End #7)
2019 Stats: 35 Total Tackles, 8.5 Tackles for Loss, 4 Sacks, 4 Pass Deflections
Johnson is now a two-time All-AAC 2nd Team selection and is primed to make a run at the 1st Team All-AAC. As a sophomore, Johnson racked up 10 sacks and many thought he was going to be AAC Defensive Player of the Year, but Johnson did not live up to the hype. I think Johnson is primed for a big senior year in New Orleans and could be a reason for Tulane finally breaking into the elite tier of the AAC. Tulane will have a lot of returning talent, including Johnson, but to avoid another letdown the Green Waves need players like Johnson to play more consistently. Johnson has 1st round NFL talent and I think he knows this is his last shot before the draft, which should motivate Johnson throughout the 2020 season. Expect Johnson to return to his sophomore year form and have a huge year for the Green Waves in 2020.