(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
With a name change from the “Big East” to the “American” it is this writer’s hope that along with a dead football conference, the bad, “Big Least” jokes are dead as well. As Louisville proved in last year’s Sugar Bowl, there is still plenty of good football being played in this conference, and coming off 10 and nine-win seasons respectively, Cincinnati and Rutgers proved this league wasn’t a one-trick pony in 2012 either.
And along with good overall football, there is plenty of quality, top-flight talent on these rosters as well. It showed in this past NFL Draft where schools that weren’t even bowl eligible like UConn had multiple draft picks (four, in the Huskies case) and where a slew of talented returning players should make these clubs even better in 2013. Not to mention that a group of big-name transfers should only bolster these rosters and make the overall quality of football in the American quite competitive this fall.
Yes, the “American” may be a new football conference, but believe us, there are plenty of names you’ll know when these teams take the field this fall.
Here are several to keep an eye on:
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: It only seems appropriate that any conversation about the American starts with its biggest star, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The soon-to-be junior had a breakout in last year’s Sugar Bowl with 266 yards passing and two touchdowns, only for those who watched this conference during the 2012 season, Bridgewater’s performance was no surprise. Last year’s Big East Player of the Year finished with 27 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
And as good as those numbers were in 2012, they should only be better entering this season. Louisville returns three of its top four receivers and adds two talented tight end transfers to what was an already explosive unit.
This offense should be able to score with any team in college football in 2013.
Yarwin Smallwood, LB, UConn: With four separate players chosen from UConn’s defense in this past NFL Draft, it’s possible that the Huskies had quite possibly the most underrated unit in the country last fall (they also might’ve been the single most overqualified team not to make a bowl game too, but that’s another story for another day).
And as good as future draftees like Trevardo Williams, Dwayne Gratz and Sio Moore were, Smallwood might’ve been better than them all. He finished the 2012 season with a team-high 120 tackles, a number which not only ranked him in the Top 35 nationally, but also earned him a spot on the All-Big East first team.
The question now is can Smallwood put up the same numbers as a veteran on the UConn defense instead of a youngster. The Huskies return just five starters overall on that side of the ball.
Eric Lefeld, OT, Cincinnati: There’s nothing sexy about putting a starting tackle on a star-watch list, but Lefeld and the rest of the Cincinnati offensive line may be the biggest reason that Tommy Tuberville will find success in the Queen City. The junior-to-be was an All-Big East first team member last year and is one of five returnees on the offensive line entering 2013.
Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers: While Louisville’s DeVante Parker put up similar numbers last season (and earned an All-Big East first team nod in the process), we’ll give the slight edge to Coleman as the top wide receiver on our star-watch list. That’s because despite not having some guy named “Teddy Bridgewater” throwing passes to his to him (although some guy named “Gary Nova” ain’t bad either), Coleman still finished the season with 10 touchdowns and 718 total yards.
With Nova’s return, Coleman should be in for another big season.
Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple: Lost in the fact that Temple wasn’t all that good at the whole “playing football” thing last fall, was the fact that Matakevich had as good a season as just about any freshman linebacker in the country. He finished with a team leading 101 tackles and earned the Big East’s Freshman of the Year Award.
Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida: Bortles might be the answer to one of college football’s oldest questions: If a quarterback puts up big stats in a conference no one watches, did his season really happen?
The answer is yes, and it’s that exact point as to why Bortles is on this list in the first place. He already technically “broke out” after throwing 25 touchdowns in 2012, but on a bigger stage against better competition in the American, he could become a household name to college football fans across the country this fall.
In the process, fans should get to know how good Central Florida is too. Outside of Louisville, they may be the most returning talent of any team in the conference.
Dominique Brown, RB, Louisville: With leading rusher Jeremy Wright electing to transfer and second leading rusher Senorise Perry out with a knee injury, a startling amount of Louisville’s run production could come on the shoulders of a former quarterback who didn’t play during the 2012 season.
That running back is Brown, who sat out all of 2012 with a knee injury and whose only actual on the field experience at Louisville is limited to wide receiver, where he caught 16 balls in 2011. And again, that’s after starting at the school as a running back.
Still, if there’s one player on Louisville’s roster who should be able to make the transition, it’s Brown. He is coming off a 79-yard, two touchdown performance in Louisville’s spring game just a few weeks ago.
Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston: Greenberry’s name should be familiar to recruitniks across college football, as the sophomore-to-be was a one-time Notre Dame commitment. Eventually he flipped to Houston where he had a breakout 47-catch freshman year in 2012.
With another year under his belt and the return of quarterback David Piland, those numbers should only improve in 2013.
Martin Ifedi, DE, Memphis: Like Bortles, Ifedi kinda, sorta already “broke out” after a 46 tackle, 7.5 sack season in 2012. But with the bigger stage that the American will provide, Ifedi should quickly become one of the best defensive linemen in this league and the bedrock of an improving Memphis defense.
Andre Davis, WR, South Florida: Davis was already South Florida’s leading receiver in 2012, so like Bortles and Ifedi, adding his name on this list seems a little bit unfair.
Still, with four-year starter B.J. Daniels gone at quarterback the Bulls will need Davis to produce in 2013 more than he ever has before. And after a two touchdown spring game performance, he seems more than capable of doing exactly that.
Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida: Lynch leads a star-studded slew of transfers who will find eligibility this fall in the American, as the former Notre Dame defensive end has found a new home at South Florida.
And at South Florida, he very well could emerge as an All-American candidate. Remember, before Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix blew up this year in South Bend, it was Lynch who was actually better than both during the 2011 season. He finished that year with a team-high 5.5 sacks, eclipsing even Manti Te’o (five) in that category.
Jeff Luc, LB, Cincinnati: Luc didn’t have the stats to match Lynch in his two years at Florida State, but he certainly has a high school pedigree that can match anyone. As a four-star recruit in the 2010 class, Luc was rated as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country.
And while Luc never matched the stats to pedigree in two years in Tallahassee (23 tackles in 19 games) he has the talent to step in and be an immediate contributor at Cincinnati.
Markeith Ambles, WR, Houston: Another forgotten superstar of the 2010 recruiting class, Ambles originally committed to Lane Kiffin at Tennessee before following Kiffin to USC, where trouble only followed him. Ambles had off the field issues and academic problems and finished his Trojans career with a grand total of one catch for three yards.
Now at Houston Ambles will have to prove that he’s got the head to match the talent that had him ranked as one of the Top 25 players in the country by both Rivals.com and ESPN as a senior in high school.
Derrick Calloway, DT, South Florida: It only seems fair that if we have a list of “newcomers” to this conference that at least one of them be, you know, an actual freshman.
So why not include South Florida signee Derrick Calloway to this list? The freshman defensive tackle is quite possibly the highest-rated high school recruit to enter the American during the 2013 recruiting cycle, and was the apple of more than one school’s eye in this conference.
Calloway chose the Bulls after previously decommitting from Louisville.
And speaking of Louisville…
Gerald Christian/Zeke Pike, TE, Louisville: It only seems appropriate that we end this list at the place we started: With the Louisville Cardinals. They’ve added two transfers from major schools to help Bridgewater the passing game, with Christian coming from Florida and Pike from Auburn.
Yes, you read that right, Zeke Pike, the former Auburn QUARTERBACK will now be on the receiving end of passes at Louisville.
Safe to say it’s going to be a fun year in the American.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football and more please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
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