Spring Practice Preview: AAC Storylines

Spring Practice Preview: AAC Storylines

This article is part of our Spring Practice Storylines series.

2023 Spring Practice Preview: AAC Preview and Storylines

The American Athletic Conference will look much different in the 2023 season than it did just a few months ago. Three top teams from last season – Cincinnati, Houston and UCF – have departed to the Big 12, and six teams – Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UTSA and UAB – have joined the AAC from Conference USA. Beyond the drastic change in the makeup of the conference, there are a plethora of storylines to follow this offseason: half of the conference will head into the season with a new head coach, there is a potential for eight new starting quarterbacks, many top skill position players from last season need replacing and perhaps most importantly, the conference now has 100 percent of FBS teams with 'Owls' as a mascot.

With spring practices underway as teams prepare for the 2023 campaign, it is time to examine the biggest storylines for each program as the AAC launches a new 14-team era.

Charlotte 49ers Spring Storyline

 Replacing the passing game

The 49ers have moved on from Conference USA and are set to take on the new challenge of the American Athletic Conference. It will be a tough task for them though, as not only will the schedule be more difficult, but the team needs to replace the entirety of its best offensive unit from last season – the passing attack. New head coach Biff Poggi – coming off two years as an associate head coach at Michigan – will face significant challenges in his first collegiate head coaching job.

With last year's starting quarterback Chris Reynolds out of eligibility, there will be a new quarterback in town for week one. The frontrunner for the position is redshirt sophomore Xavier Williams, who started two games last year and threw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns versus Maryland. Williams is much more of a dual-threat than Reynolds, as he rushed 26 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns last season, whereas Reynolds lost 40 yards on 46 carries and scored once.

The quarterback will not be the only change though, as none of last season's top three wide receivers are returning. Last season, Elijah Spencer, Grant DuBose and Victor Tucker combined for 63 percent of the team's total receptions, 66 percent of the team's receiving yards and 24 of the 27 receiving touchdowns. Outside of the running backs, only three players who caught multiple passes last season are returning – wide receiver Quinton Patten (nine receptions for 88 yards), tight end Jake Clemons (five receptions for 25 yards and a touchdown) and Jack Reynolds (three receptions for 17 yards). The 49ers will get Jairus Mack back though, who missed the entirety of the 2022 season with an injury. The program also added Jaden Bradley in the transfer portal from Pittsburgh, who should come into a sizable role in a team desperate for pass catchers.

East Carolina Pirates Spring Storyline

A brand new offense

After a highly productive 2022 campaign on the offensive side of the ball, the Pirates will look much different heading into the 2023 season. Quarterback Holton Ahlers, leading running back Keaton Mitchell, top two receivers Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson and number one tight end Ryan Jones are all gone. With the top five contributors from last season not returning, it's fair to say Mike Houston's offense will have a new look this season.

The top priority is replacing Ahlers, who threw for 3,700 yards, 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2022. The most likely replacement is Mason Garcia, who spent the past three seasons backing up Ahlers. Garcia has appeared in 12 games in his collegiate career, but has only made one start (Oct. 17, 2020 at Navy). His production does not jump out – he's completed 19 of 38 passes for 178 yards, one passing touchdown and one interception, and has scored twice on the ground. Competing for the job with Garcia will be Alex Flinn, who has spent four years with the program but has not recorded any statistics, and true freshman and three-star recruit Raheim Jeter, a 6-foot-3-inch pro-style quarterback. 

The Pirates will also have to replace running back Keaton Mitchell who led the team in scrimmage yards (over 1,700) and total touchdowns (15). The leading candidates seem to be Marlon Gunn Jr. and Rahjai Harris, who both received 67 carries last season. Gunn Jr. outrushed Harris by over 100 yards (344 to 238) and caught more passes, but failed to score a touchdown while Harris scored six. The roster is also filled with a plethora of young backs, in addition to graduate transfer Gerald Green, so the depth chart is up in the air right now. With so much talent in the backfield and big shoes to fill, it would not be surprising to see a running back by committee approach, especially to start the season. 

Rounding out the big changes on offense is the wide receivers, as both Isaiah Winstead (88 receptions for 1,085 yards and six touchdowns) and C.J. Johnson (67 receptions for 1,016 yards and 10 touchdowns) need replacing. Jaylen Johnson seems primed for the role as the number one, given the former Georgia recruit finished last season with 26 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns, all team highs for players returning in 2023. Jsi Hatfield and Kerry King also seem likely to have bigger roles next season, although the number two spot is anyone's for the taking.

Florida Atlantic Owls Spring Storyline

New quarterback and a new coach

FAU will have a different quarterback next season after two-year starter N'Kosi Perry ran out of eligibility. Perry had a solid season in 2022, as he passed for over 2,700 yards and threw 25 touchdowns to just five interceptions, while adding 259 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Replacing that production will not be easy.

It will be especially difficult given the two players vying for the job – Tyriq Starks and Michael Johnson Jr. – both have yet to throw a pass for the Owls. Starks, a 6-foot-2-inch redshirt junior, spent his first two years in college at Independence CC, prior to joining FAU last summer. Johnson, a 6-foot-2-inch redshirt senior, spent his first season at Penn State where he took a redshirt, before transferring to FAU and spending the past three seasons on the bench. Johnson may be the more likely of the two to start, given his age and the fact he was higher on the depth chart last season. Regardless of who starts, they will be rolling with familiar personnel, given last season's top running back and top three wide receivers are all returning for the 2023 campaign. 

The Owls will also have a new head coach next season following Willie Taggart's firing last November. Former Texas head coach Tom Herman was brought in just over a week later to lead the program. Herman is familiar with the AAC, as he spent two seasons in the conference with Houston in 2015 and 2016. He lit up the conference during that short period, winning the conference and the Peach Bowl in his first season, amassing an impressive 22-4 record and building one of the best offenses in the country. With most of the Owls' offense returning outside of the quarterback, Herman will surely be hoping to recapture that magic in his return to the conference.

Memphis Tigers Spring Storyline

New targets for Henigan

Quarterback Seth Henigan had a solid 2022 season, but his top four pass catchers have now moved on. Wide receivers Eddie Lewis, Javon Ivory and Gabriel Rogers, as well as tight end Caden Prieskorn, accounted for over 64 percent of Henigan's passing yards last season, and caught 16 of his 22 passing touchdowns. With all that production lost in the offseason, a few receivers will have to step up to ensure the Memphis passing game remains strong. 

It's important to note that Henigan did not have a true number-one receiver last season – his top four receivers all caught between 40 and 48 passes and all finished within 126 yards of one another. So, it is unlikely one player will come in and take all the production; it's more probable a few players will step up and share it. A prime candidate to step up is Joseph Scates, who caught 18 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns last season, finishing fifth on the team in receiving yards and third in touchdowns despite only playing nine games. He is a certified deep threat, and with fewer players in front of him on the depth chart he could thrive with more targets. Another player to watch out for is Corey Gammage, a graduate transfer who spent four seasons at Marshall. The 6-foot-4-inch receiver was highly productive in his last two seasons at Marshall, racking up 130 catches for 1,652 yards and eight touchdowns in 26 games. 

Replacing tight end Caden Prieskorn may be the most difficult task of all, given he was 13 receiving yards away from leading the team in all receiving categories last season. John Hassell (three catches for 14 yards last season) and JuCo transfer Brendan Doyle will battle it out for the top spot, but it will be a tall task for either of them to replicate Prieskorn's elite production.

Navy Midshipmen  Spring Storyline

The impact of Lavatai's injury

Starting quarterback Tai Lavatai sustained a season-ending left knee injury versus Temple on Oct. 29, which forced Xavier Arline into the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. Lavatai is expected to be ready for the start of the 2023 season, but it is still unknown whether or not he will have the same burst and speed following his severe knee injury.

Before his injury, Lavatai was not having a very productive season through seven full games, as he completed less than 50 percent of his passes for just under 800 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, and rushed for 309 yards and five touchdowns on just 2.7 yards per carry. Lavatai does add a bit more to the passing game than Arline, but the bread and butter of the Midshipmen offense is the triple option, which becomes much more difficult to run if the quarterback is not up to speed. Depending on the health of Lavatai, it would not be surprising to see Arline back in action in some capacity in the 2023 campaign, given he was more productive on the ground last season (96 carries for 376 yards and three touchdowns). Outside of second leading rusher Maquel Haywood, most of the Midshipmen's 2022 offense is returning for the 2023 season, so the only position truly up in the air is who starts behind center.

North Texas Mean Green Spring Storyline

The impact of Eric Morris

Eric Morris was hired in mid-December to replace Seth Littrell and lead the Mean Green into the American Athletic Conference. He spent last season as Washington State's offensive coordinator, and the four seasons before that as the head coach of Incarnate World where he won two Southland conference championships. Perhaps most notably though, he spent four seasons as the offensive coordinator for Texas Tech, where in 2015 Patrick Mahomes led the offense to second in the country in both total yards and scoring. 

Now, Morris will lead his first FBS program. Lucky for him, last year's Conference USA runner-up returns the entire offense – outside of quarterback Austin Aune – that ranked 13th in total offensive yards last season. Replacing Aune will be the main priority for Morris, although it is not yet clear who he will go with. The front-runner is likely Chandler Rogers, who transferred from UL-Monroe after starting 18 games over the past two seasons. He racked up a total of 3,704 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes. He also added 710 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 2.5 yards per carry. Morris could also opt for Grant Gunnell or Stone Earle, both who saw limited snaps last season, but it seems Rogers may have the edge given his two years of experience starting FBS games.

Rice Owls Spring Storyline

Luke McCaffrey breakout campaign?

Luke McCaffrey – yes, the younger brother of NFL star Christian McCaffery – had a good season for Rice in Conference USA last season. He led the team in receptions with 58, and finished second in receiving yards (723) and touchdowns (six). He also rushed 12 times for 148 yards and a touchdown. Making those statistics more impressive is the fact that it was his first season since moving to wide receiver, after coming into college as a quarterback. Now with another full offseason under his belt, he may be in for an even better season.

Last year's top rusher Cameron Montgomery (93 rushes for 561 yards) is not returning, which opens up the backfield more for McCaffery. McCaffery led the team (of players with a minimum of 10 attempts) in yards per carry by a mile, as he rushed for over 12 yards per carry last season. With his talent running the ball, it would be surprising if he didn't see more work in that area in 2023. Last season's number three wide receiver Isaiah Esdale (42 catches for 544 yards and two touchdowns) is also not returning, which could open up more work for McCaffery in the passing game as well. While the AAC schedule will be more difficult than last year's Conference USA schedule, McCaffery still may be in for a big season as the potential focal point of the Owls' offense.

South Florida Bulls Spring Storyline

Golesh's offense

USF had a season to forget in 2022, as the team finished 1-11 and 0-8 in AAC play. The program hired a new head coach in early December, Alex Golesh, who spent the past two seasons as Tennessee's offensive coordinator and turned the Volunteers into the best offensive team in the country last season. Golesh has been touted as a high-level recruiter and play-caller, so needless to say the Bulls' offense will look quite a bit different in 2023.

This change in system will likely mean more work through the air, a stark difference from last season's run-first attack. The loss of top running back Brian Battie to Auburn makes the passing evolution even more important. However, it is unclear who Golesh will opt for behind center, as three different quarterbacks started last season due to injuries. Gerry Bohanon is an option, as he started the first seven games last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Oct. 15 versus Tulane. That same injury will keep him out of spring camp, Will Turner of 247Sports.com reports. Junior Katravis Marsh may also be an option, but he is recovering from the neck surgery he received in November. Finally, there is Byrum Brown who started the final two games of the season last year. The true freshman played quite well, highlighted by him completing his first 21 passes in his first career start versus Tulsa on Nov. 18. The 6-foot-3-inch quarterback also was very good on the ground, as he rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry. With the other two quarterbacks recovering from injury, do not be surprised if Golesh takes Brown under his wing and has him lead the rebuilding of the program.

SMU Mustangs Spring Storyline

A new passing attack

Quarterback Tanner Mordecai and wide receiver Rashee Rice were one of the best passing duos in all of college football last season, and now the Mustangs will need to replace both for the 2023 season. Rice led the FBS in receiving yards last season and finished fourth in receptions, while Mordecai's 33 passing touchdowns earned him a transfer to Wisconsin. 

Replacing Mordecai will likely be sophomore Preston Stone, who played in relief last season when Mordecai was injured. Stone's season was cut short when he broke his collarbone on Oct. 29 versus Tulsa though, and Kevin Jennings briefly took the reins of the offense. Stone should be fully healed by the time the season rolls around, with Jennings likely to back him up. Stone's skillset is somewhat similar to Mordecai's, as he has the propensity to throw downfield and take risks, in addition to adding upside on the ground.

Finding a replacement for Rice is the more difficult task, and it will be nearly impossible to replicate the production of one of the best receivers in the country. Last year's number two wideout Jordan Kerley (37 receptions for 588 yards and six touchdowns) should see an uptick in targets, as could last season's number three Moochie Dixon (28 receptions for 378 yards and three touchdowns). Miami (Fla.) transfers Key'Shawn Smith and Romello Brinson could both be in for a lot of production as well, as the pair followed SMU head coach and former Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to Dallas. There is no shortage of talent in the Mustangs' receiving corps, but it is still too early to tell how the depth chart will shake out.

Temple Owls Spring Storyline

E.J. Warner's evolution

After starting all of last season as a true freshman, quarterback E.J. Warner will look to improve heading into his sophomore season. Unsurprisingly, the start of Warner's 2022 campaign was rough. In his first seven starts, he had just one game completing over 60 percent of his passes, passed for 215 yards per game and threw eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. However, he came into his own in the final stretch. He completed over 70 percent of his passes in three of his last four games, averaged 381 passing yards per game, and threw 10 touchdowns with three interceptions. Those final four games represent elite production, and if Warner can carry that momentum into the 2023 campaign, he could be a high-level producer at quarterback, even though he adds nothing on the ground. The only problem is Warner lost his top pass catcher from last season – Jose Barbon who had 72 receptions for 918 yards and two touchdowns last season – but the other nine players who caught at least five passes last season are returning. With a full offseason of training and getting more comfortable with the offense, Warner could be in for a highly productive season, especially with the conference weaker than it was last year.

UTSA Roadrunners Spring Storyline

How will the team fare in a new conference?

The Roadrunners had an excellent 2022 season, as the team won Conference USA and went 11-3 overall (8-0 in conference play). UTSA finished the season seventh in the FBS in total yards and eighth in total passing yards. The high-flying offense was led by quarterback Frank Harris, who threw for 4,059 yards, 32 touchdowns and nine interceptions, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He also added 600 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, rushing for 4.7 yards per carry. The Roadrunners had three players – Harris, Kevorian Barnes and Brenden Brady – rush for 600 or more yards and score six or more touchdowns. Three more players – Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus and De'Corian Clark – caught over 50 passes for over 700 yards and six or more touchdowns. All six of those players are coming back in 2023. Yet, the question is, can the team repeat last season's success in a more difficult conference?

There is actually a decent chance these players can perform to a similar level. With five other schools jumping from Conference USA to the AAC, four of UTSA's eight conference games are against teams from last year's C-USA, a conference in which UTSA went undefeated. Two of the other opponents, Temple and South Florida, finished at the bottom of the AAC last season, winning a combined one conference game (Temple defeating USF), and going a combined 4-20 overall. The other two matchups with ECU and reigning champion Tulane will be much tougher tasks, but the Roadrunners' easy matchups next season far outweigh the difficult ones. The schedule bodes well for another high-scoring season, especially from Frank Harris and his favorite target Zakhari Franklin.

Tulane Green Wave Spring Storyline

Replacing Tyjae Spears

Tyjae Spears was one of the best running backs in the country last season, and wasted no time declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft right after his 200-yard, four-touchdown performance versus USC in the Cotton Bowl. Spears was the most important player on Tulane's offense last season, as he rushed for over 120 yards in each of his last eight games – including a combined 404 yards and five touchdowns in the AAC Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl, both wins – and scored 21 total touchdowns. Needless to say, replacing him will not be easy.

Lucky for the Green Wave, last year's next two running backs on the depth chart, Iverson Celestine and Shaadie Clayton-Johnson, are both returning for the 2023 campaign. Clayton-Johnson (57 carries for 333 yards and two touchdowns, 5.8 yards per carry) had a slightly better season than Celestine (77 carries for 306 yards, four yards per carry), but Celestine received 20 more carries. Clayton-Johnson is the bigger back so may be slated for more goalline work, but quarterback Michael Pratt takes a fair amount of those carries regardless of who is in the backfield. Since it will be so difficult to replace Spears' production, it would not be surprising to see Clayton-Johnson and Celestine share the workload unless one outshines the other during camp or in the early part of the season.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane Spring Storyline

The Kevin Wilson effect

Kevin Wilson was announced as the new Tulsa head coach in early December, following his six year stint as offensive coordinator at Ohio State. During his career, Wilson has become known for his high-flying offenses. He helped three different OSU quarterbacks become Heisman finalists, led the Big Ten in passing yards over his five seasons as head coach at Indiana and as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, led his team to score 716 points in the 2008 season, the third most in FBS history. Now, he hopes to bring all of that offensive prowess to Tulsa.

The first big decision is who to start under center. Last season's primary starter Davis Brin has moved on, but Braylon Braxton, who started and won the final two games of the season, returns. Roman Fuller, a redshirt junior who has spent his three seasons as a backup, is also still with the program. Braxton had a solid season last year, as he completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,133 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Given Braxton is the younger of the two quarterbacks, that may bode well for him given Wilson is looking to rebuild the program. Whoever the week one starter ends up being, they will have last year's top two pass catchers to target. Keylon Stokes and JuanCarlos Santana combined for 129 receptions, 2,083 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and should both be in for productive seasons in Wilson's pass-first system.

UAB Blazers Spring Storyline

 A new era under Dilfer

Former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl XXXV Champion Trent Dilfer was named UAB head coach in late November, his first collegiate coaching job of any kind. He spent the last four years as head coach of Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, where he won back-to-back Division II State Championships in 2021 and 2022. Moving directly from coaching high school to an FBS head coaching role will certainly be a challenge, especially as he has to replace last year's starting quarterback, running back and number one wide receiver.

The first big change is replacing last year's starting quarterback Dylan Hopkins. The frontrunner is last year's backup, Jacob Zeno, who started two games and completed 57 percent of his passes for 721 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, and added 94 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Zeno is a redshirt senior though, and Dilfer may want to opt for a younger option to begin the rebuild of the program. Sophomore Louisiana Tech transfer Landry Lyddy could fit that bill, and redshirt junior Damon Stewart could be an option as well.

Perhaps the bigger loss was running back DeWayne McBride though, who finished second in the country in rushing yards (1,713) and tied for third in rushing touchdowns (19). McBride is off to the 2023 NFL Draft and leaves a massive hole in the Blazers' offense. Jermaine Brown Jr. will in all likelihood step up into the larger role, as he had a very good 2022 season himself (166 rushes for 948 yards and eight touchdowns, along with 19 receptions for 120 yards). While Brown does not have quite the same upside on the ground, he does add more in the passing game which could be very useful for an inexperienced quarterback looking for checkdowns. It's unlikely he will finish as a top-five rusher in the country in 2023, but with increased volume, he could be one of the most productive backs in the AAC.

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Henry Bredemeier
Henry Bredemeier is a RotoWire contributor for college football and soccer. When not working, he likes to read, get frustrated while playing FIFA 23, and root for his favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens.
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