The continued rise in prominence of American Athletic Conference football in 2020 was reflected in the recruiting classes signed by the league’s 11 schools in December and February. And in some cases, those classes surpassed ones signed by prominent programs in higher profile leagues.
For example, Cincinnati, which won the AAC title and finished ranked eighth in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, pulled in a 23-man class that 247Sports.com and Rivals.com rated ahead of Big Ten member Michigan State and Virginia Tech from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Bearcats, along with Memphis, Southern Methodist, Central Florida and South Florida finished ahead of the likes of Stanford, Texas Christian, Boise State and South Carolina — all of which have recently enjoyed time in the national Top 25 or compete in conferences known for football excellence.
More talent could be joining AAC teams between now and when the current signing period ends on August 1, 2021. But while we wait, here’s a quick look at the top AAC signee at each position.
TOP AAC SIGNEES BY POSITION
(SMU) Preston Stone (6-2, 205), Parish Episcopal HS, Dallas: The highest-rated Mustang signee in two decades — he was rated the No. 5 dual-threat QB in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings — received 44 FBS scholarship offers. Stone ultimately chose SMU over a final list that also featured LSU, Penn State, Texas and Southern Cal. He led Parish Episcopal to back-to-back TAPPS Division I state titles and finished ranked fourth in state history in passing yards (13,207). With last year’s starter Shane Buechele entering the NFL draft, Stone has an excellent opportunity to open the 2021 season as SMU’s quarterback.
Comparing ECU: Walter Simmons III is rated the No. 38 dual-threat quarterback nationally by 247Sports.com. [ECU Offensive Recruiting Report Card]
(Houston) Alton McCaskill (6-1, 200) Oak Ridge HS, Conroe, TX: No. 28 in 247Sports.com’s final position rankings, McCaskill chose the Cougars are a final five list that also included Oklahoma State, USC, Vanderbilt and Mississippi. He was named Texas District 13-6A Offensive Player of the Year as a senior when he racked up 1,141 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. The Cougars have a stacked corps of running backs returning, including ex-Texas Longhorn Kyle Porter, who led them with 444 yards last season. Also eligible in 2021 will be Texas Tech transfer Ta’Zhawn Henry, an all-around back and special teams standout. But none of those have McCaskill’s breakaway speed (10.91 seconds in 40-yard) dash, and that alone should earn him a spot on the running back depth chart.
Comparing ECU: Joseph McKay is rated the nation’s No. 121 running back prospect by 247Sports.com. [ECU Offensive Recruiting Report Card]
(SMU) Dylan Goffney (6-1, 195) Bridgeland HS, Cypress, TX: The Mustangs won yet another big recruiting battle, overcoming efforts by the likes of Arizona, Arkansas, California and Virginia Tech to land Goffney. Over his final three prep seasons, Goffney caught 162 passes for 2,736 yards and 37 touchdowns, making him one of the most productive receivers in the state of Texas. Goffney is both dependable and mature beyond his age physically and mentally. He has the potential to become a big-time playmaker, and will get the chance to play early for SMU, which loses three of its top five receiving leaders from last season.
Comparing ECU: Quarterback-turned-receiver T.J. Lockley is rated by 247Sports.com No. 106 in the athlete category. [ECU Offensive Recruiting Report Card]
(USF) Gunnar Greenwald (6-4, 230) Satellite HS, Satellite, FL: Greenwald had played receiver for much of his football career until shifting to tight end as a junior. He made an auspicious debut at the position by making 43 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns. Over three varsity seasons at Satellite High, Greenwald hauled in 96 receptions for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns in 29 games. USF beat out schools such as Louisville, Purdue, N.C. State and UCLA for the services of the No. 61-ranked tight end prospect, according to 247Sports.com. The Bulls do return starting tight end Mitchell Brinkman, but as an early enrollee Greenwald will get the chance to make his presence felt on the depth chart for 2021.
Comparing ECU: Oklahoma grad transfer Ryan Jones was rated No. 50 as an athlete as a senior at Mallard Creek High School by 247Sports.com. [ECU Offensive Recruiting Report Card]
(Memphis) Royce White (6-4, 270) Troup County HS, LaGrange, GA: The first player to make a pledge to Memphis’s recruiting Class of 2021 back in February 2020, White chose the Tigers over offers from Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Kansas State, Louisville, Nebraska, Purdue, Tennessee, Troy and USF. He was a three-year varsity starter at Troup High and the only junior to make first-team Georgia AAAA in 2019. The 247Sports.com network ranks White the nation’s No. 51 offensive tackle prospect. The Tigers return one of the best tackles in the AAC in Dylan Parham, but lost left tackle Obina Eze, who transferred to TCU. The lack of depth could allow White to work his way onto the depth chart by the start of the 2021 campaign.
Comparing ECU: Richard Pearce is rated the nation’s No. 59 offensive guard prospect by 247Sports.com. [ECU Offensive Recruiting Report Card]
(Cincinnati) Ze’lin Lawton (6-3, 240) South Charleston HS, Charleston, WV: Lawton earned the Sam Huff Award given annually to the top defender in West Virginia as a senior while sparking South Charleston to the state AAA title. He recorded 48 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 10 sacks during the championship run, setting a school career record with 35 sacks along the way. Boise State, Coastal Carolina, Illinois and West Virginia competed with the Bearcats for services of the No. 33 ranked strongside defensive end, according to 247Sports.com. Cincinnati’s recent success has occurred in large part due to its excellent play on defense. The Bearcats will need some help at defensive end in 2021 with the departure of sack leader Myjai Sanders, so Lawton could see early action as a situation pass rusher or on special teams.
Comparing ECU: Preferred walk-on Avery Durham was unranked at defensive end. [ECU Defensive Recruiting Report Card]
(UCF) Anthony Hundley (6-3, 270) IMG Academy, Miami, FL: Hundley helped Booker T. Washington High in Miami to a state 4A title as a junior before transferring to IMG Academy for his senior campaign. He made 10 tackles for loss and six sacks during Booker T. Washington’s championship run, then recorded 21 tackles and an interception last season for IMG. The No. 58 ranked defensive tackle was heavily recruited and was verbally committed to both Miami and LSU. But Hundley backed off his pledge to LSU in early December before signing with the Knights during the early period. With four of five defensive ends who finished 2020 on the depth chart, it’ll be a challenge for Hundley to earn playing time in 2021. But as an early enrollee who’ll participate in spring practice, Hundley could still be in the mix.
Comparing ECU: Didn’t sign a defensive tackle. [ECU Defensive Recruiting Report Card]
(Memphis) Andrew Jones (6-0, 215) John Ehret HS, Marrero, LA: The “Monster of Marrero” was truly a horror to opponents as a senior. Jones produced an amazing 211 tackles, 24 tackles for loss 5.5 sacks and three interceptions on defense, while also contributing 894 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing on offense. That followed a junior campaign in which he had 137 tackles, 42 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Jones was courted by more than 22 FBS programs, but narrowed his list to Florida State, Georgia, Houston, Louisville and Memphis before committing to the Tigers last June. He backed off that pledge briefly in November before rejoining the Memphis class in December. A four-star prospect as rated by 247Sports.com, Jones is the nation’s No. 14-ranked inside linebacker. There are rumblings, however, that Jones will make the switch to safety at Memphis because of his size and speed (4.48 in 40-yard dash).
Comparing ECU: Junior college transfer Jacoby Simpson was rated the nation’s No. 33 inside linebacker prospect in the Class of 2018 coming out of Aldine MacArthur High in Houston by 247Sports.com. [ECU Defensive Recruiting Report Card]
(SMU) Isaiah Nwokobia (6-0, 191) Skyline HS, Dallas, TX: A product of the powerhouse Skyline program, Nwokobia is rated the nation’s No. 49 safety prospect by 247Sports.com. As a senior, Nwokobia was named first-team All-District 10-6 after recording four interceptions in a year abbreviated by COVID-19. More than 30 FBS programs extended scholarship offers to Nwokobia, but he decided to stay home and play for the Mustangs in May despite late overtures from the likes of Oklahoma State, Oregon and Texas Tech. Because Skyline doesn’t allow early grads, Nwokobia won’t enroll at SMU until the summer, which could hinder his chances of breaking into the safety rotation by next fall. But don’t be surprised if he’s making plays on special teams or in the secondary by the end of the season.
Comparing ECU: Junior college transfer Julius Wood was rated the nation’s No. 107 safety prospect in 2019 coming out of Walnut Ridge High in Columbus, OH. [ECU Defensive Recruiting Report Card]
(Memphis) Tyrell Raby (6-1, 173) Madison Prep Academy, Baton Rouge, LA: Although rated the No. 63 cornerback prospect nationally by 247Sports.com, Raby was a three-way threat at Madison Prep. He was a first-team All-District selection as a junior at wide receiver and also starred on special teams while also leading the secondary. He helped Madison Prep to the state 3A title as a senior and was named honorable mention all-state along the way. Memphis gained Raby’s commitment last June, but he decided to re-open his recruitment in mid-November. The Tigers pulled him back in a month later over the likes of Arizona and Indiana. It may be hard for Raby to crack the cornerback rotation at Memphis in 2021, but he should be active on special teams.
Comparing ECU: Jayden Chalmers was rated the No. 130 cornerback nationally as part of the 2020 recruiting class at Lee County High in Sanford, NC. Chalmers spent last season at Fork Union Military Academy. [ECU Defensive Recruiting Report Card]