In the last couple of weeks, we’ve visited the ACC and FBS Independents to profile some of the top devy QB prospects in the nation. This week we’ll be staying in the east, visiting the AAC. The American Athletic Conference is slowly becoming one of the toughest conferences in college football. Though it may sound strange, there is actually a ton of QB talent in this division, with several future NFL passers starting for some of these programs.
Starting QB: Desmond Ridder (Jr.)
NFL Draft Stock: 6th Round (2022)
There are some in the devy community who believe Ridder is destined to be a starter in the NFL. After all, he’s got great size at 6’4, with plenty of arm strength and mobility as well. Though he was much better as a freshman than he was as a sophomore, Ridder has been solid throughout his tenure with the Bearcats. He began the 2020 season on the right foot, completing 13 of his 19 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns in Cincinnati’s victory over Austin Peay. Granted, Austin Peay is far from the best opponent to measure Ridder’s pro potential against, but it is worth noting that the junior rushed for 57 yards on four attempts in this game as well.
Ridder played well in the Bearcats upset victory over the No. 22 ranked Army Black Knights. He completed 54.5% of his passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Though he did throw an interception and lose a fumble, Ridder played with a good deal of poise, displaying many of the traits that have made him a popular sleeper prospect for this year’s NFL Draft. He did an excellent job leading Cincinnati’s charge, overcoming some early hiccups to turn things around.
There are moments where Ridder looks the part of an NFL QB. He’s clearly a gifted athlete, and he has the potential to excel in the Bearcats offensive scheme. Ridder’s accuracy can be rather spotty, which concerns me quite a bit. His first two seasons were good but not great, though his performance has left the door open for a significant leap in his final two seasons with the program.
Central Florida Knights
Starting QB: Dillon Gabriel (So.)
NFL Draft Stock: 4th Round (2023)
Gabriel is only in his second year of college, but he may already be the best passer in this conference. Undersized at 6’0, 190 lbs, you wouldn’t expect much from Gabriel at first glance. After all, he looks like he’s not even old enough to drive. Yet the sophomore lefty is one of the best playmakers we’ve seen this season, having put up a Heisman worthy performance against Georgia Tech in UCF’s season opener.
Gabriel completed 65.8% of his passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, adding 30 yards on the ground. There are shades of Tua Tagovailoa in Gabriel’s game, as both players have deliveries with sidearm angles, while also demonstrating tremendous touch on their passes. The Yellow Jackets defense did force Gabriel into a couple of mistakes when they pressured him, as he completed only 43.8% of his passes for 85 yards and an interception in these situations. Without pressure on him, Gabriel was incredible, completing 80% of his passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns. He received a 90.2 passing grade from PFF for this performance, a near-perfect score by their standards.
Racking up the numbers
Against East Carolina, we saw another impressive stat line from Gabriel. He finished this game, having completed 68% of his passes for 408 passing yards and 4 touchdowns. Though his offensive line drew several costly penalties, Gabriel was unphased, delivering well-timed darts to his receivers with consistency. The sophomore did an excellent job of getting the ball out of his hand early, demonstrating his quick release in the process. This was a benchmark performance for Gabriel, who’s making a case to be a Heisman candidate.
If Gabriel is to make the successful transition from prolific college QB to legitimate NFL starter, some kinks need to be ironed out. Though Gabriel tends to take calculated risks, he often will turn the ball over on rather avoidable throws. He also tends to miss throws that should be relatively easy for an Air Raid passer to connect on, as evidenced by his 59.7% completion percentage as a freshman. Yet Gabriel has his youth working in his favor, as his exploits as a teenager have suggested an immense upside for the young gunslinger. If he continues to improve, there’s no telling how good Gabriel might be.
Starting QB: Brady White (Sr.)
NFL Draft Stock: 6th Round (2021)
It feels like White has been in college forever, as the former Arizona State commit began his collegiate career way back in 2015. White’s veteran leadership has been the key to Memphis’s success these past few seasons. White’s biggest strength is that he is one of the most cerebral passers in the NCAA. In Memphis’s season-opening victory over Arkansas State, White was in midseason form, completing 72.9% of his passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. He ran the Tigers offense seamlessly, even without star running back Kenneth Gainwell, arguably the most talented pass-catcher on the team behind Damonte Coxie. We’ve seen enough from White to know exactly what he is. PFF ranked White as the 40th best passer in college football heading into this season, though I believe this ranking doesn’t do White much justice.
Through 29 games with the Tigers, White has thrown 850 passes for 7,589 yards and 63 touchdowns, throwing only 22 interceptions. Needless to say, he is a productive, efficient passer. White also possesses decent size for the NFL standard of QBs, standing at 6’3 and weighing 215 lbs. Yet White’s age (he’ll turn 25 before his rookie season begins) and relatively mediocre physical abilities are what will hold him back from being a bonafide franchise QB prospect. White profiles as a solid backup QB in the NFL, one whose mind will be valued in any team’s QB Room. Though some would consider his age to be a negative, there will be some scouts who will value his experience.
Starting QB: Shane Buechele (Sr.)
NFL Draft Stock: 6th Round (2021)
Though he lost his initial opportunity to start for the Longhorns to Sam Ehlinger, Buechele remains one of the top draft-eligible QB prospects for the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft after reinvigorating his career with SMU. The son of a former MLB player, Buechele started strong with UT, playing in 12 games as a freshman. He finished that season with 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, completing 60.4% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off the bus the following season, leading to the ascension of Sam Ehlinger. Buechele finally landed on his feet in 2019, throwing for 3,929 yards and 34 touchdowns in his first season with the Mustangs, excelling as the pivot for Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid attack.
Buechele’s first game of the 2020 season was a bit lackluster. The senior threw a pair of avoidable picks against a Texas State defense that was far from stiff. Buechele bounced back in a big way in the Mustangs win over North Texas, completing 72.7% of his passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns.
Tempo fits his style
In SMU’s most recent victory, a 50-7 drubbing of Stephen F. Austin, Buechele played efficiently, completing 14/25 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Facing an FCS defense, Buechele could have easily thrown for 300+ yards. Instead, the Mustangs rode the ground game to victory, feeding touches to T.J McDaniel and Ulysses Bentley IV.
At 6’1, 210 lbs, Buechele is a bit undersized by NFL standards, although he makes up for it with impressive arm strength. With a nice, compact release, Buechele will be a great fit in up-tempo offenses. Though not every one of his throws is a dime, Buechele can fit the ball into some pretty cramped windows when he has to. He may not be a day one or day two pick, but Buechele will have a good chance to be drafted next spring. He’s got the talent to stick around in the NFL as a backup for at least a half-decade.
Tulane Green Wave
Starting QB: Keon Howard (Sr.), Michael Pratt (Fr.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted (Howard), Undrafted (Pratt)
A transfer from Southern Mississippi, Howard played in four games last season, completing 72.2% of his passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Named the starter for this season, Howard has looked overwhelmed since taking the reins full time. Through two games, Howard has completed only 43.6% of his passes for 299 yards, zero touchdowns, and an interception. South Alabama and Navy’s defenses have looked stellar against Howard, mostly due to his own ineptitude. Howard has solid mobility but lacks the poise and accuracy to be a successful passer, even at the college level.
Freshman Michael Pratt played QB for most of Tulane’s victory over Southern Mississippi, completing 8/18 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns, adding 40 rushing yards and a touchdown with his legs. Pratt will likely remain the starter thanks to this performance, though it’s possible that Howard can regain the role. Neither of these passers are even blips of the devy radar.
Starting QB: Clayton Tune (Jr.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted
Tune is expected to be the starter for Houston to begin the year. While Tune has struggled with accuracy problems thus far in his career, he’s got a decent upside as a former three-star recruit. In Dana Holgerson’s offense, Tune will have the makings of a breakout star this season. That is, assuming he can avoid fumbling this opportunity away. We’ve still yet to see the cougars play this season.
Starting QB: Dalen Morris (Sr.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted
I’m going to keep this section succinct. Morris is a senior for a military school that runs the triple-option offense. He’s also been benched this season, though he redeemed himself in Navy’s comeback win last week. Morris has thrown only 15 passes in his career. Let’s save some words for the relevant prospects, no offense Dalen.
Starting QB: Anthony Russo (Sr.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted
Russo was granted an extra year of eligibility for this fall. At 6’4, 240 lbs, Russo has the body of an NFL quarterback. Through two seasons as the Owls starter, Russo has been solid by AAC standards. In 24 games, Russo has completed 58.1% of his throws for 5,424 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also threw 26 interceptions during this period, averaging more than a turnover per game. I don’t consider Russo to be an NFL prospect despite his size and experience as a starter. He’s got a nice arm and good instincts, but I find him to be far too spotty with his ball placement. Inaccurate and turnover-prone are a bad combination of traits for any passer. Barring a complete turnaround this season, Russo’s value is limited to C2C leagues with multiple quarterback spots in the lineup.
Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
Starting QB: Zach Smith (Sr.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted
Smith is a player who many believe will make the jump to the NFL, at least as a backup. I understand why. At 6’4, 230 lbs, Smith has great size and really impressive arm strength. A former Baylor commit, Smith looked really solid in his first season with Tulsa. Smith completed 57.3% of his passes for 3,279 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2019. There are moments from Smith’s game tape where he looks pretty darn impressive too. He can push the ball downfield when he steps into his throws. Smith’s release is very smooth, and he tends to make smart decisions.
The Golden Hurricanes drew a tough matchup in their first game of the season, facing No. 15 Oklahoma State in a losing effort. Smith ran the offense efficiently, completing 64.3% of his passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. While the Cowboys held him in check for most of this contest, Smith didn’t seem phased facing off against a team that held him to a 39.3% completion rate in his first start against them way back in 2017. Smith could easily find himself on an NFL team’s practice squad next season.
South Florida Bulls
Starting QB: Jordan McCloud (So.)
NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted
I first saw McCloud during my time collecting basa data for Pro Football Focus. He was making his fourth career start for the Bulls against a BYU team playing without Zach Wilson. McCloud looked incredibly raw as a passer but displayed excellent mobility and arm strength from what I observed. McCloud was not half bad for a true freshman, scoring 16 touchdowns and throwing only 8 interceptions. He displayed some keen playmaking skills that piqued my excitement about his future as a college passer.
Unfortunately, McCloud’s performance against Notre Dame in USF’s second game of the 2020 season killed any excitement that I had for him. McCloud has yet to throw for more than 70 yards in either of his starts this season. On the bright side, he has yet to throw an interception too. McCloud has become overly conservative, and it has zapped a good amount of his playmaking abilities. With a high upside receiver at his disposal (Randall St. Felix), I’m not 100% out on McCloud turning things around this season, as his athleticism makes him a nice fit for USF’s offense. However, until that turnaround occurs, I cannot invest much interest in McCloud as a devy prospect.
East Carolina Pirates
Starting QB: Holton Ahlers (Jr.)
NFL Draft Stock: 7th Round (2022)
Ahlers showed some big improvements between 2018 and 2019, elevating his completion percentage from 48.3% to 59.7% while attempting 179 more passes, accounting for 1,602 more passing yards as well. Suffice to say, Ahlers isn’t quite a draftable NFL passer at this stage, although he’s not other quarterbacks who I would consider using this label on. Ahlers’ mobility (951 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs through two seasons) is one of his top traits, as he knows how to use his 6’3, 230-pound frame to full use.
ECU began their season against UCF in a battle of prolific passing offenses. Ahlers looked terrific on the opening drive, completing 100% of his passes and accounting for 87 total yards, culminating with the first of his three touchdowns. The junior made a ton of plays with his legs in this contest, finishing the day with 270 total yards. Ahlers has a wonky throwing motion, but he can get the ball where it needs to be. He can generate marvelous zip on his throws when he steps into them, though he does have a habit of floating passes. Ahlers’ combination of size and mobility allows him to make some spectacular throws on the run, a trait that will inevitably bring up comparisons to Patrick Mahomes.
In the Pirates wide-open offense, Ahlers will have the opportunity to put up some mind-boggling statistics in these next couple of seasons. Though he’s a flawed prospect, I believe Ahlers is a guy who could be drafted in the later rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft, as his mobility could convince a team into deploying him in a Taysom Hill type of role. He’s a nice stash in C2C leagues, although I wouldn’t advise rostering him in shallower devy formats.
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