American Athletic


#106 Tulsa Golden Hurricane



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Philip Montgomery, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert, Matt Mattox | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bill Young, Brian Norwood

Philip Montgomery helped Art Briles engineer one of the nation’s top offenses at Baylor, and the veteran assistant finally gets his chance to run a program, replacing Bill Blankenship after a 2-10 record in 2014. The Golden Hurricane should have an explosive offense, but the defense gave up 39.3 points per game last year.

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Previewing Tulsa’s Offense for 2015 

Philip Montgomery has long been an admirer of Tulsa football. The former Baylor offensive coordinator knew about the school’s recent history of conference championships and bowl triumphs. So when the university approached him to be a head coach who could revitalize both an offense and a fanbase, he was anxious for the challenge.

“There’s a ton of positive energy around this campus and the community,” says Montgomery, who inherits a program with only five wins over the past two seasons. “They’ve won conference championships here. They’ve won a lot of games, and we want to help get them back to that level.”

Points are necessary in the high-scoring American Athletic Conference, and at Tulsa, everything will focus on the quarterback. Junior Dane Evans and true freshman Chad President, an early enrollee, spent the spring learning Montgomery’s system. Evans ranked second in the American in passing yards per game (258.5) in 2014. President, a former Baylor commit, ran a similar offense during a prolific high school career.

“We put a lot of pressure on our quarterback … those guys have to have a great understanding of what we do,” Montgomery says.

The quarterback will have weapons at running back and wide receiver. Senior Zack Langer was second in the conference in rushing yards (80.1 ypg). The passing attack will welcome back wide receiver Keevan Lucas, a junior who had 101 receptions, 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Senior Keyarris Garrett (47 catches, 698 yards, five touchdowns) will be a key target as well.

“We have good core depth,” Montgomery says. “We just need to put them in position to make plays and be successful in what we do.”

Previewing Tulsa’s Defense for 2015

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Veteran coach Bill Young — Tulsa’s new defensive co-coordinator — has plenty of work to do. He inherits a unit that ranked 114th in the nation in total defense (486.8 ypg) and 119th in scoring defense (39.3 ppg). The Golden Hurricane allowed fewer than 30 points only once last season, in a 38–28 win over SMU.

There may be no quick fixes, but Young has a foundation upon which to build. The defensive line returns All-AAC second-team end Derrick Alexander, who had a team-high 12 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year, and tackle Derrick Luetjen, who has started 24 straight games.

Linebacker Craig Suits was an FWAA Freshman All-American with 81 tackles, and he’ll be joined by Trent Martin, a junior who had eight tackles for a loss in only nine games last season.

The secondary is anchored by leading tackler Michael Mudoh, a hard-hitting safety with 113 stops last season.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Tulsa’s Specialists for 2015 

Punter Dalton Parks averaged 42 yards per boot last season. From that point, all jobs will be open. Preston Soper and Redford Jones are getting the first looks at kicker. D’Angelo Brewer has experience with kickoff returns, and Conner Floyd took back punts, but Montgomery indicates that many different players will be looked at to contribute at the spot.

Final Analysis 

Montgomery’s hiring will bring a much-needed boost to the Tulsa football program, which turned stagnant after winning the 2012 Conference USA championship. The offense should profit from the new system, which will get the football into the hands of many different playmakers. The Hurricane’s most important fix will be on defense. Stopping teams may once again be difficult for Tulsa, which will place the emphasis on the offense to score points. Patience will be important — for both the coaching staff and fans — during 2015’s rebuilding season. 

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#104 Tulane Green Wave



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Curtis Johnson, 12-25 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Rollins, Lionel Washington

Tulane heads into Curtis Johnson’s fourth year looking to rebound after a 3-9 record in 2014. The Green Wave has 13 returning starters and a promising core of talent to build around, but the offense is looking for a spark after struggling last season.

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Previewing Tulane’s Offense for 2015

Strong-armed sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee is the clear starter but will need to improve significantly after a rough redshirt freshman debut season in which Tulane struggled across the board offensively. The Green Wave ranked 107th in total offense and 121st in points, failing to score more than 14 in eight of their last nine games.

Lee was part of the problem, tossing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). He threw for 262 yards and three scores in a 38–31 loss to Tulsa in the opener but cooled down quickly as defenses confused him and his freshman-laden receiving corps.

Almost all of Lee’s top targets are sophomores who learned on the job as true freshmen. Wide receiver Teddy Veal led the Green Wave with 40 catches for 381 yards. Tight ends Charles Jones and Trey Scott figured heavily in the offense during spring practice.

The running game, which ranked 91st nationally, should be a strength if it receives better blocking from a line that returns four starters. The three-headed backfield of speedy Sherman Badie (688 yards, 5.7 per carry), power runner Lazedrick Thompson (533 yards, four touchdowns) and well-rounded Dontrell Hilliard is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Badie broke off three runs of more than 70 yards.

Previewing Tulane’s Defense for 2015 

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With several key starters returning, Tulane should be closer to its form from 2013 (when it ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed) than last season (when it dipped to 55th). The key will be replacing safety Sam Scofield, who led the team in tackles the past two years, and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who declared for the draft after picking off 15 passes in three seasons.

The talent is there. Darion Monroe, a four-star recruit in 2012, returns for his fourth year as a starter at safety. Sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson outplayed Doss last season, making 51 tackles with a team-high six interceptions.

Diminutive linebacker Nico Marley (5'9", 200), the Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year in 2013, had no letdown as a sophomore, registering a team-best 13.5 tackles for a loss. He galvanizes everyone around him to play harder.

The Wave are solid at tackle, where junior All-AAC candidate Tanzel Smart (47 stops) and sophomore Sean Wilson are entering their second year as a tandem. End is a concern. Royce LaFrance has all-conference ability but was up and down as a junior before missing spring practice for academic reasons. 

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Tulane’s Specialists for 2015 

The kicking game was a debacle last year, and correcting those woes is priority No. 1 for new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger. First, he has to find a reliable kicker after the Wave missed half of their 16 field goals. Walk-on Trevor Simms has unlimited range but questionable accuracy. Sophomore Andrew DiRocco missed a potential game-winning 21-yarder in the opener and never recovered. Incoming freshman Zach Block is rated more highly as a punter than placekicker. Badie could boost a kickoff return unit that ranked second-to-last nationally. Punter Peter Picerelli is coming off a poor year (37.8-yard average). 

Final Analysis 

The pieces are in place for an uptick in coach Curtis Johnson’s fourth season, but everything needs to go right after Tulane struggled with the move from Conference USA to the stronger AAC. Lee needs to mature quickly and get a better rapport with his young receivers. The running backs, whom Johnson considers NFL-caliber, need better blocking. The defense needs to apply more pressure on quarterbacks after having just 22 sacks last year. And, maybe most significantly, the Wave have to shore up their kicking game. The struggles there sapped confidence from the entire team. 


#102 SMU Mustangs



American Athletic West PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Chad Morris, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Craddock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Van Malone

Chad Morris was one of the offseason’s top hires, but the first-year coach has plenty of work ahead in 2015. SMU returns only 11 starters and will be implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball after a 1-11 finish in 2014. The Mustangs will be better, and the future looks bright with Morris at the helm.

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Previewing SMU’s Offense for 2015 

Coach Chad Morris is confident that junior Matt Davis can operate his smash-mouth spread offense. After all, Morris recruited the dual-threat quarterback who signed with Texas A&M out of high school, while he was Clemson’s offensive coordinator.

Davis managed to stimulate a lifeless offense last year. Taking over the starting job the last six games, he finished the season as the team’s top rusher. His passing skills should improve in the new scheme, which employs two running backs and a tight end and relies more on runs between the tackles and vertical passes. The quick tempo of this no-huddle formation can keep defenses guessing when operated properly. With redshirt freshman Daniel Gresham, sophomore Darius Durall, senior K.C. Nlemchi and junior Prescott Line at running back, Morris has a variety of skills from which to choose.

SMU did not use a tight end in June Jones’ run-and-shoot, but Jeremiah Gaines (6'2", 240) has the size and hands to step in. The receiving corps, led by senior returning starter Darius Joseph (54 catches for 379 yards), needs more consistent play from Nate Halverson, Cedric Lancaster, Deion Sanders Jr. and Ryheem Malone. Freshmen Kevin Thomas and Xavier Castille could also make an impact.

Previewing SMU’s Defense for 2015

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Under new defensive coordinator Van Malone, who coached defensive backs at Oklahoma State, the Mustangs have switched to a 4-2-5 scheme. This should allow SMU to emphasize speed on the edge and in the secondary while avoiding physical mismatches up front.

Malone hopes a more aggressive approach will put players in position to create turnovers. The Mustangs ranked 120th nationally with a minus-14 turnover margin last year.

Shakiel Randolph, who has the look of an NFL cornerback at 6'4", 216 pounds, should be a good fit in the new Star hybrid role. He played safety one year, switched to cornerback because of injuries last season and has added significant muscle. Jonathan Yenga, fourth in tackles last season, has 15.5 tackles for a loss the last two years.

Zach Wood, who had a team-high four sacks last year, will anchor the line. Mason Gentry (6'6", 292) has the size to be a force. The development of Elie Nabushosi, Zelt Minor and Spencer Hollie should produce a more consistent attack by committee with Andrew McCleneghen, Cameron Smith and Nick Reed. True freshman Chris Biggurs is the top newcomer.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing SMU’s Specialists for 2015 

Sanders Jr., second-team all-conference as a kick returner last season, set school records for single-game return yards (203) and returns (10). As a senior in high school, kicker Josh Williams hit a 71-yard field goal during practice. Range shouldn’t be an issue.

Final Analysis 

Bringing an up-tempo pace to all facets of SMU football, Morris seems the ideal candidate to rebuild the program from the ashes of 1–11. And things may not be quite as dire for the Mustangs as they appeared last season. “It was a tough deal with the interim coach coming in at mid-year and they weren’t winning,” says one AAC assistant. “I thought they were probably better than their record indicated; it was just a bad situation.”

That situation has certainly improved with the high-profile hire of Morris. Having spent 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris has used his ties to repair recruiting relationships with coaches in the state, particularly in Dallas-Forth Worth. The turnaround may take some time, but Morris has SMU fans thinking big again.

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#72 East Carolina Pirates



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ruffin McNeill, 37-27 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Nichol | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Smith

East Carolina enters 2015 without three of the key cogs of its offense — quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and coordinator Lincoln Riley. Those are major departures, but with eight bowl games in the last nine seasons, the Pirates are rarely out of the mix.

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Previewing East Carolina’s Offense for 2015 

Some of the Pirates’ top swashbucklers are gone, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (off to Oklahoma) and the AAC Player of the Year, quarterback Shane Carden. That doesn’t mean the Air Raid offense is taking on water. New OC Dave Nichol is confident that strong-armed sophomore Kurt Benkert can step in and keep the ship on course.

There’s still a treasure chest of receivers, even without Justin Hardy and Cam Worthy (who combined for 2,510 yards and 14 scores last year). Returnees such as Isaiah Jones (81 catches, second on the team), Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and Trevon Brown will share Benkert’s booty in the passing game. Don’t count out eagerly anticipated freshman Deondre Farrier, who was wooed by Florida, Miami and USC, among others. 

In a subtle tweak, 6'6", 250-pound Bryce Williams might be listed as an inside receiver in the spread but actually is an old-fashioned tight end. He will see more action than just around the goal line, where he terrorizes defensive backs and linebackers. On the ground, Chris Hairston (6.7 yards per carry) and a couple of other solid candidates operate behind a big, veteran offensive line that will be a strength of the team under new line coach Brad Davis. 

The big concern is that Benkert threw only 10 passes last year. He was a quick study in the spring, and the offense should again set sail, maybe with a more stellar running game to punch up the red-zone offense. 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing East Carolina’s Defense for 2015 

The Pirates like to stop the run — they were 11th in the nation, allowing just 111.8 rushing yards per game — and get after opponents on third down (13th, yielding just 34.2 percent conversions). 

Linebacker Zeek Bigger is the returning tackles leader (140), but fellow senior Montese Overton should be the next big thing. He has all the tools. Physical Devaris Brunson is back from his knee injury in the middle, too, and walk-on Joe Allely just keeps improving on the weak side. Incoming junior college linebacker Darius Wright will get a long look, too. 

The backers will need help from a rebuilding front. End Johnathon White is the only returning starter, and he’ll get a push from K’Hadree Hooker. Terrell Stanley has made a dramatic return from injuries suffered in an auto accident that sidelined him last year. He was honorable mention All-C-USA in 2013. Former Georgia Tech signee Darius Commissiong could figure in, too. 

Senior cornerback Josh Hawkins is a ball hawk who had five interceptions and broke up 11 more passes. Free safety Travon Simmons and corner Rocco Scarfone came on strong late last year and look assured of jobs as well in a deep, experienced secondary.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing East Carolina’s Specialists for 2015 

Texas A&M transfer Davis Plowman is the favorite to fill Warren Harvey’s shoes as the placekicker, and that won’t be easy after Harvey set the career ECU scoring record. Punter Worth Gregory averaged 43.6 yards, put 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had 13 50-yard boots on his way to Ray Guy Award consideration. 

Final Analysis 

Ruffin McNeill, on a cane all spring after hip surgery, can stand tall with what he has done in Greenville at his alma mater. The Pirates were 5–3 in their first year in the American Athletic Conference and went to their fourth bowl in McNeill’s five seasons. He graduated the leading passer in school history and the FBS’s all-time receptions leader (Hardy), but he had a 105-man roster out in spring, certainly a sign of a healthy program. If his young quarterback comes through, it looks like he has another bowl team to lean on.


#63 UCF Knights



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 81-60 (11 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Key | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bresnahan

George O’Leary followed up his Fiesta Bowl victory with another nine wins for UCF in 2014. His Knights return just 10 starters on a team that consistently contends in the American Athletic Conference. Those thinking UCF takes a step back just because of a few key departures should be careful of O’Leary’s always tough Knights.

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Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2015

A year ago, UCF’s biggest question was who would replace Blake Bortles at quarterback. It took until the beginning of the season, but the staff found the answer in Justin Holman, who overcame early inconsistency to post a solid sophomore campaign, completing 223-of-392 passes for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Now with a year of experience, there’s a sense Holman is poised for a breakout season.

Holman will be complemented with experience in the backfield and offensive line. Running back William Stanback missed several games due to nagging injuries, but the junior still was named all-conference for the second consecutive year after rushing for 697 yards and 10 touchdowns.

All but one of the key linemen return, and coaches are hopeful they’ll get center/guard Joey Grant back at full strength after offseason shoulder surgery.

The glaring issue is at wide receiver, where UCF must replace virtually every key player from 2014. The departure list includes NFL early entry Breshad Perriman, last year’s No. 1 target and a 1,000-yard receiver. The most experienced returnee is Jordan Akins, a former minor league baseball player who caught only 12 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Tre’Quan Smith is perhaps the most talented of the group and was Holman’s favorite target during the spring. With the shortage of experience, it’s quite possible all three of the incoming receiver recruits will suit up to play.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

In 2014, UCF finished fifth nationally in total defense (298.5 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (19.2 ppg), but there are big shoes to fill with seven departing starters. The Knights must replace two of three linebacker starters and will have an entirely new secondary after graduating three seniors and seeing cornerback Jacoby Glenn, the 2014 AAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, declare early for the NFL Draft.

At cornerback, UCF does have several players who have been waiting in the wings, notably juniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Kyle Gibson and Chris Williams, both of whom were among the most heralded signees of the 2014 recruiting class.

Coaches experimented with a mix of linebacker lineups during the spring, but there were always two constants: Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke, who shared starting duties a season ago. Domenic Spencer, a senior who’s played a backup role his first three seasons, may get his chance to start.

The strength of the unit will be the defensive line, led by senior end Thomas Niles, who finished with a team-leading 7.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss in 2014. Coaches are confident in the middle with returning seniors Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell along with sophomore Jamiyus Pittman.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2015

UCF will rely on redshirt freshman Matthew Wright to take over for Shawn Moffitt, perhaps the best kicker in program history. Wright was reliable during the spring and showed a strong leg.  Junior Caleb Houston is back at punter after averaging 38.9 yards on 54 punts. Return duties will be a battle that continues into the preseason. Akins has experience, and freshmen Chris Davis and Michael Rogers could factor into the mix.

Final Analysis  

Despite losing key players who helped the program clinch a share of its second consecutive American title in 2014, coach George O’Leary emphasizes that it’s a reload, not a rebuild. It’s hard to argue with O’Leary, who has averaged 9.4 wins over the past five seasons. Though there are question marks at certain positions, there’s an expectation that UCF has the talent to again be a contender for the conference title


#62 Temple Owls



American Athletic East PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Matt Rhule, 8-16 (2 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Marcus Satterfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Snow

Matt Rhule clearly knows what he’s doing at Temple. The Owls enter the 2015 season a contender in the American Athletic Conference East Division with 17 starters back from a team that won just as many games as it lost. If Rhule can find balance on both sides of the ball, Temple could make some serious noise in the AAC.

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Previewing Temple’s Offense for 2015

When true freshman P.J. Walker became the quarterback midway through 2013, the future looked to be in capable hands. But despite a strong start to 2014, he finished the season with 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. In the last seven games, those numbers were four and 11, respectively. It was hardly coincidental that the Owls lost five of those games.

Part of the problem was the line, which had injuries and lacked depth. The status of tackle Dion Dawkins was uncertain in the spring due to an off-campus altercation, but he appears on track to return in the fall. In addition to Dawkins, four players return who started at least nine games, and the line is anchored by senior center Kyle Friend, a three-year starter. The addition of three first-year guys who sat out last year should help.

The Owls also never found a replacement for wideout Robbie Anderson, who averaged 18 yards a catch with nine TDs in 2013. The hope is that Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood and/or redshirt freshman Ventell Bryant can emerge to fill that role.

Nobody rushed for more than 384 yards, and Walker was the second-leading rusher. But there’s no shortage of candidates to address the running game. Zaire Williams, whose 533 yards two years ago were the third-most ever by a Temple freshman, barely played in 2014 because of a back injury. David Hood, who played in only two games as a freshman, also has potential, as do three new recruits — four-star T.J. Simmons, who turned down an offer from UCLA; Jager Gardner, who holds the Western North Carolina career high school rushing record (6,955 yards); and Ryquell Armstead, who has drawn comparisons to former Owl Bernard Pierce.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Temple’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

This unit had trouble stopping anyone in 2013, especially late in games, which became a contributing factor in three close losses. Things turned around in 2014 as the Owls tied for fourth in the nation in points allowed (17.5 ppg). They also forced 30 turnovers, 17 more than the year before. Six of those were returned for scores, which was only one fewer than the previous four seasons combined.

And 10 starters return. Tyler Matakevich should become the program’s all-time leading tackler. He’s reached 100 in each of his first three seasons, becoming only the third Owl to accomplish that feat. And his 355 career stops are by far the most of any active NCAA player.

Coach Matt Rhule has touted end Praise Martin-Oguike and tackle Matt Ioannidis as future pros. The secondary, which for way too long was an area of concern, has been significantly upgraded in the last couple of years.

The most pressing question now is depth at linebacker. Avery Williams is a former running back/defensive back, and Stephaun Marshall is a converted free safety who can back up at all three spots.

Previewing Temple’s Specialists for 2015

Freshman Austin Jones made 13-of-22 field goals and had at least one miss in each of the last five games. But seeing as the Owls made just three field goals in 2013 (two in the final game), that was a big improvement. First-year punter Alex Starzyk was inconsistent. The Owls ran a punt back for a touchdown and scored two other times on blocks. Rhule wants to see more from his kickoff returns.

Final Analysis  

The Owls went from two wins in 2013 to six a year ago. There is reason to believe they can at least get back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, and a run at the American Athletic Conference East Division crown is not out of the question. To take that next step, the offense must produce as it did in Rhule’s debut season of 2013, and Temple must find what it takes to win more close games against better opponents.


#54 Navy Midshipmen



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 57-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Buddy Green

The Midshipmen have been to six bowls in seven years under Ken Niumatalolo. With a superstar returning under center in the form of Keenan Reynolds, a seventh bowl game is all but certain. But can Navy contend for an American Athletic Conference championship in their first season in the new league?

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Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2015

Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is looking to cap a remarkable career with a strong senior season. The Tennessee native already owns a slew of school records and ranks first among quarterbacks in NCAA history with 64 rushing touchdowns.  A rare fourth-year starter in Navy’s triple-option offense, Reynolds boasts a 21–11 record.

Reynolds will have plenty of proven weapons at his disposal, with senior fullback Chris Swain, senior slot back DeBrandon Sanders and junior wide receiver Jamir Tillman leading the way. Swain, a powerfully built 245-pounder bruiser, is coming off a strong 2014 campaign in which he displayed vastly improved vision while rushing for 693 yards. Sanders, a 5'7", 160-pound jitterbug, has averaged 8.0 yards per rush and 19.3 yards per reception during his career. Tillman, a smooth and fluid 6'4", 206-pounder, emerged as a big-play threat in 2014.

Navy must rebuild its offensive line after graduating three starters. Left guard E.K. Binns, entering his third season as a starter, takes over as the leader of the unit.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Navy’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Midshipmen suffered significant losses on the defensive side of the ball, most notably end Paul Quessenberry, linebackers Jordan Drake and Chris Johnson and safety Parrish Gaines. That quartet will not be easy to replace.

Senior nose guard Bernie Sarra is one of the strongest players on the team and has done an outstanding job of holding the point of attack since moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore. Right end Will Anthony was the breakout performer of 2014, leading the team with 11.0 tackles for a loss.

Navy’s 3-4 scheme requires the inside linebackers to make the majority of the tackles, and Daniel Gonzales stepped up as a sophomore, ranking second on the squad with 86. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Three of the four linebackers will be first-time starters, although the speedy and rangy William Tuider has seen significant action in a reserve role. 

Junior Brendon Clements has started 20 straight games at cornerback and displayed superb ball instincts along with sure tackling. The Miami native already has 107 career tackles and eight pass breakups. Quincy Adams started all 13 games at the opposite corner and earned honorable mention All-Independent honors after finishing as Navy’s third-leading tackler. Strong safety Kwazel Bertrand has started 16 games over the previous two seasons.

Previewing Navy’s Specialists for 2015

Navy must replace one of the finest punters in program history in Pablo Beltran, a four-year starter who ranks second in school history with a 41.8-yard average. Senior Gavin Jernigan, the backup the previous two seasons, will get first crack at the job. Austin Grebe took over as the starting placekicker in the seventh game of last season and was impressive, hitting 6-of-6 on field goals and 33-of-33 on extra points. 

Final Analysis  

This is a new era for Navy, which joins the American Athletic Conference following more than a century as an Independent. The Midshipmen own a 34–27–1 record against current AAC members and have regularly played schools such as SMU, East Carolina and Tulane.

Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo says capturing the conference championship has now been added to the annual goals of beating service academy rivals Army and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and qualifying for a bowl game.

 “I think joining a conference is something we had to do and will be good for the program over the long haul,” Niumatalolo says. “However, there is a lot of apprehension and nervousness because there are so many unknowns.”