Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The American Athletic Conference is a league in transition for 2013, as Pittsburgh and Syracuse left for the ACC, and UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis have joined from Conference USA. With all of the change coming to the conference, there's no question it will take some time for all of the new players and teams to get acclimated to one another in 2013.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2013 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season.
American Athletic Conference Breakout Players for 2013
Ralph David Abernathy IV, RB, Cincinnati
Cincinnati fans are aware of how dangerous Abernathy IV can be with the ball in his hands. Now it’s time for the rest of college football to take notice. The Georgia native rushed for 366 yards and three touchdowns last year, while catching 28 passes for 341 yards and four scores. Abernathy IV also has one kickoff return for a touchdown in his career. With George Winn expiring his eligibility, the Bearcats will likely turn to Abernathy IV to carry more of the workload in the backfield. At 5-foot-7, 161 pounds, the junior isn’t likely to record 250 carries. However, he should see an increased role on offense this year.
Gerald Christian, TE, Louisville
Another weapon for Teddy Bridgewater? That’s what Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson hopes to see out of Christian in 2013. In two years with the Gators, he only caught four passes for 72 yards and one score. However, the Florida native ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals and played in the 2010 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Look for the 6-foot-3 junior to be another valuable receiving threat for the Cardinals in 2013.
Jalen Fitzpatrick, WR, Temple
With the switch to a pro-style attack in 2013, Temple will be looking to throw more than it did over the last two years. Fitzpatrick was the Owls’ leading receiver, catching 30 passes for 363 yards and two scores last year, including six for 55 yards against Pittsburgh in late October. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Fitzpatrick isn’t the biggest receiver, but he is the team’s top playmaker and should utilize his speed to make big plays in Temple’s new offense.
Deion Green, DE, UCF
Green made a strong debut last year, recording 18 tackles and four sacks in 12 contests. The Orlando native made only one start but was named to Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team. UCF is counting on Green to be a major contributor at defensive end, especially with first-team All-Conference USA performer Troy Davis expiring his eligibility at the end of 2012.
Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
Even with the departure of running back Charles Sims, Houston should have one of the American Athletic Conference’s top offenses in 2013. The Cougars averaged 32.4 points a game last year despite inconsistent quarterback play, and coach Tony Levine’s decision to hire Doug Meacham as co-offensive coordinator should pay dividends. Greenberry was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for Levine, and he didn’t disappoint as a true freshman, grabbing 47 receptions for 569 yards and three scores. The sophomore should approach 60-70 catches in 2013 and is an Athlon Sports second-team American Athletic Conference selection for this season.
Savon Huggins, RB, Rutgers
Huggins ranked as the No. 28 overall player in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100, but the junior is still looking for his breakout season. Jawan Jamison shouldered the load for Rutgers over the last two years, and he decided to move onto the NFL at the end of 2012. With Jamison gone, 2013 should be Huggins’ time to shine. He rushed for 179 yards on 41 attempts against Cincinnati last year and recorded 48 yards on 18 attempts in the bowl loss against Virginia Tech. Huggins could be the American Athletic Conference’s top running back in 2013.
Steve Longa, LB, Rutgers
With the departure of Steve Beauharnais and Khaseem Greene, Rutgers’ linebacking corps must be rebuilt. But new coordinator Dave Cohen has plenty to work with, including senior Jamal Merrell who should be in the mix for all-conference honors this year. Longa will fill Beauharnais’ shoes on the interior, and he is one of the defense’s most promising players for 2013, ranking as one of New Jersey’s top 10 high school prospects in 2012.
Jeff Luc, LB, Cincinnati
With Greg Blair and Nick Temple returning, Cincinnati’s linebacking corps was already set to be the best in the American Athletic Conference this year. And this group could be among the top groups in the nation, provided Luc lives up to the hype in 2013. Luc played in 19 games with Florida State, recording 23 tackles and three tackles for a loss. The Florida native was regarded as a top-100 recruit coming out of high school.
Keiwone Malone, WR, Memphis
The Tigers return six starters from an offense that averaged 318.3 yards per game last season, so this unit has room to improve in the first year of play in the American Athletic Conference. Quarterback Jacob Karam settled into the starting role last year, but he will be pushed by Paxton Lynch and Eric Mathews for snaps. With more expected from the quarterbacks, Malone should have an opportunity to build off a solid sophomore campaign. He caught 44 passes for 476 yards and three scores, including 10 catches for 102 yards against MTSU. If Memphis continues to improve its quarterback play, Malone could make a push for all-conference honors.
Lorenzo Mauldin/Marcus Smith, DE, Louisville
With few glaring holes and the return of nine starters, much of the focus this offseason for Louisville’s defense was on upgrading the rush defense and pass rush. The Cardinals ranked 78th nationally in sacks per game (1.7) last year and allowed 148 rush yards per contest. Mauldin and Smith will play a key role in both areas this season, as both players combined for 8.5 sacks and 51 stops in 2012. If Smith and Mauldin raise their game up a notch, the Cardinals should show improvement on the stat sheet and rank as one of the top defensive lines in the American Athletic Conference.
Breshad Perriman, WR, UCF
The last name Perriman is no stranger to the wide receiver position, as Breshad’s father Brett played 10 years in the NFL. And Breshad is set to emerge as a household name in the American Athletic Conference in 2013. As a freshman last season, Perriman caught 26 passes for 388 yards and three scores, with his best performance coming in the bowl victory over Ball State (five receptions for 90 yards). With a full offseason to work with quarterback Blake Bortles, Perriman could be UCF’s leading receiver and top big-play threat in 2013.
Shakim Phillips, WR, Connecticut
After struggling mightily on offense under George DeLeone, coach Paul Pasqualoni hired T.J. Weist to spice things up in Storrs this year. Weist plans on implementing a spread attack, but the Huskies have to play better on the line for the offense to improve. With the switch in play-callers and scheme, Phillips is expected to be involved more in the offense. The Boston College transfer caught 32 passes for 399 yards and one score in his debut with Connecticut last year.
Sean Price, TE, South Florida
As a true freshman last year, Price tied for third on the team with 21 catches and ranked fourth with 209 receiving yards. Price’s 2013 season is even more impressive when you consider he didn’t catch a pass through the first six weeks of the year, and South Florida lost quarterback B.J. Daniels to an injury late in the season. Price’s best performance came against Cincinnati, grabbing five receptions for 29 yards. At Western Kentucky, new USF coach Willie Taggart’s top two tight ends combined for 66 receptions last year. Expect Price to be heavily involved in the Bulls’ passing attack in 2013.
Stephon Sanders, LB, SMU
The Mustangs’ defense will miss the playmaking ability of Ja’Gared Davis and Taylor Reed, but the return of Sanders and Randall Joyner should keep this defense performing at a high level. Sanders made 12 starts last year and recorded 48 tackles in 13 games. The Texas native also recorded one interception and broke up five passes in 2012. Sanders will anchor the outside of the linebacking corps, and he will be counted on to help replace some of the pass rush departing from Davis and Reed.
Traylon Shead, RB, SMU
SMU’s Zach Line was one of the most productive running backs in college football over the last four years, rushing for 4,185 yards and 47 touchdowns in his Mustang career. Line expired his eligibility after the Hawaii Bowl, which opens the door for Shead to become SMU’s new starting running back. The junior college recruit began his career at Texas but transferred in search of more playing time. Shead was a four-star recruit by Rivals and rushed for 10,291 yards in his high school career. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Shead has the size to be a three-down back and a goal-line presence for the Mustangs in 2013.
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