Ranking Conference USA's Top 25 Players for 2011

Kyle Padron hopes to lead SMU to the Conference USA title.

Kyle Padron hopes to lead SMU to the Conference USA title.

By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at Conference USA's top 25 players for 2011.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 25 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Case Keenum, QB, Houston (SR)
2010 stats: 636 yds., 5 TDs, 5 INTs

A torn ACL in the third game ended Keenum’s 2010 season prematurely. However, he was granted an additional year of eligibility and has a shot to make NCAA history. Keenum needs 3,487 yards to break Timmy Chang’s FBS record for most passing yards in a career. Considering Keenum has thrown for over 5,000 yards in his two full years as the starter, he should easily surpass Chang’s total. Houston may bring the senior along slowly due to his knee injury last year. However, Keenum should have the Cougars back into Conference USA title contention.

2. Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall (SR)
2010 stats: 94 tackles, 18 TFL, 12 sacks, 2 FF
Curry may not be a household name, but he's on the radar for NFL scouts. The senior ranked fifth nationally with 12 sacks and earned first-team All-Conference USA honors last season. Curry has accumulated 15.5 sacks in three years at Marshall. At 6-foot-4, Curry has the size and speed to remain one of college football's top pass rushers this year. With another productive season, the senior could be a first-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. 

3. G.J. Kinne, QB, Tulsa (SR)
2010 Stats: 3,650 yards, 31 TDs, 10 INTs, 561 rush yards, 7 TDs

Kinne enters his third season as the starter after leading C-USA in total offense and finishing second in quarterback efficiency a year ago. He also led the team in rushing, as Tulsa finished fifth in the nation in total offense. With new head coach Bill Blankenship taking over, the Golden Hurricane will lean heavily on Kinne’s experience and leadership to win the Conference USA crown in 2011. 

4. Damaris Johnson, WR, Tulsa (SR)
2010 Stats: 57 receptions, 872 yards, 4 TDs, 560 rush yards, 7 TDs, 1,196 ret. yards, 2 TDs
The do-everything dynamo was spectacular once again in 2010, scoring a touchdown four different ways. He led the team in receptions and receiving yards, while finishing just one yard behind quarterback G.J. Kinne for the team lead in rushing. Johnson broke the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards in a career last season and should add to that total in 2011.

5. Dominique Davis, QB, East Carolina (SR)
2010 stats: 3,967 yds., 37 TDs, 16 INTs, 141 rush yds., 9 TDs
Davis arrived from the JUCO ranks with high expectations and didn’t disappoint. He led the conference with 305.2 passing yards per game last season and completed 64.5 percent of his throws. Davis also ranked second in Conference USA with 316 yards in total offense per game. The senior tossed 16 picks last year, but seven came against BCS competition. As long as Davis limits his mistakes in conference play, East Carolina should make another bowl game in 2011.

6. Josh Robinson, CB, UCF (JR)
2010 stats: 59 tackles, 2 INTs, 13 PBU

Robinson has been a key contributor to the UCF secondary over the last two years. He started 11 games as a freshman in 2009 and earned second-team all-conference honors. Robinson started all 13 games last season and was selected first-team All-Conference USA. UCF ranked second in Conference USA in pass defense and first in pass efficiency defense, largely due to Robinson’s emergence over the last two years.

7. Kemal Ishmael, S, UCF (JR)
2010 stats: 93 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 5 PBU, 2 FF

With Josh Robinson and Ishmael returning, UCF should have the top secondary in Conference USA. Ishmael started all 14 games and earned first-team All-Conference USA honors last season. He started nine games as a freshman in 2009 and finished with 70 tackles. With two years of eligibility remaining, Ishmael’s best football could still be ahead of him. 

8. Emanuel Davis, CB, East Carolina (SR)
2010 Stats: 54 tackles, 2 INT, 3 TFL, 9 PD
After receiving second-team All-Conference USA honors a year ago, Davis returns as one of the nation’s most underrated covermen. He has eight career interceptions and will be flanked by three returning starters around him in the secondary. The East Carolina defense can only get better in 2011, after finishing dead last in the nation in total defense last fall (478 ypg).

9. Austin Davis, QB, Southern Miss (SR)
2010 Stats: 3,103 yards, 20 TDs, 6 INTs, 452 rush yards, 10 TDs

The second-team All C-USA passer led the Eagles to a third-straight bowl appearance last season. Davis has started all 30 of his games at Southern Miss, posting an 18-12 overall record (he missed eight games in 2009). Davis will essentially own every major school passing record by the end of 2011. He has already passed Brett Favre’s school record (51) for touchdown passes with 53 career scoring tosses and his 7,191 career yards currently rank third all-time in school history.

10. Kyle Padron, QB, SMU (JR)
2010 Stats: 3,828 yards, 31 TDs, 14 INTs, 244 rush yards, 4 TDs
Padron enters his third season as the leader of June Jones’ Run ‘N’ Shoot offense. He set a SMU single-season record for passing yards last year. He finished 2010 with at least 300 passing yards in six of his final 10 games and should expect continued growth in 2011. Five starters are back to protect him along the line and a plethora of playmakers return on the outside and in the backfield. Although Padron has been up and down at times during his SMU career, all signs point to a huge season. 

11. Jeff Godfrey, QB, UCF (SO)
2010 Stats: 2,159 yards, 13 TDs, 8 INTs, 566 rush yards, 10 TDs
Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year returns after finishing 2010 on a high note. The second-team freshman All-American set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback and beat Georgia in Liberty Bowl. Expect Godfrey to expand his ability to throw and cut back on the hits he takes outside of the pocket. But make no mistake, he is the playmaking leader of the Knights as only a sophomore.

12. Chris Thompson, OL, Houston (SR)
The Cougars led the league in passing offense and sacks allowed last year, mostly due mostly to the play of the offensive line. With three starters leaving, the versatile Thompson shifts from right guard to center and will be asked to lead a younger collection of talent that could include three underclassmen starters. Quarterback Case Keenum is back after an ACL tear and should improve what was already the 11th rated total offense in the nation.

13. Patrick Edwards, WR, Houston (SR)
2010 stats: 71 rec., 1,100 yds., 13 TDs
Edwards has emerged as one of Conference USA’s top receivers over the last two years, bouncing back after a horrific leg injury suffered during his freshman campaign. His contributions aren’t limited to offense, as Edwards is one Conference USA’s top punt returners. Edwards has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has 19 touchdown catches the last two years. James Cleveland has finished his eligibility at Houston, which could open up even more catches for Edwards. Keenum to Edwards could be a frequent connection in 2011. 

14. Lance Lewis, WR, East Carolina (SR)
2010 stats: 89 rec., 1,116 yds., 14 TDs

Lewis was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for Ruffin McNeill. The JUCO recruit stepped into a starting role last year and became one of East Carolina’s top targets for quarterback Dominique Davis. Lewis finished second on the team with 89 receptions, but led all East Carolina receivers with 14 receiving touchdowns. With Dwayne Harris playing on Sundays this fall, Lewis will become Davis’ go-to target and should surpass last year’s totals.

15. Kelvin Beachum, OT, SMU (SR)
Beachum anchors the top offensive line in Conference USA. The senior has started 39 consecutive games at left tackle and was named first-team All-Conference USA last season. SMU gave up 34 sacks last year, but that number will likely decrease with five starters returning. Expect Beachum to be a lock for first-team honors at the end of this year. 

16. Marcus McGraw, LB, Houston (SR)
2010 stats: 110 tackles, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 FR
Since stepping onto campus, McGraw has been a tackling machine at Houston. The senior has posted at least 100 tackles in all three seasons, including 156 in 2009. McGraw earned second-team All-Conference USA honors the last two seasons and has been named to the Nagurski Watch List for 2011. The senior will anchor one of the spots in the middle of Houston's 3-4 scheme and ranks as the top linebacker in the conference for 2011.

17. Zach Line, RB, SMU (JR)
2010 Stats: 1,494 yards, 10 TD, 17 rec., 163 yards
The Run ‘N’ Shoot offense features one running back and the 6-foot-1 230-pound bruiser has the job all to himself. But just because SMU likes to chuck it around, that doesn’t mean it can’t run the ball effectively. Line’s 1,494 yards led C-USA and was the best by a Mustang since Eric Dickerson. With a stellar group of lineman paving the way, the big fella should be rumbling to another huge season in Dallas.

18. Orleans Darkwa, RB, Tulane (SO)
2010 stats: 184 car., 925 yds., 11 TDs, 17 rec., 155 yds.
After a standout freshman year, it looks like Darkwa will be the next in a line of successful Tulane running backs. He came on strong in the second half of last year, posting five 100-yard efforts in the final six games. The sophomore showed he can be a workhorse for the offense, totaling at least 20 carries in each of the final seven games. With a full season to work as the starter, Darkwa should easily surpass 1,000 yards and push Zach Line for the conference lead in rushing.

19. Taylor Thompson, DE, SMU (SR)
2010 stats: 32 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks
Starting at one of the end spots in a 3-4 scheme is usually not a glamarous position for statistics. Thompson started all 14 games last season and earned first-team All-Conference USA honors. He earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors in 2009 and has 30 career starts. Thompson won't put up huge sack totals this season, but expect him to be a consistent performer for SMU.

20. Marco Nelson, S, Tulsa (SO)
2010 stats: 86 tackles, 6 INTs, 6 PBU
Nelson is coming off a stellar freshman season and could be even better in 2011. He earned first-team All-Conference USA honors and was named to the FWAA Freshman All-America team last year. Nelson's 86 tackles ranked third on the team, while returning one interception against Oklahoma State for a touchdown. Nelson is one of three starters returning in Tulsa's secondary, which ranked last in the nation in pass defense. However, Nelson's continued improvement should help Tulsa climb out of the cellar in pass defense rankings.

21. Trent Mackey, LB, Tulane (JR)
2010 stats: 124 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 FF
Mackey transferred to Tulane after spending one season at Duke. He was a tackling machine last season, collecting 124 stops in 12 games. Should be one of the top linebackers in the conference this year.

22. Ja'Gared Davis, LB, SMU (JR)
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 16 TFL, 9 sacks
Earned first-team All-Conference USA honors and led SMU in sacks last season. Davis is a key component to the defense, serving as one of the outside rushers in the 3-4 scheme. Could push for the Conference USA lead in sacks this year.

23. Korey Williams, LB, Southern Miss (SR)
2010 stats: 93 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 3 sacks
Led Southern Miss in tackles last season and earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors. Should be the anchor for one of the conference's top linebacking corps.

24. Matt McCants, OT, UAB (SR)
A preseason first-team All-Conference USA selection by Athlon Sports. Leader of an underrated UAB line that will be among the best in the conference.

25. Cole Beasley, WR, SMU (SR)
2010 stats: 87 rec., 1,060 yds., 6 TDs

Earned second-team All-Conference USA honors last season. With Aldrick Robinson off to the NFL, Beasley could see more passes in his direction.

Just Missing the Top 25

Chris Banjo, S, SMU (SR)
Sammy Brown, LB, Houston (SR)
Kendrick Hardy, RB, Southern Miss (SO)
Elliott Henigan, DT, UAB (SR)
Danny Hrapmann, K, Southern Miss (SR)
Darius Johnson, WR, SMU (JR)
Cordarro Law, DE, Southern Miss (SR)
Kyle Martens, P, Rice (SR)
Sam McGuffie, RB, Rice (JR)
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis (JR)
Pat Shed, RB, UAB (SR)
Frank Trotter, DT, Memphis (SR)

Other Conference USA Content:

Athlon's 2011 Conference USA Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Conference USA Team

Exclude From Games: 
Taxonomy upgrade extras: 
<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in Conference USA.</p>

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