The end of the college football season brings with it end-of-the-year awards. As such, today we honor the first-team and overall top 2021 performers from the American Athletic Conference in our All-AAC Football Teams of the Year. It was a dominant season by multiple teams and players, most notably capped by Cincinnati becoming the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff.
AAC Football Team Honors for 2021
The conference was, of course, led by the Cincinnati Bearcats and Houston Cougars. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a bevy of other incredibly worthy performances across the board.
It’s important to note that these are awards and honors from Pro Football Network for each individual’s prowess on the field this season. This is in no way a projection of their NFL Draft status nor a report on their actual conference awards that were given out prior. These honors are from Pro Football Network, as judged upon by our team of college football analysts.
Let’s get to the overall awards.
- AAC Coach of the Year: Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
- AAC Player of the Year: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
- AAC Newcomer of the Year: Big Kat Bryant, EDGE, UCF
- AAC Game of the Year: SMU vs. Houston, Week 9
Before we get into the first and second teams as well as the honorable mention awards for the AAC, let’s knock out some of the bigger individual recognition. Here are the top honors for individuals in the AAC in 2021:
- AAC Offensive Player of the Year: Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati
- AAC Quarterback of the Year: Tanner Mordecai, SMU
- AAC Running Back of the Year: Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
- AAC Wide Receiver of the Year: Nathaniel Dell, Houston
- AAC Offensive Lineman of the Year: Hayden Howerton, SMU
- AAC Offensive Line of the Year: Houston Cougars
- AAC Offensive Rookie of the Year: Alton McCaskill, RB, Houston
With Luke Fickell at the helm, QB Desmond Ridder and RB Jerome Ford ran over the AAC competition this season. They finished at 13-0 and became the first Group of Five program to make the College Football Playoff. Ridder set all-new Cincinnati records in the passing game while Ford took the college football world by storm with his rushing prowess. All told, it led them into the AAC title game and made them a subject of conversation all season long.
Tanner Mordecai earns the top spot at quarterback after throwing for 3,628 yards and 39 touchdowns. He finished fourth in touchdowns nationally and 10th in passing yards.
Houston’s Nathaniel Dell was an electric presence on the field at all times. They utilized him across the field whether out wide or in the slot. He was dominant after the catch but also separated easily from all sorts of defenders.
SMU’s Hayden Howerton helped pave the way for the Mustangs to an 8-4 record. With Howerton leading the charge on the offensive line, SMU’s offense was one of the best in the country.
Houston’s offensive line is the top offensive unit
The Cougars line also earns the top honor. From left to right, this unit was as solid as they come: LT Patrick Paul, LG Cam’Ron Johnson (and Keenan Murphy), C Kody Russey, LG Tank Jenkins, and RT Dennis Bardwell.
They helped pave the way for the Offensive Rookie of the Year in Alton McCaskill. With 16 touchdowns, McCaskill found himself ranked ninth in the country. He ran for 883 yards but averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his first season. McCaskill also chipped in with 98 receiving yards and 1 touchdown.
Now, though, we honor the best at their positions with our first-team, second-team, and honorable mention All-AAC Offensive Teams for the 2021 season.
First-Team All-AAC Offense
QB: Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
RB: Jerome Ford, Cincinnati
RB: Alton McCaskill, Houston
WR: Calvin Austin III, Memphis
WR: Nathaniel Dell, Houston
WR: Josh Johnson, Tulsa
TE: Sean Dykes, Memphis
FLEX: Danny Gray, SMU
LT: Tyler Smith, Tulsa
LG: Hayden Howerton, SMU
C: Sincere Haynesworth, Tulane
RG: Dylan Parham, Memphis
RT: Kip Frankland, Navy
Second-Team All-AAC Offense
QB: Tanner Mordecai, SMU
RB: Tyjae Spears, Tulane
RB: Keaton Mitchell, ECU
WR: Alec Pierce, Cincinnati
WR: Ryan O’Keefe, UCF
WR: Brandon Johnson, UCF
TE: Grant Calcaterra, SMU
FLEX: Xavier Weaver, USF
LT: James Tunstall, Cincinnati
LG: Cole Schneider, UCF
C: Kody Russey, Houston
RG: Lorenz Metz, Cincinnati
RT: Dennis Bardwell, Houston
Honorable Mention All-AAC Offense
QB: Clayton Tune, Houston
RB: Shamari Brooks, Tulsa
RB: Jaren Mangham, USF
WR: Tyler Snead, ECU
WR: Rashee Rice, SMU
WR: Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU
TE: Josh Whyle, Cincinnati
FLEX: Timmy McClain, USF
LT: Patrick Paul, Houston
LG: Jeremy Cooper, Cincinnati
C: Matthew Lee, UCF
RG: Fernando Frye, ECU
RT: Samuel Jackson, UCF
With the offense out of the way, here are the top honors for individuals on the defensive side of the ball in the American Athletic Conference in 2021. Top honors here are:
- AAC Defensive Player of the Year: Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
- AAC Defensive Lineman of the Year: Big Kat Bryant, UCF
- AAC Linebacker of the Year: Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati
- AAC Defensive Back of the Year: Marcus Jones, Houston
- AAC Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadon Canady, CB, Tulane
- AAC Defensive Line of the Year: Houston Cougars
- AAC Secondary of the Year: Cincinnati Bearcats
The AAC wasn’t quite known for defensive prowess in 2021, yet the conference still saw some outstanding performances. Houston’s Marcus Jones stands tall atop that list. In fact, the Cougars likely wouldn’t have made the AAC Championship Game had it not been for Jones. He finished the regular season tied for the national lead with 5 interceptions, and his kick return for a touchdown against SMU was an instant classic.
In the trenches, Big Kat Bryant made terrific use of his first year in Orlando. Bryant finished with 6 sacks and dozens more pressures. It was thanks in large part to his efforts that UCF was able to salvage an 8-4 record despite losing star QB Dillon Gabriel.
Darrian Beavers also helped pave the way for the Bearcats to their miraculous season. Beavers recorded 79 total tackles and 3 sacks in the regular season, but his prowess in coverage stood out.
Beavers recorded 2 pass breakups, 1 interception, and had a handful of more forced incompletions to his credit. He could go sideline to sideline with the best in the country and should rocket up draft boards once testing numbers come to fruition.
Jadon Canady impresses in Year 1
Jadon Canady is awarded the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award despite the lack of success for Tulane as a whole. Canady leaped onto the scene in his very first game. On the first target of his young career, Canady was targeted by Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler. He leaped into the hearts of Green Wave fans with a tremendous interception and his season took off from there. Canady finished the season with 2 interceptions and 3 pass breakups.
As a whole, the Cougars and Bearcats earned our unit awards. Houston had four players in the top 20 among the conference leaders in sacks. They also had three players in the top 10 as Logan Hall and D’Anthony Jones tied to rank third with 6.0 sacks. Cincinnati leads the way for the secondary award with a varietal who’s who of top defensive backs across the country.
Here are the honors for the best at their positions with our first-team, second-team, and honorable mention All-AAC Defensive Teams for the 2021 season.
First-Team All-AAC Defense
EDGE: Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
EDGE: Big Kat Bryant, UCF
DI: Curtis Brooks, Cincinnati
DI: Elijah Chatman, SMU
LB: Antonio Grier, USF
LB: Tatum Bethune, UCF
LB: Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati
CB: Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
CB: Ja’Quan McMillian, ECU
CB: Marcus Jones, Houston
S: Bryan Cook, Cincinnati
S: Rodney Owens, Memphis
FLEX: Joel Dublanko, Cincinnati
Second-Team All-AAC Defense
EDGE: David Anenih, Houston
EDGE: Jaxon Player, Tulsa
DI: Logan Hall, Houston
DI: DeVere Levelston, SMU
LB: Deshawn Pace, Cincinnati
LB: JJ Russell, Memphis
LB: Dwayne Boyles, USF
CB: Coby Bryant, Cincinnati
CB: Jadon Canady, Tulane
CB: Damarion Williams, Houston
S: Macon Clark, Tulane
S: Gervarrius Owens, Houston
FLEX: Jeremy Lewis, ECU
Honorable Mention All-AAC Defense
EDGE: Derek Parish, Houston
EDGE: Anthony Goodlow, Tulsa
DI: Blake Green, USF
DI: Latrell Bankston, Houston
LB: Isaac Slade-Matautia, SMU
LB: Diego Fagot, Navy
LB: Trevor Denbow, SMU
CB: Arquon Bush, Cincinnati
CB: Travon Fuller, Tulsa
CB: Greg Rubin, Memphis
S: Warren Saba, ECU
S: Ja’von Hicks, Cincinnati
FLEX: Turner Coxe, SMU
AAC Special Teams
The American Athletic Conference would be nothing without their special teams. And how special they were. Here are the individual awards for AAC special teamers.
- AAC Kicker of the Year: Spencer Shrader, USF
- AAC Punter of the Year: Ryan Wright, Tulane
- AAC Specialist of the Year: Brian Battie, KR, USF
The Bulls are represented well across the American special teamers. Shrader handled kickoff duties and booted 35 touchbacks in the process. Also, he was the team’s placekicker, nailing all 35 of his extra points and missing just 2 field goals, both from at least 41 yards or more. Ryan Wright’s net average of 44.6 yards per punt was the top mark in the AAC.
Brian Battie led the nation with 3 kick return touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 31.0 yards per kick return and edged out SMU’s Bryan Massey for top honors this season.
First-Team All-AAC Specialists
Kicker: Zack Long, Tulsa
Kickoff Specialist: Spencer Shrader, USF
Punter: Ryan Wright, Tulane
Kick Returner: Brian Battie, USF
Punt Returner: Marcus Jones, Cincinnati
Special Teamer: Daiquain Jackson, Tulsa
Second-Team All-AAC Specialists
Kicker: Spencer Shrader, USF
Kickoff Specialist: Bubba Baxa, Houston
Punter: Laine Wilkins, Houston
Kick Returner: Bryan Massey, SMU
Punt Returner: Ryan Montgomery, Cincinnati
Special Teamer: Maquel Haywood, Navy
Honorable Mention All-AAC Specialists
Kicker: Owen Daffer, ECU
Kickoff Specialist: Brendan Hall, SMU
Punter: Lachlan Wilson, Tulsa
Kick Returner: Marcus Jones, Houston
Punt Returner: Calvin Austin III, Memphis
Special Teamer: Sylvonta Oliver, Memphis
Congratulations to all those players selected. For any questions regarding these selections or the process behind them, please ask on Twitter (@CamMellor).
Listen to the PFN Scouting Podcast
Listen to the PFN Scouting Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Scouting Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review! Rather watch instead? Check out the PFN Scouting Podcast on our Scouting YouTube channel.