Matt Seidel

Meet The Top Five Quarterbacks In The AAC

Created on May. 31, 2014 12:58 PM EST

Quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference had a great showing at the NFL Draft this year as two of the conference’s quarterbacks were embraced by Commissioner Roger Goodell on the Radio City Music Hall stage after being selected in the first round.

Blake Bortles became the highest picked UCF Knight and the first AAC player drafted when Jacksonville selected him third overall. Teddy Bridgewater’s befuddling slide from projected top pick to afterthought ended when the Minnesota Vikings traded back into the first round to nab the Louisville prospect with the final pick of the first round.

With those two highly touted gunslingers taking their talents to Sunday, the AAC is destined to suffer across the board at the quarterback position. But with a combination of new talent entering the conference along with forgotten blue chip prospects and emergent talents, the quarterback picture could be extremely bright. Here are the conference’s projected top five quarterbacks for 2014:

5. The Heir Apparent: Neal Burcham, Southern Methodist

Garrett Gilbert was on pace to crack 4,000 yards in his senior season, but an injury against USF late in the year forced him to miss the final two games. Drafted in the sixth round by the St. Louis Rams, Gilbert’s departure opens up the job for his successor, Neal Burcham.

Burcham was tasked with facing the strong secondaries of Houston and UCF to close out last season. He tossed a touchdown and three picks in those two games, but another season under June Jones’ tutelage should have the former ESPN four-star recruit knocking on the door of the upper echelon by season’s end.  

4. The Unknown: Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati

Possessing the size and arm strength that had recruiting gurus salivating, Gunner Kiel was supposed to lead Notre Dame to the promised land. After falling behind Everett Golson and Tommy Rees on the depth chart during the Irish’s BCS Championship run, the former five-star recruit transferred to Cincinnati without ever taking a snap for coach Brian Kelly.

Munchie Legaux suffered a catastrophic knee injury against Illinois last season. His career-threatening setback paved the way for Kiel. The Indiana native’s recruiting saga was a tumultuous ride, with verbal commitments to Indiana and LSU before settling on South Bend. Kiel has yet to throw a pass as a college quarterback, but his pedigree (the No. 2 quarterback in the nation in 2012, according to Rivals in trailing only Jameis Winston) and lack of challengers firmly entrench him in the No. 4 spot.

3. The Playmaker: P.J. Walker, Temple

Coming out of nowhere in 2013, P.J. Walker racked 23 total touchdowns in only seven games as Temple's starter. The Owls were only 2-5 under his command, but the true freshman established himself as one of the conference’s best.

Walker is undersized for the position, checking in at 6-foot-1 and just south of 200 pounds, but he deviates from the AAC mold of pocket passers. He is the league’s biggest threat on the ground from behind center, rushing for 332 yards and three touchdowns on 90 carries (including 23 sacks that took away a significant chunk of yards). Combined with 2,084 passing yards and a 20:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the New Jersey product is going to be problematic for AAC coaches.

2. The Young Gunner: John O’Korn, Houston

John O’Korn’s debut could not have gone better. Handed the keys to the team in his true freshman year, he compiled 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air. He led the team to an 8-5 finish, dropping four regular season games (BYU, at UCF, at Louisville, Cincinnati) by a combined 20 points and losing the BBVA Compass Bowl to Vanderbilt.

Entering his sophomore season with dynamite wideout Deontay Greenberry following an electric rookie year, O’Korn could establish himself on the national radar. His accuracy leaves something to be desired, but isn’t an overwhelming concern because he’s a home run-hitter who will connect downfield for big plays. Reminiscent of a smaller Ben Roethlisberger, he possesses solid scrambling ability to escape pressure and then flick the ball 30 yards downfield to an open man.  

1. The Best: Shane Carden, East Carolina

Shane Carden threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013 on his way to being named Conference USA MVP. The overlooked quarterback owns school records for passing yards in a game (439, in 2012) and passing yards in a season (4,139). He’ll need 68 completions, 1,775 passing yards and seven touchdowns to own East Carolina’s career records in each category. In Lincoln Riley’s offense, those numbers are achievable in just four games.

It’s not that Carden just posts gaudy numbers because of high volume, he’s one of the nation’s most efficient throwers. He has completed 68.6 percent of his passes and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt in his two years as starter. The unheralded prospect has blossomed in Riley’s system, quietly entering the upper echelon of college quarterbacks. As East Carolina moves into the American Athletic Conference in 2014, expect Carden’s stock to rise even higher.

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