2011 Conference USA Spring Preview
Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne
Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne
Posted Mar 19, 2011

The big questions, the top position battles, the early buzz, and the attitudes for every Conference USA team going into spring practices.

2011 C-USA Spring Preview

Click for each team's spring preview
East  UAB | UCF | East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | Southern Miss
West  Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

2011 Conference USA Spring Preview
- 2011 C-USA Schedules & Game-By-Game Picks
- 2011 C-USA Spring Buzz   
- 2011 C-USA Spring Attitudes 
- 2011 C-USA Big Spring Questions  
- 2011 C-USA Positions To Watch  
- C-USA Spring Rankings 

East Carolina
Spring Practice Begins: March 21 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... The initial appeal of defensive back Dekota Marshall for a sixth season of eligibility has been denied by the NCAA. He missed all of last season with a broken tibia suffered in 2009, and plans to appeal the decision. A versatile and physical defender, his three letters of experience and nearly two seasons as a starter would provide a lift to the flimsy East Carolina secondary. If denied a second time, he'll try to impress NFL scouts and continue his playing career in the pros.

The big spring question is ... Can the defense get any better? The natural instinct would be to suggest that it can't get any worse after the Pirates allowed 478 yards and 44 points a game. An about-face is improbable, but the program can take comfort in the fact that most of the team's starters return and the staff has had a full season together in Greenville. Plus, the defensive front is expected to get a big lift from the return of linemen Michael Brooks, Marke Powell, and Justin Dixon, who missed most of 2010 with injuries.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. As much as anything else, East Carolina needs to tighten up the run defense after being gutted for 226 yards a game and more than five yards a carry. While the line is expected to be better than in 2010, an already average group of linebackers will be without two of its top tacklers, Dustin Lineback and Melvin Patterson. The return of junior Lamar McLendon is encouraging, but he's going to need help from the likes of Cliff Perryman, Matt Thompson, and Ty Holmes, who played an ancillary role last year.

Spring attitude... The Pirates will be looking for a little more stability after the volatility of 2010. Not only was the school breaking in a new coach after back-to-back conference crowns, but the season was a rollercoaster ride marked by atrocious play on defense. The D might not be ready for a quick turnaround, but the offense should be able to compensate in shootouts. QB Dominique Davis was a revelation in his debut in Lincoln Riley's pass happy attack, and WR Lance Lewis gives him an all-star complement.

Spring Practice Begins: March 5 Game: April 9

The early spring buzz ... The big news that reverberated throughout the campus in January was that record-breaking QB Case Keenum had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. A knee injury last September ended what was supposed to be his final season as an amateur, putting the high-octane offense in the hands of a rookie, David Piland. These days, the Cougars have one of the deepest collections of quarterbacks around, a group that also includes 2010 casualty Cotton Turner. Keenum won't see much action this month, ceding first team reps to Piland and Turner.

The big spring question is ... Is one spring session enough time to solve the defense's problems? Unlikely, but after ranking 103rd nationally in total D and 96th in scoring D, the Cougars better make the most of every session they have together. The returns of Marcus McGraw, Sammy Brown, and Phillip Steward ensure that the linebackers will be just fine. On the first and last lines of defense, however, Houston is shorthanded. It needs to get more pressure without blitzing in order to support the run and assist a secondary that can be vulnerable.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. Three of the Cougars' four corners on last year's two-deep, along with S Jacky Candy, are out of eligibility. That's going to leave the defense vulnerable in a conference built on its passers and passing games. Sumlin looked to the junior college ranks for help, signing Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden from Navarro (Tex.) College. Houston rarely recruits JUCOs to watch from the sidelines, so both players will have a legitimate shot of starting in their debut seasons.

Spring attitude... The return of Keenum in 2011 means Houston essentially gets a do-over. After sinking to 5-7, the Cougars have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Conference USA championship. They'll be back to lighting up scoreboards and making national headlines, but being more than just a high-scoring novelty requires a lot more help from the defense. If the program can beat UCLA at home in the opener, the schedule is tailor-made for a run at a perfect season.

Spring Practice Begins: March 31 Game: April 23

The early spring buzz ... This latest recruiting cycle shed light on one of the reasons why the Herd took a chance on head coach Doc Holliday more than a year ago—the guy can land talent. Depending on the evaluator, Marshall had one of the best classes among Conference USA teams, if not all non-BCS programs. Holliday went up and down the Eastern Seaboard and into states, like Indiana, in order to improve the overall skill level in Huntington. He's even taking a chance on DB Dwayne Hunter, a former University of Tennessee prospect who ran into trouble with legal issues.

The big spring question is ... Who succeeds journeyman Brian Anderson behind center? Unless rookie Rakeem Cato blossoms into a wild card, this is going to be a close duel between sophomores A.J. Graham and Eddie Sullivan over the next five months. Graham has the size, mobility, and arm strength to be a great fit after missing most of 2010 with a bum ankle. His injury opened the door for Sullivan to be the primary backup as a true freshman last fall, completing 6-of-24 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown in seven appearances.

The most important position to watch is ... running back. The Herd is pining for a capable runner after finishing 114th nationally on the ground. Everyone returns, but that guarantees little for a team that didn't have a player rush for more than 350 yards on the season. Martin Ward and Andre Booker are budding upperclassmen, with 100-yard games a year ago, but if they can't become more productive, they'll fall victim to rookies. Travon Van comes to Huntington after originally signing with Florida, and Steward Butler is a heralded recruit from the most recent class.

Spring attitude... It's been seven years since Marshall won more than seven games in a season. The program is looking for tangible gains in Holliday's second year on the job. The Herd had some momentum at the end of 2010, winning four of the final five, but that only occurred when the schedule softened. It's time for the offense to begin catching up with the defense in Huntington, which will require a revamped backfield to grow up in a hurry and exceed expectations.

Spring Practice Begins: March 16 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... When the Tigers open spring drills, there'll be one less quarterback in the mix. Cannon Smith, the one-time Miami transfer and son of FedEx CEO Fred Smith, is switching sides of the ball. The starter behind center when 2010 began, he's moving to safety in an effort to get more playing time. Second-year hurler Ryan Williams is the frontrunner atop the depth chart after starting 10 games as a true freshman, which might pit young Will Gilchrist and former JUCO transfer Andy Summerlin in a battle for the No. 2 job.

The big spring question is ... Can the spread offense be installed over the span of 15 practices and one spring game? Disappointed by last season's productivity in more of a pro-style formation, second-year head coach Larry Porter is shifting gears and changing his attack mode. Memphis will look to spread the field as much as possible and get the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly. Porter wants to put his playmakers in a position to, well, make plays, and take some heat off an offensive line that yielded more sacks than any other Conference USA team in 2011.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. From a group that allowed 38 touchdown passes and picked off just eight, Memphis is losing three seniors. Depending upon your viewpoint, that's either a grave concern or good news. The Tigers must completely regroup around the likes of Mitch Huelsing, Tremaine McKenzie, Taurean Nixon, and Mohammed Seisay, who played extensively as underclassmen. It certainly won't be easy, but if they can grow during the offseason, the pass defense might have some hope by the second half of the year.

Spring attitude... You have to crawl before you walk. Memphis sure did a lot of crawling in Porter's first season on the job. After going 1-11 and arguably being one of the FBS' worst programs, the Tigers believe the worst is behind them. The staff's second offseason will be all about improving fundamentals, coaching up the young kids, and gradually changing the culture of mediocrity. While it would be great to steal an extra game or two along the way, progress in Memphis won't only be gauged by the record and the standings.

Spring Practice Begins: March 8 Game: April 9

The early spring buzz ... Now that Taylor McHargue is pretty much cemented as the Owl starting quarterback, the staff feels comfortable moving Taylor Cook out from behind center to tight end. At 6-7, he has the size and athletic ability to be a natural fit in the team's "Giraffe" package, which puts receivers in a position to sky above defenders, especially in the red zone. Rice is also moving Vance McDonald from tight end to wide receiver, creating more reps for Luke Willson and giving the offense a set of pass-catchers capable of bullying opposing linebackers and defensive backs.

The big spring question is ... Is there any reason for hope on defense? A perennial stumbling block in Houston, Rice is coming off a season in which it allowed 38 points a game and was 119th nationally against the pass. A shred of hope comes in the form of new defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson and returning DE Scott Solomon. Solomon was forced to sit out all of 2010 with a broken foot, denying the Owls their best pass rusher. He has nine career sacks and next-level potential, providing some much-needed cover for that vulnerable Rice secondary.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive end. Okay, so Solomon is healthy again, but his return is somewhat offset by the graduations of Kramer Lucio and All-Conference USA first teamer Cheta Ozougwu. With Solomon likely to see double-teams and the other team's best pass protector, the Owls will need at least one other pass rusher to generate heat on a consistent basis. The program has high hopes for Cody Bauer and Dylan Klare, who ascended to the second team in his first season on campus and will only get better with more snaps.

Spring attitude... There's legitimate excitement about the offense and trepidation with the D. In other words, a typical year at Rice. The athletic McHargue, versatile backs Sam McGuffie and Jeremy Eddington, and all of those big receivers are going to present major challenges for the rest of Conference USA. However, unless the defense can make some tangible strides toward plugging the holes, the Owls will struggle to reach .500 and earn a postseason game in December.

Spring Practice Begins: April 4 Game: April 30

The early spring buzz ... Head coach June Jones is changing the culture on the Hilltop in more ways than just the record and the postseason. While it's evident that the Mustangs have won more games the last two seasons, less obvious has been their ability to attract a higher caliber of athlete. With plenty of help from his assistants, such as recruiting coordinator Adrian Klemm, SMU has put together back-to-back solid recruiting classes. The latest haul, led by four-star LB Davon Moreland, was chock full of quality athletes who'll help ensure that the program remains a Conference USA threat for years to come.

The big spring question is ... Can the offense recapture its scoring punch? By this time in Jones' tenure, the Run-and-Shoot ought to be getting more efficient, not less. In 2010, SMU slid from 45th in the country in scoring to 74th, sputtering worse in the red zone. The odd part of the equation was that so many key components, like QB Kyle Padron, RB Zach Line, and the offensive line, returned intact. While the Mustangs will continue to move the ball in a balanced fashion, turning those drives into touchdowns will be an essential goal during the offseason.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. Yeah, two quality starters return, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed, but two quality starters are gone, Youri Yenga and Pete Fleps. Since the Mustangs rely so heavily on the linebackers to make plays all over the field, it's incumbent upon on the holdovers to fill the void with as few hiccups as possible. While Cameron Rogers is back after caddying for Fleps at Buck linebacker, Yenga's backup at strongside, Justin Smart, has also graduated. The staff is looking for a defender who goes at least 235 pounds and can rush the passer.

Spring attitude... Even after going a disappointing 7-7 and finishing poorly, SMU has sky high expectations in 2010. It's Jones' fourth season in Dallas, and he welcomes back a ton of starters on both sides of the ball. If the Mustangs can remain feisty on defense, while tweaking the offense, this is the kind of program that can get on a run and become a darkhorse BCS buster contender. Early visits to Texas A&M and TCU will quickly put that possibility to the test.

Southern Miss
Spring Practice Begins: March 14 Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... While the sad reality is that LB Martez Smith remains paralyzed after being shot last November, the program is excited about the returns of Deddrick Jones and Tim Green. The pair was shot in the same incident, but is expected to return this season, providing a physical and emotional boost to the defense. Jones will rejoin a defensive line that'll welcome his veteran leadership and pass rushing skills, and Green, ironically, will be vying to succeed Smith at strongside linebacker. If both can return to the field in 2011, it would go a long way to furthering the healing process in Hattiesburg.

The big spring question is ... Can the Golden Eagles tighten up a defense that fell apart late last year? The once vaunted Nasty Bunch was nasty for all the wrong reasons in 2010, allowing 40 or more points on five separate occasions. There was simply too much talent on hand for those types of results, resulting in some changes within the coaching staff. Southern Miss has the right ingredients for success, like DE Cordarro Law and LB Korey Williams, but has to improve in pass defense and start forcing more field goals deep in its own territory.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. The Golden Eagles were burned way too often last fall, ranking 99th nationally in pass defense and yielding 28 touchdown passes. Complicating matters, S Justin Wilson, CB C.J. Bailey, and nickel Chico Hunter are no longer around. The coaches will lean on S Kendrick Presley and CB Deron Wilson, while keeping their fingers crossed about the younger defensive backs. Marcal Robinson, Jacorius Cotton, Jerrion Johnson, Alexander Walters, and Alex Smith will all get a chance to dramatically increase their field time.

Spring attitude... Three years into Larry Fedora's tenure, Southern Miss is still looking to get over the hump and win a Conference USA title. Wasn't long-time head coach Jeff Bower released for that exact limitation? The Golden Eagles should continue putting up points, getting balance from dual-threat QB Austin Davis and the running of Kendrick Hardy. The defense, however, needs to become the bell cow, raising up its performance and keeping its teammates from having to score 41 points to win. The Eagles are close, but need to turn the corner this fall.

Spring Practice Begins: March 14 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... The season is almost six months from the opener, yet the Green Wave depth on offense has already taken a hit. WR D.J. Banks and RB Payton Jason opted to transfer at the end of last season. Banks caught 47 passes as a sophomore, and would have been the program's leading receiver, but felt as if his talents were not being fully employed in New Orleans. Not long ago, there were whispers that Jason could be the next big thing out of the backfield for Tulane. That, however, was before Orleans Darkwa nearly rushed for 1,000 yards in a breakout debut for the program.

The big spring question is ... Is there any hope for a defense that allowed at least 38 points in seven of the final 10 games? You'll have to look real hard for silver linings, especially since three of the unit's top performers, CB Phillip Davis, DT Justin Adams, and S Alex Wacha, have departed. Tulane will have to cling to an athletic front seven that's capable of generating pressure and making plays from sideline-to-sideline. A couple of transfers, in particular, LB Trent Mackey and DE Dezman Moses, were solid contributors in their first year on campus.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. Whatever strides the D might make, this remains a program that'll sink or swim based on the performance of the offense. Darkwa is set as the workhorse of the ground game, but who catches Ryan Griffin's passes, as he attempts to evolve in his junior year? While Ryan Grant is a terrific place to start, three of last season's top four pass-catchers are no longer on campus, which is a concern. Devin Figaro also shows upside, but Tulane is assured of being green on the outside this fall.

Spring attitude... After four years of Bob Toledo—and just 13 wins—apathy has gained a foothold at Tulane. Expectations are low, along with attendance and fan interest. The coach survived another losing season at the conclusion of 2010, but isn't likely to be as fortunate if the Green Wave doesn't become a bigger threat in the West Division. With success on defense being a longshot, the program will hang its hopes on an offense that showed flashes last fall and welcomes back a young and evolving backfield.

Spring Practice Begins: March 8 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... While the head coach is new and both coordinators are imports, there's still a feeling of familiarity around the Tulsa program. Rookie coach Bill Blankenship was on staff the past few seasons, 18 starters return, and the vaunted offense will generally be left alone. After leading Conference USA in total offense and scoring, the Hurricane will wisely leave well enough alone. Sure, there'll be some tinkering on the part of the staff, but not so much that it impedes the progress of the team's top playmakers.

The big spring question is ... Can Blankenship maintain—even further—the success that Todd Graham had before leaving for Pitt? The coach is entering an ideal situation for continuity. He's familiar with his surroundings and inherits a veteran team that finished 2010 on a seven-game winning streak. There won't be many excuses for failure. Best of all, QB G.J. Kinne is a third-year starter and one of the league's premier playmakers at the position. It all adds up to a solid debut for Blankenship in his first year as a head coach at this level.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. While no unit lacks experience, the defensive backfield could use an overhaul. The Golden Hurricane ranked last nationally in pass defense a year ago, giving up 32 touchdown passes and 319 yards a game. Everyone except bandit Charles Davis returns, which is encouraging on some level. However, everyone, from veteran CB John Flanders to rookie sensation Marco Nelson, must do a better job of sticking in coverage and batting down balls.

Spring attitude... Graham may be gone, but the expectations are still soaring around Tulsa for 2011. The Hurricane will enter the season hot, talented, and eager to break through with a Conference USA title. Although there will be plenty of challenges within its own division, the program believes it has the right mix of talent and experience to vie for a shot at a Liberty Bowl berth. Anything less than might be viewed as missing the mark in a season that'll begin with so much promise.

Spring Practice Begins: March 23 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... Bryan Ellis left no doubt a year ago that he gave the Blazers their best chance for success. The downside of his success? It scared off a couple of the school's reserves, David Isabelle and Emmanuel Taylor, who've decided to pursue transfers in order to get more playing time. Those moves leave UAB with only two other scholarship quarterbacks, Jonathan Perry and Joe Bento, who combined to throw just two passes a year ago. If Ellis misses any time this fall, the passing game will grind to a halt.

The big spring question is ... Can new coordinator Tommy West have an instant impact on a Blazer D that needs it? West is a familiar face in these parts and a coach who's had considerable success throughout his career. When last employed, he was the head coach at Memphis, where he went to five bowl games in nine seasons. He'll preach sound fundamentals to a group that boasts four players with all-star potential, DT Elliott Henigan, LB Marvin Burdette, S Jamie Bender, and CB T.J. Ballou.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. Henigan is a good one, but he'll be a little easier to double now that DE Bryant Turner and DT D.J. Reese have graduated. The Blazers need more help up front, preferably a couple of guys who can get penetration and make life a little easier on the defensive backs. Finding a complement on the interior will not be easy, but young Cody Payne and Connor Boyett have potential on the outside. Payne played his sophomore year at 6-6 and 260 pounds, and Boyett closed his rookie season as a starter.

Spring attitude... Sure, the Blazers are coming off another losing season, going 4-8 a year ago. The team, however, prefers to focus on its efforts against the SEC's Tennessee and Mississippi State, two losses by only eight points combined. After nearly breaking through a year ago, UAB needs to learn how win close games in order to get head coach Neil Callaway off the hot seat. With seven starters back, including the entire offensive line, the offense will be an early catalyst if a few capable receivers emerge to catch Ellis darts.

Spring Practice Begins: March 18 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... George O'Leary has a good problem in the backfield heading into 2011—how does he keep everyone involved and engaged in the offense? Think of a poor man's version of Virginia Tech a year ago. Not only are last year's top two rushers, Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray, back, but Brynn Harvey is expected to return to full strength this spring after missing all of last season to injury. That's the same Harvey who went for more than 1,000 yards in 2009 and looked like one of Conference USA's budding young offensive stars.

The big spring question is ... Can the Knights take the appropriate steps toward replacing their best linemen? The program loses an all-conference first teamer on both sides of the ball, Jah Reid on offense and Bruce Miller on defense. Both leave gaping voids that'll impact those around them if they're not properly filled. Justin McCray is first in line to supplant Reid after landing on the Conference USA All-Freshman team in his debut. Toby Jackson is the kind of mega-recruit from the JUCO ranks who's capable of picking up the slack opposite Darius Nall on the D-line.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. For the past few seasons, UCF has prided itself on a group of athletic linebackers who cover ground like safeties. A couple of those playmakers, Derrick Hallman and Lawrence Young played their final game last December. After finishing third on the team with 78 tackles, Josh Linam becomes the new leader of the unit, and will be looking for help on the outside. The competition will be fierce at weakside and strongside, as the staff looks to bolster its second line of defense during the spring.

Spring attitude... No retreat. The depth chart will feature some new looks, but UCF is confident it can remain the class of Conference USA. After winning the league in 2010 and upsetting Georgia in the Liberty Bowl, the Knights' confidence level has never been so high. The backfield will gloss over plenty of shortcomings in the early going, featuring all of those talented runners and QB Jeff Godfrey, who's set to blossom into a star after a terrific debut in Orlando.

Spring Practice Begins: April 1 Game: April 30

The early spring buzz ... A swath of seniors were largely responsible for saving Mike Price's job in 2010. Now the beleaguered coach is going to put his fate on the shoulders of a handful of junior college transfers. The staff scoured Texas and California for ready-made talent, signing 20-somethings capable of filling holes on both sides of the ball. The month of April will be an ideal time to get a good look at the likes of LB A.J. Ropati and WR Mike Edwards to see if they're truly poised to climb the depth chart and win a starting job.

The big spring question is ... Who replaces Trevor Vittatoe at quarterback? Although he lacked consistency, he was a four-year starter and a leader who won't easily be replaced. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that his backup, James Thomas, has also graduated. If there's a slight favorite, it's sophomore Carson Meger, but he's a former walk-on and hardly a lock to be under center in September. He'll need to keep improving in order to fend off the challenges of veteran Tate Smith and redshirt freshman Javia Hall.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. All of the uncertainty at quarterback and the skill positions wouldn't be so dire if the front wall was intact. Unfortunately for the Miners, all five of last season's opening day starters are gone, adding to the concern on offense. Although Eloy Atkinson took over at the pivot and has the potential to become an anchor, he'll be surrounded by a bunch of fresh faces and fresh faces, who'll are going to be thrown into the deep end of the water.

Spring attitude... Last season did not end well for UTEP. This season isn't likely to start off positively for the Miners either. Nine starters return to a defense that has potential, but this program has always gone as far as the offense can carry it. With few sure-things on that side of the ball and a need to find a new quarterback, the attack is likely to sputter out of the gate. The changes are disruptive enough that the attack might not start meshing until the second half of the year.

Click for each team's spring preview
East  UAB | UCF | East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | Southern Miss
West  Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

2011 Conference USA Spring Preview
- 2011 C-USA Schedules & Game-By-Game Picks
- 2011 C-USA Spring Buzz   
- 2011 C-USA Spring Attitudes 
- 2011 C-USA Big Spring Questions  
- 2011 C-USA Positions To Watch  
- C-USA Spring Rankings