Conference USA Spring Football
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 22, 2012


As spring ball kicks in, what's happening for each Confeence USA East team?

2012 Spring Preview   

Conference USA East


East UAB | UCF | East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | Southern Miss
West  Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

2012 Conference USA Pre-Spring Preview
- C-USA East Pre-Spring Rankings
- C-USA West Pre-Spring Rankings
- Why Every C-USA Team Should Be Excited
- Why Every Team Should Be Grouchy
- What Every Team Needs To Work On 
2012 Recruiting Rankings C-USA East | C-USA West

By Richard Cirminiello 
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- 2012 C-USA Spring Preview - West 
 
East Carolina

When Ruffin McNeill was brought aboard in 2010, the goal was to take what Skip Holtz had built in Greenville, and carry it to another level. Through two tries, it has yet to happen. The Pirates have dropped seven games in back-to-back years, struggling in just about every phase of the game except the passing attack. And now they’ll have to develop a replacement under center for record-setting QB Dominique Davis. The contenders, Rio Johnson, Shane Carden, Brad Wornick and Cody Keith, are all eager for their opportunity to pilot the high-flying Air Raid offense. Although the quarterbacks will be generating the most headlines over the next six months, East Carolina won’t have the luxury of fixating on one position in the offseason. The program needs work all over the depth chart, including improving its depth, and finding a way to better protect the ball.

- Provided he can remain healthy, RB Reggie Bullock has the skills to be a dangerous change-of-pace out of the backfield. He missed half of his debut out of Arizona Western Community College, yet still got enough touches to rush for 428 yards and impress the staff.

- Johnson may be the safest choice for McNeill, but will he be the best one? Carden and Keith may be young, but they have live arms and are not afraid to rare back and fire the ball all over the field.

- Even without the services of last year’s star, Lance Lewis, the Pirates ought to be just fine in the receiving corps. Four of the top five pass-catchers return, led by rookies Justin Hardy and Danny Webster, and Reese Wiggins is coming off a terrific November.

- Sophomore LB Jeremy Grove is tailor-made to rack up more than 100 tackles in all four of his seasons at ECU. Not only is he an instinctive and athletic defender, but his D-line forces him to clean up lots of messes.

- After showing considerable progress in 2011, the defense is likely to regress in 2012. Emanuel Davis was a game-changer at cornerback who’ll be sorely missed and extremely difficult to replace.

Marshall

Two years into the Doc Holliday experiment, the Thundering Herd is heading in the right direction, but not quite as fast as many of the locals would like. The hope around Huntington is that the tempo up the East Division ladder and sense of urgency will reach a new level this fall. Marshall will begin 2012 with a little bit of momentum, having capped a season-ending three-game winning streak with a bowl win over Florida International. In February, the staff signed a massive recruiting class that’s built to contribute right away. It’ll join forces with an offense that has the ingredients to become the program’s most potent in years. The Herd is welcoming back QB Rakeem Cato, a rookie starter, its top two rushers and playmaking WR Aaron Dobson.

- Cato actually got a boost when fellow QB A.J. Graham was dismissed from the team earlier in the month. Yeah, depth becomes a concern, but now there’s absolutely no chance the sophomore is looking over his shoulder.

- Googling “Dobson” and “catch” produces a You Tube video of one of the most ridiculous grabs of 2011. The play versus East Carolina was no fluke. The senior is the real deal, the kind of physical specimen who’ll attract a lot of attention from pro scouts this fall.

- All of the potential of the Marshall offense will grind to a halt if the O-line can’t be assembled into a cohesive unit. Three new starters must be mined a year after the front wall got bullied in most games.

- With the graduations of its only two all-stars, first-teamers Vinny Curry and Omar Brown, the Marshall D is putting out want ads for playmakers. S D.J. Hunter, who was named a starter before tearing knee ligaments, is one of a handful of young players being counted on to produce.

- If Holliday dispenses a post-spring two-deep, toss it. The Herd will have so much competition at so many positions, especially when the JUCO transfers matriculate, that the depth chart will be fluid right through the end of August.

Memphis

For the second time in three years, the Tigers are starting over on the sidelines. After two years—and three wins—the administration pulled the plug on the Larry Porter era, turning to yet another assistant from a thriving program who has no head coaching experience. Justin Fuente, the 35-year-old former TCU offensive coordinator, is walking into one of the most challenging situations in the country. Memphis has slumped to three consecutive miserable years in large part because of a dearth of talent compared to the balance of the conference. Short-term, the program will continue to struggle to compete, as it adapts to new systems, new playbooks and new coaching philosophies. Long-term, the Tigers will have no choice but to make tangible strides, because if they can’t survive in Conference USA, they’ll get stampeded upon joining the Big East a year from now.

- Fuente knows quarterbacks, and he’ll have a couple of pretty good ones at his disposal this fall. Taylor Reed, last season’s starter as a true freshman, and Texas Tech transfer Jacob Karam are going to push one another to higher ground this offseason.

- There’s hope that the wide receivers will elevate—rather than hold back—the play of the quarterbacks this fall. Memphis really needs a rebound season out of senior Marcus Rucker, whose production plummeted in 2011. And Alabama transfer Keiwone Malone has way too much natural ability to be overlooked for a second straight year.

- RB Jerrell Rhodes, who has ACC or SEC skills, deserves better blocking than he’s gotten since arriving in Memphis. Don’t count on it, especially since the Tigers’ best blocker, massive Ronald Leary, has used up his eligibility.

- The D-line is facing a similar challenge as the offensive line. When you’re Memphis, it takes a lot more than one year and a few JUCO transfers to offset the losses of DE Frank Trotter and NT Dontari Poe, a likely first round NFL Draft pick.

- After yielding 300 yards a game through the air, the secondary has to improve. It can’t get much worse. There’s not a ton of raw materials with which to work, making the pass rush an even more important component of the defense.

Southern Miss

The Golden Eagles are going to be the East Division’s version of Houston this year. New coaching staff plus the graduation of a record-setting quarterback will equal a lowering of expectations for 2012. Even worse for Southern Miss, the new guy in charge, Ellis Johnson, was not already on staff, and the successor to Austin Davis will have virtually no experience when the season begins. Johnson will have a lot to prove in his debut on campus. Sure, he was a terrific defensive coordinator, most recently for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but he’s never had a winning season in four years as a head coach. And many of the Eagles he inherited openly lobbied for offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to get the job after Larry Fedora left for North Carolina. It promises to be a year of transition in Hattiesburg for the defending Conference USA champs, both for the kids and their new coaching staff.

- So who’ll be filling Davis’ shoes? Sophomore Arsenio Favor and redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd have an edge this spring on Chris Campbell because of their athletic ability. The competition doesn’t really begin until the arrival of Anthony Alford, the four-star recruit who could have played anywhere in the SEC.

- As the quarterbacks develop, the running backs ought to roll. Southern Miss boasts one of the finest stables of backs in Conference USA, a collection headed by Kendrick Hardy and Desmond Johnson, who were hampered by injuries a year ago.

- Jamie Collins is capable of blowing up into Southern Miss’ version of Sammy Brown, the Houston linebacker who led the country in tackles for loss. Collins goes 6-3 and 240 pounds, but has the pass rushing skills of a top-notch defensive end.

- If Hardy and Johnson can remain healthy this year, it’ll also allow Tracy Lampley to return to his natural position, inside receiver. And when Lampley is in the slot, he’s at his most dangerous.

- The upcoming season will be an important one for senior CB Marcal Robinson. The Eagles are set on one side with Deron Wilson, but need a replacement to step into the void created by the graduation of Marquese Wheaton.

UAB

Garrick McGee must really want to be a head coach. He accepted what is arguably the toughest job in the FBS, attempting to manufacture wins in Birmingham. Since appearing in their only bowl game in 2004, the Blazers have strung together seven consecutive losing seasons. The facilities are subpar, support is almost non-existent and beating out Alabama or Auburn for local talent just isn’t going to happen. UAB is perennially faced with an uphill climb, but not an impossible one. McGee and his staff realize that they’ll need to locate motivated, albeit raw, athletes and gradually transform them into productive players. The process will take a lot longer than one year, so patience will remain a requirement for Blazers backers. The season ahead will be all about laying a foundation that hopefully begins reaping more dividends in 2013.

- Hope can be found at the skill positions, where the Blazers harbor both youth and experience. QB Jonathan Perry, backs Greg Franklin and Darrin Reaves and receivers Jackie Williams and Jamarcus Nelson all logged meaningful minutes as underclassmen. However …

- … the offensive line has lost five seniors—and four starters—to graduation. All-star LT Matt McCants leaves a particularly big hole, which could leave Perry vulnerable from the backside.

- Pencil LB Marvin Burdette in for at least 100 tackles in his finale. He’s a steady veteran in the middle of a defense that doesn’t make very many plays near the line of scrimmage.

- Nothing good will come from Reggie Johnson’s defense if someone on the roster doesn’t generate a pass rush. There isn’t a single obvious candidate on a team that got to the quarterback just eight times in 2011, and was 119th nationally in tackles for loss.

- Oh, and as if the lack of a pass rush isn’t daunting enough for the pass defense, four starters from the secondary have used up their eligibility. JUCO transfers D’Andre Green and Cortez Green could punch their tickets to the starting lineup with a solid offseason.

UCF

The Knights have certainly enjoyed bouts of excellence during George O’Leary’s eight seasons in Orlando. Sustained excellence, however, has been elusive for the program. Just once during the coach’s tenure has his team posted back-to-back winning seasons, often slumping just as expectations begin to heat up. This past year, for instance. UCF started 2011 with a full head of steam, having wrapped up the previous campaign in the Top 25 for the first time in school history. They ended it as Conference USA’s biggest disappointment, missing the postseason entirely. O’Leary and his troops are determined to bounce back, with more than a little help from a trio of high-profile transfers. QB Tyler Gabbert (Missouri), RB Storm Johnson (Miami) and OT Phil Smith (Georgia Tech) will all work this offseason to earn jobs on an offense that was hit or miss a year ago.

- While there’s justifiable excitement surrounding Gabbert, no one, including O’Leary, is going to hand him the job. Sophomore Blake Bortles did enough to send Jeff Godfrey packing, and will get all of the first team snaps until Gabbert arrives on campus.

- With Johnson’s addition, the Knights could have an embarrassment of riches at running back. The former ‘Cane joins forces with Brynn Harvey and Latavius Murray, who both delivered 100-yard games in 2011.

- The D has a ton of potential as long as CB Josh Robinson can be adequately replaced; that’s a huge provision since Robinson was Conference USA’s top cover corner last fall.

- Senior Ray Shipman is bucking to become a real gem on defense for UCF. The former guard on Billy Donovan’s Florida basketball team started getting comfortable on the gridiron in 2011. With a couple of starts in the bank, the 6-5, 242-pound athlete could be set to explode this fall.

- The recent arrest of WR J.J. Worton could create an opening on the depth chart, pending the outcome of his suspension from the team. Quincy McDuffie is already a fixture in the lineup, but sophomores Josh Reese and Rannell Hall are going to get prime looks with the first team this spring.
 
- 2012 C-USA Spring Preview - West