2006 Sun Belt Spring Lookaheads

Posted Feb 19, 2006

Before spring ball 2006, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each Sun Belt team.

By Pete Fiutak 

Arkansas State    Spring practice starts March 14, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can the running game continue to rumble without Antonio Warren and Shermer Bracey? The Indians rode the ground game to the New Orleans Bowl, but they'll have to go on without their two star backs. This was a different team when Warren was healthy, and now it'll likely be up to Chris Easley to keep the attack moving.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. It's one thing to have to replace the top running backs, but it's another to have to replace the entire backfield. Nick Noce might not have been the most accurate quarterback around, but he was a gamer and provided a tough leader for the offense. Now it'll likely be up to Travis Hewitt, who's a good athlete but not all that big.
Spring attitude... Win the Sun Belt title again. It's not going to be easy with so many big replacements in the backfield, but one of the league's best defenses only has a few holes to patch on the defensive line. Head coach Steve Roberts has the system in place to succeed, and there's no reason ASU can't be another North Texas and go on a run.

Florida Atlantic    Spring practice starts March 29, No official spring game
The big spring question is ... Can the 2006 Owls be more like the 2004 Owls? Florida Atlantic was a surprise team two years ago with win s over Hawaii, North Texas, MTSU and FIU to suggest that they might be a power in 2005. Nyuh-uh. Lack of steady offense and horrendous run defense led to an ugly 2-9 season with the only wins coming over UL Lafayette and North Texas. Head coach Howard Schnellenberger has to get his run defense to toughen up again and he needs to figure out how to put more points on the board after averaging a mere 13.82 per game.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. One of the team's top defenders, Willie Hughley, is gone along with fellow corner Lawrence Gordon from a secondary that wasn't all that bad allowing 177 yards per game. Now it'll be up to Quincy Skinner and Corey Small to make sure the pass defense doesn't become a problem.
Spring attitude... Toughen up. FAU doesn't just have to be stronger against the run, it has to figure out how to power the ball as well after averaging a mere 114 rushing yards per game. Winning in the Sun Belt isn't hard if you can do one thing well and play decent defense, so a turnaround season might not be all that hard to come by if the Owls can be more physical on both sides of the ball.

Florida International     Spring practice starts March 27, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can the Golden Panthers keep the momentum rolling? FIU finished the year playing well on a three game winning streak beating Western Kentucky, destroying Florida Atlantic, and getting by MTSU. The 5-6 year was this close to being an impressive first year as a D-I member with near-misses against North Texas and Troy.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Josh Padrick was the heart and soul of the FIU offense throwing for 2,461 yards and 13 touchdowns while also adding a little bit of mobility. It'll likely be up to Tavares Kendrick, who's a big, strong, athletic passer and a good enough talent to take the team to the next level in the Sun Belt. His development will be the key to the season.
Spring attitude... Just keep getting better. After a solid first season in Sun Belt play, the Golden Panthers don't have too much further to go to actually be in the race for the conference title. The defense has to replace several key starters and the running game could use more pop, but this is an athletic team that has the potential to be better this year by midseason.

MTSU    Spring practice starts April 4, Spring Game: April 29
The big spring question is ... How will things be different under new head coach Rick Stockstill? Probably not much. MTSU had the league's best defense last year, and Stockstill has promised his D will be tough and hard-nosed. Then again, all coaches say that. His offense will be wide-open, which is was under Andy McCollum. Stockstill will pay off a few years from now when his recruiting skills kick in and he brings more talent to Murfreesboro.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. The Blue Raiders were nasty up front last year with a tremendous D line, but now the top tackles need to be replaced along with end Devarick Scandrett. There's decent size returning with Bobby Payne on one end and tackle Chris Anderson in the middle, but more playmakers have to emerge early on this spring if MTSU is going to lead the league in run defense again.
Spring attitude... Find a way to get more out of the offense. After getting nothing out of the running game last year, Stockstill has to either make sure the passing attack is more productive or get more production up front to get more than 110 rushing yards per game. MTSU lost three league games by a total of ten points, so if the D can be almost as good as last year, there's a great chance for a run at the Sun Belt title.

North Texas    Spring practice starts February 13, Spring Game: March 9
The big spring question is ... Will North Texas be North Texas again? There has been a lot of shifting this spring with the coaching staff and positions to try to get more production out of both sides of the ball after a miserable 2005. The ground game will once again be strong thanks to the return of Jamario Thomas, while almost everyone returns on defense, for good or bad, except at corner where Ja'Mel Branch and T.J. Covington have to be replaced after a decent season.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. North Texas is moving to a 3-4 defense to make up for the lack of size up front. It didn't help that Brandon Monroe tore the MCL in his knee and missed most of spring ball, but this move should be a showcase for all the teams' young linebackers. This isn't a big group, but it can run with several athletic, safety-like players for the outside.
Spring attitude... It was all about not accepting what happened last year. After dominating the Sun Belt for so long, going 2-9 and ranking near the bottom in the nation in most of the big categories, there was a lot of tinkering going on this spring to make sure that doesn't happen again. The 2005 team was young and in a transition period, but that doesn't seem to be used as an excuse. Better quarterback play and stronger run defense should be enough to get back in the Sun Belt title mix.

Troy     Spring practice starts: March 4, Spring Game: March 11 (practice ends April 8)
The big spring question is ... Will the offense ever produce? All D and no O for the last few years has made Troy a bit of a flaky team. The defense was good enough to win the Sun Belt with last year, but the offense only produced 16 points per game with three against Arkansas State and seven against MTSU to close the season. Outside of RB Joel Whinghter, everyone of not returns to the offense so there's no reason to be so bad again.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. It was simply a disaster last year with Carl Meadows, Julian Foster and Larry Dockery combining to barely complete 50% of their throws for 1,832 yards and 12 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. There wasn't any consistency and no one moved the offense on a regular basis. The only chance Troy has of getting back in Sun Belt contention is to get better overall play from the most important position.
Spring attitude... It might be another rebuilding year. The defense loses most of the front seven including star LB Bernard Davis, and both of the tremendous corners. In other words, it could take a lot for the Trojan defense to keep up its high level of play. Unless the offense suddenly becomes explosive, this might be another down year. Of course, no one at Troy is going to think that way, so it needs several young players to grow into big-time contributors right away.

UL Lafayette    Spring practice starts March 17, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... How much will the second half of last year carry over to this season? Arkansas State fans won't agree, but UL Lafayette turned out to be the league's best team last year finishing with a six game winning streak led by the nation's seventh-ranked rushing attack. Of course, the 39-36 loss to ASU kept the Ragin' Cajuns from going to the New Orleans Bowl, but that might only serve as extra motivation going into this year.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. How will the coaching staff handle having, possibly, the league's two best quarterbacks on its roster? Jerry Babb is a strong veteran with the best passing skills on the team, but Michael Desormeaux is a devastating runner tearing up ASU for 174 yards, Florida Atlantic for 83 and UCF for 76. Will it eventually be a rotation or can one take the job outright?
Spring attitude... Sun Belt title or bust. Most of the offensive line returns as does star RB Tyrell Fenroy. The defense should be even better if a space-eater can be found for 335-pound Mike Moore in the middle. There's no reason ULL shouldn't be the preseason favorite to win the title.

UL Monroe   Spring practice starts March 14, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... How does the team pick its chin up off the mat? All the Indians had to do was beat UL Lafayette and the Sun Belt title and a trip to the New Orleans Bowl was theirs. A 54-21 loss later sent ULM home with a losing record and a feeling that the window of opportunity may have passed. How many times are you going to have the best quarterback in Sun Belt history under center? Now Steven Jyles is gone and the team needs to try to find the same magic for a second straight year.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. All eyes will be on Kinsmon Lancaster to see if he can replace Jyles, but the real issue is on the defensive line losing Brandon Guillory, Mabrae Wilson, and the rest of the starters along with backup end Lamont Finley. With Jamario Thomas and the North Texas running game coming up in the first Sun Belt game on September 23rd, the line had better be ready by then.
Spring attitude... Get everything together right away. With North Texas and Florida Atlantic to start the Sun Belt season, ULM has to be 2-0 or it could be a long year with six road games in the final seven including an ugly five game road trip to end the year. Even though Jyles is gone, the offense is full of experience and the entire secondary returns so the team isn't starting from scratch.