2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the Sun Belt

Posted Feb 19, 2007

Before spring ball 2007, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each Sun Belt team.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 Sun Belt Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - Sun Belt

Arkansas State
The early spring buzz ... After following up a Sun Belt title season with a decent 6-6 campaign, ASU is poised to be one of the favorites for the title once again thanks to a recruiting class with three JUCO transfers and, arguably, the best high school haul yet under head coach Steve Roberts. The team had a shot to go to a bowl before losing the season finale against UL Lafayette, and with the new improvements, should be one game better.
The big spring question is ...
Can the offense score? The attack was rarely consistent and had way too many problems scoring with six games with ten points or fewer. Chalk it up to young offense that couldn't throw the ball worth a lick. If Corey Leonard and Travis Hewitt have to be better under center, while RB Reggie Arnold has to build on his excellent freshman year and be an even bigger part of the attack.
The most important position to watch is ... Center. Tanner Jenkins was a special lineman who was the epitome of a quarterback up front and the main man to lead the way for the running game. The All-Sun Belt star will be sorely missed unless Heath Lockley, before the new recruits hit town, shows he can be close to as productive.
Spring attitude... Get back to New Orleans. The defensive line needs a lot of patching and the quarterbacks have to be better, but the running game should be one of the best in the Sun Belt and the young overall team of last year should be more consistent. There's no reason to shoot for anything lower than a Sun Belt title.

Florida Atlantic
The early spring buzz ... This is the year things should start to come together for Howard Schnellenberger and the Owls in Sun Belt play. With just about everyone back on both sides of the ball, and a decent end to the year pushing eventual champion Troy in a 24-17 loss before beating North Texas and FIU, there's hope to improve by two games, get to 7-5, and play in the school's first bowl game.
The big spring question is ... Will all the experience turn into more production? The offense averaged just 15 points per game while the defense got run over by everyone with a pulse. In a league that should be dead even this year, a little bit of improvement will go a long way. If the O can up the production to around 350 yards a game, and the run defense can hold teams to around 125 yards an outing, the close Sun Belt wins will come.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is Rusty Smith ready to be the leader of the attack for the next three years? Is Sean Clayton going to be in the hunt for his old starting job? Smith stepped in over the final four games and put up some decent numbers highlighted by a 312-yard day in the loss to Troy, but Clayton has more experience and is the better runner.
Spring attitude... Get more physical. The formula to win in the Sun Belt isn't tough. Run well, throw effectively when you have to, and stop the run. FAU did none of those three last year and was still a player in the league race. A more physical team on both lines should be enough to push for a bowl season.

Florida International
The early spring buzz ... It's all about Mario Cristobal and the new regime. It wasn't that Don Strock was a bad head coach, but after a season with absolutely no luck, an ugly brawl, and no wins, a change had to be made. Cristobal is a talented recruiter who brings plenty of energy to the program. Can he coach? He's going to make a ton of mistakes early on, but he's a high-riser who should be a great fit for the program.
The big spring question is ... Was FIU just really bad or was it all bad luck? The defense was the best in the Sun Belt, but the fight with Miami killed the depth and ended all offensive production. The team finished dead last in America in scoring and had eight games with ten points or fewer. Job one will be to figure out how to get more points on the board, and then hope everything falls into place from there.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is Paul McCall the answer to replace Josh Padrick? Padrick might have been the Sun Belt's best quarterback, but he didn't have anything to work with. McCall saw a little work late in the year, and will be the starter this spring by default, but with three key recruits hitting campus this summer, led by Bryan Mann, the job is still open.
Spring attitude... Worst to first. Things didn't completely fall apart until after the suspensions kicked in, so with a full team of players back, and Cristobal instilling some serious discipline from the start, this should be a tighter team that's better in the close games. It's not hard to make a quick jump up in Sun Belt play.

Middle Tennessee  Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The recruiting season should make one of the Sun Belt's best teams even better. Middle Tennessee came this close to winning the Sun Belt title outright, and now it should be even stronger even with the losses of QB Clint Marks and RB Eugene Gross thanks to a defense that should dominate the league. The holes were patched up, and then some, with the recruiting class helped by a few JUCO transfers, so there's reason to be excited.
The big spring question is ... Can Joe Craddock replace Marks? It's not like the Blue Raider passing game lit anyone up under Marks, but he was a longtime starter who knew how to run the offense. Craddock might not be as big as Marks, but he has good passing skills and great mobility. He might be an instant upgrade to the attack if he shows this spring that he can be consistently effective.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. J.K. Sabb might have been phased out by the end of the year, but he still tied for the team lead in tackles from the weakside. The other leader, Justin Rainey, is also gone as is starting strongside man Marcus Brandon. JUCO transfer Andrew Harrington has to play a big role early on this year, while Lonnie Clemons and Danny Carmichael have to show they can be top tacklers. If they come through, the defense will be the best in the Sun Belt.
Spring attitude... Dominate the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders appeared to be the best team in the league by far last year until the stunning late collapse to Troy. There's no reason whatsoever the team can't be even better, and anything less than a winning season and a bowl game would be a tremendous disappointment. All the team needs is a bit more offensive pop.

North Texas  Begins: March 13  Game: April 22
The early spring buzz ... All eyes are on Todd Dodge and if he can get the job done. A star from the Texas high school ranks, Dodge and his spread offense will try to kick-start one of the nation's worst attacks. His old job at Southlake Carroll High had better facilities and was bigger in-state than UNT, but the athletic department is making a bigger commitment to football. Wins right off the bat would help.
The big spring question is ...
Can either of the main quarterback options actually run the spread? Daniel Meager and Woody Wilson struggled mightily with the old offense, and there aren't many wide receiver options for the spread, so it might take a while for all the pieces to fit into place. Both quarterbacks can run, so look for more responsibility heaped on these two right off the bat.
The most important position to watch is ... Besides quarterback, running back. Jamario Thomas is back for another year after leading the nation in rushing a few seasons ago. He was phased out over last year in favor of Evan Roberston, but Robertson has to get academically eligible first. He's at North Central Texas College and will miss spring ball, but he should be back by the fall. That means Thomas should have the upper hand early on with all the spring practice reps unless JUCO transfer Cameron Montgomery turns into a star right away.
Spring attitude... It wasn't all that long ago that North Texas was the powerhouse of the Sun Belt. Two lousy seasons have forced a regime change, and Dodge should be just the coach to get the program back on track. It'll take a little bit of patience early on, but it's not like the offense can be any worse. At least there'll be some semblance of a passing game.

The early spring buzz ... Troy closed out last year winning seven of its final eight games, and with almost everyone back on defense, and QB Omar Haugabook back on offense, this will be one of the favorites to win the Sun Belt. The recruiting class was arguably the best in the league and should make the champion even stronger. In other words, it's Sun Belt title or bust.
The big spring question is ... Will the defense be back up to Troy snuff? What's most amazing about last year's run was how it was mostly done with timely offense and not defense, normally the program's forte. Eight starters return to a D that finished second-to-last in the Sun Belt and dead last in pass defense. With 290-pound tackle Dion Gales along with
David McDowell from the JUCO ranks, the defense should be even better.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. The line got better and better as last year went on, and now it has to replace four starters including Kirbie Bodiford and Rob Austin on the outside. The mobility of Haugabook should make up for the shortcomings early on, but the faster the line comes together this spring, the better the chance Troy will be more than a speed bump for Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma State over the first three weeks.
Spring attitude... Build on the momentum. With Haugabook, the team should be the preseason Sun Belt favorite. Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State and UL Lafayette will all be worthy challengers, but Troy should be the class of the conference early on. The defense will be better, most of the top offensive skill players are back, and the coaching staff is in place. It's all there.

UL Lafayette    
The early spring buzz ... Is the program in trouble? According to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, the football and basketball programs are dealing with the NCAA for possible infractions. While it might not matter too much right off the bat, it might cause a bit of a distraction this off-season for a team good enough to win the title and go bowling for the first time in school history.
The big spring question is ... Can Michael Desormeaux throw? The running game will be dominant with Tyrell Fenroy and Desormeaux, but the passing game has to at least be efficient. Jerry Babb, who graduated, and Desormeaux combined to finish 113th in the nation in passing efficiency. If there's get a little bit of a passing game to rely on, things will open up that much more for Fenroy.
The most important position to watch is ... Punter. Considering the team's reliance on the running game, field position is at a premium. There has to be far more production than last year out of the punting game when Brit Framel averaged 39.07 yards per kick and the team netted 32.38 yards per try. Pinning teams deep is a must for ULL to win against the better teams.
Spring attitude... This is the year the team must finally break through. Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State and Troy will be the favorites, and ULL has to be included in the mix with a veteran offense that returns just about everyone, and just enough on defense to be decent. With an average non-conference schedule, there's no excuse to not finish with a bowl game.

UL Monroe
The early spring buzz ... Besides the excitement over schedule Grambling for a regional bragging rights game, the Warhawks are mostly excited about the possibilities with last year's young team matured enough to be a major player in the race. By winning three of the final four games, and coming close to knocking off Kentucky, this is an exciting team with just about everyone back on offense.
The big spring question is ... Who'll replace the stars in the secondary? Kevin Payne and Chaz Williams were two of the Sun Belt's best defensive backs, while Austin Willis was a strong combination linebacker/safety. The secondary was fantastic in conference play and could be the difference between a title and a lower-tier finish. However, if you're going to be weak in one area in the Sun Belt, it might as well be defensive back since few teams can throw.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. QB Kinsmon Lancaster started to come on over the second half of last year, and now he needs receivers to become more dangerous. The running game is more than fine with Calvin Dawson one of the best backs in the league, so if LaGregory Sapp and Darrell McNeal can be better, the offense will be unstoppable.
Spring attitude... Don't worry about the start of the season, worry about the Sun Belt. ULM will be lambs for the slaughter against Clemson and Texas A&M, and later against Alabama, but the team is good enough to win the title and go bowling. It was this close two years ago, and now it has to close the deal by shining in Sun Belt play from the start.


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