2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing C-USA

Posted Feb 25, 2007

Just as spring ball starts to kick in, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more in Conference USA.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 Conference USA Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - Conference USA


East Carolina   Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 28  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The main focus in spring ball will be around the quarterback situation with James Pinkney gone and Todd Fitch coming over to take over the quarterback coaching duties. Firth will also work with Steve Shankweiler to handle some of the offensive coordinator duties.
The big spring question is ... In year three under Skip Holtz, will the offense explode and be more consistent? It might be tough with the loss of Pinkney, top receiver Aundrae Allison and leading rusher Brandon Fractious, but there's more than enough players ready to step in and take over after being in the system for the last few years. With all five starters returning to the offensive line, and three of last year's freshmen up front certain to be more consistent, the potential is there to finally get things going as expected.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. The Pirate pass rush was non-existent last season finishing last in the league with a mere 18 sacks and few tackles for loss. Marcus Hands, Zach Slate, Scotty Robinson and C.J. Wilson have to show they can get into the backfield on a regular basis.
Spring attitude... Take the next step. Seven wins and a bowl appearance was nice, and now it's time to do even more and turn into a true player in the East race. If the offense can be more consistent, and the defense can make a few improvements and be better on the line, an appearance in the title game is a realistic goal.

Marshall  Spring Practice Begins: March 27  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... What if. Ahmad Bradshaw would've been one of the nation's best running backs had he returned for his senior season, as originally expected, but his last minute bolt to the NFL means the offense doesn't have an All-America caliber player to revolve around. The recruiting class suddenly had to have running back depth, and now more responsibility will be on quarterback Bernard Morris.
The big spring question is ... Will head coach Mark Snyder work his magic with the defense? The D was supposed to be far, far better under Snyder, but it as awful last year, especially in the secondary. What made the lack of production more mystifying was all the help the defensive backs got from a tremendous pass rush. With major turnover on the defensive front seven, and with three starters returning to the secondary, spring ball will be all about improving the D.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. With Bradshaw gone, it's up to the speedy Chubb Small and backup Kelvin Turner to handle the workload early on, while top recruit Darius Marshall and Terrell Edwards are expected to come in and make an immediate impact to pick up the slack.
Spring attitude... Get to a bowl. The Herd had several chances to get over the hump and come up with a winning record, and had a prime shot to finish 6-6 before losing the season finale against Southern Miss, and didn't get it done. A winning record in Conference USA play will almost certainly lock up the program's first post-season appearance under Snyder. To get there, the defense has to be better, and Morris has to be efficient and consistent.

Memphis  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... This hasn't been a good off-season. Former Tigers Mario Prather and Ryan Scott were arrested on drug charges, and young fullback Stacy Jones was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was discovered on the side of his neck. On the field, the defense that was so woeful last year got its coach with Rick Kravitz coming over from NC State after spending a decade at South Florida.
The big spring question is ... Was last year's disaster just a one-year fluke? Going 2-10 with the only victory over a D-I team coming in the season finale against UTEP wasn't quite what the team had in mind after appearing to be headed in the right direction under Tommy West. Without DeAngelo Williams to rely on, the running game went into the tank, while the defense was stunningly awful all season long. Expect both to change this year, but it might not be enough to get back to a bowl.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. The Tigers managed a pitiful 44 tackles for loss and 17 sacks while getting run all over. Part of the problem was the coaching, part of the problem was youth with Josh Weaver, Steven Turner, Greg Terrell and Jada Brown all freshmen. If experience can translate into production, the defense should make a dramatic improvement.
Spring attitude... It might not take that much work to be far, far better. Eight starters return on D including the entire front seven, while nine are back on offense including most of the key skill players. Five games last year were lost by seven points or fewer; a veteran team would've pulled out at least three of those.

Southern Miss  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... There's plenty of excitement about the recruiting class as the Conference USA runner-up came up with a tremendous haul of instant offensive players, especially Julius Gray for the offensive line and Antwain Easterling for the backfield. If last year's team could come within a game of being the champion, this year's team, with eight starters returning on defense and QB Jeremy Young and RB Damion Fletcher coming back on offense.
The big spring question is ...
Will there be more of a passing game to take the pressure off Fletcher? Young started to come into his own at the end of last year with a nice three-game stretch to close things out, but he's not a bomber and he needs more help from the receiving corps. He doesn't have to throw for 300 yards a game, but he does have to be efficient and effective on third downs and he has to at least provide a bit of a threat to keep defenses from teeing off on the running game, especially because ....
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive guard. Along with center Robby D'Angelo, guards Travis Cooley and George Batiste are gone from the league's best rushing attack. While the ground game will turn out to be fine in time, the big key would be pass protection for Young. He might be mobile, but he needs as much time as possible to work.
Spring attitude... Get back to the title game. With all the returning experience and more talent than anyone in the East, there's no excuse to not get back to the championship game. For a program that's used to being in the hunt every year under head coach Jeff Bower, anything less than another big season will be a major disappointment.

UAB  Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... New head coach Neil Callaway didn't have a whole bunch of time to recruit, but by all accounts he did a relatively decent job. JUCO transfer RB Aaron Johns will make the most immediate impact, while QB Bryan Ellis is the main man for the future. The program now has to get the coaching staff on the same page with all the players.
The big spring question is ... What's going to be different under the new coaching staff? If nothing else, there will be some new ideas and new blood circulating through the program. Callaway knows how to do things at an upper-echelon SEC level and should come up with crisp, effective practices. For an offense that averaged a mere 310 yards and 18.75 points per game, expect an immediate difference in the attack's production.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back and quarterback. With the top three backs from last year gone, the job has Johns' if he lives up to the hype. Anyone else who wants to make a statement has to do it right off the bat this spring. Figuring out who the top quarterback is going to be is the biggest issue with several prospects getting an equal shot under the eye of the new coaches.
Spring attitude... Time for a change. After the young, rebuilding team lost the final six games of last year and dropped five games by a touchdown or less, and lost the season finale by eight, there's hope for an immediate turnaround if the there are a few more close wins. It might not be that big a jump from 3-9 to 6-6.

UCF   Spring Practice Begins: March 21  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... This was a relatively young team before, and even though it went through growing pains to get to this season, there's still going to be an infusion of new blood and talent from the recruiting class. George O'Leary and his staff loaded up on defense meaning this should be a wild, spirited spring with several starters from last year competing for their jobs.  
The big spring question is ...
Will all the experience and all the promise on defense finally come through? The baby backs in the secondary that were so effective in 2005 were awful last year, while the run defense wasn't anything to get excited about. The offense will be there under O'Leary, but the difference between 4-8 and being in the hunt for the Conference USA title is the effectiveness of the D.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Is Kyle Israel ready to be more effective, make fewer mistakes, and handle himself as the starter? After taking over in the second half of last year, he threw for plenty of yards and and a few nice games, but he didn't hit his stride until the final two games when he went lights-out completing 35 of 42 passes against Tulane and UAB. He has to make the team his this spring.
Spring attitude... Get the right talent in the right spots. There's more than enough experience and more than enough options to play around with the depth chart all through the off-season. Cut down on the turnovers, do more on defense, and do all the little things right, and UCF will be right back in the East title hunt.


Houston  Spring Practice Begins: March 6   Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ...
The team's best defensive back might be on the coaching staff. The Cougars added former Houston Oiler Bubba McDowell to handle the safeties and help out with the rest of the secondary. Considering the defending Conference USA champion should already has a strong pass defense, and welcomes back just enough experience to make another run, this should be another big season.
The big spring question is ... Can the program go on without Kevin Kolb? You don't just replace a heart-and-soul, Player of the Year, four-year starting quarterback like Kolb without there being a few problems. Arguably the greatest offensive player in the history of the league, Kolb was everything to the Cougars. Now the offense needs Blake Joseph to step in and be efficient right off the bat.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. While all the focus will be on the quarterback situation after losing Kolb, replacing the running backs might be a bigger issue. Home run hitter extraordinaire Anthony Alridge is only 5-9 and 170 pounds; not exactly an every down workhorse. Jackie Battle and Roshown Pope will be missed.
Spring attitude... Expect to win the West again by trying to rebuild in a huge hurry. In the tougher division of the two, the Cougars will have their work cut out for them from the start unless all the returning starters pick up the slack for all the lost stars. It'll take a major effort to repeat without Kolb, Battle's 15 rushing touchdowns, and leading receiver Vincent Marshall.

Rice  Spring Practice Begins: March 12   Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ...
And so the David Bailiff era begins. After one of the shocking turnarounds in recent college football history under Todd Graham, it's time to start from scratch again under the former Texas State head man. The goal will be to keep the momentum going after the 7-6 season, and he might be just the man to do it. Forget last year's 5-6 campaign at TSU, Bailiff is great at dealing with tough situations.
The big spring question is ... Can the team do that again? Probably not, and not because of the coaching change and not because of the players. Teams just don't win that many close games two years in a row. The Owls lost the season opener to Houston by one, and later beat UAB, UTEP, Tulsa, East Carolina and SMU by a total of 15 points. A 7-5 regular season could quickly turn into 4-8 unless the team finds a way to get every break, every turnover, and every big play again.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. It's not like the defense can afford to get any worse after allowing 414 yards and 33.23 points per game, and now it has to replace three key cogs up front in noseguards DeJuan Cooper and William Wood along with end Courtney Gordon. The run defense did nothing last season, but the defense did a great job of getting into the backfield. That starts with the front three.
Spring attitude... Don't panic. Bowl games aren't going to be a regular occurrence, but that doesn't mean the program doesn't have to be a doormat for everyone else again. Bailiff's job is to keep the offense going and to invent ways of maximizing the overall talent on defense. The Owls just have to battle hard every week and the wins will come.

SMU   Spring Practice Begins: March 1  Game: March 31
The early spring buzz ...
This is the year. SMU has been building under head coach Phil Bennett, and rebuilding, and now everything is expected to all come together in what's expected to be the team's best year since 1984, the last bowl season. The top recruiting class of last year is expected to pay off (wrong choice of words for SMU) in a huge way, while QB Justin Willis should make this the team one of the league favorites.
The big spring question is ... Is the defense going to hold its water? Everything else worked well for the Mustangs in 2006, but the secondary, despite getting a ton of help from a pass rush, got torched for 246 yards per game. That's what happens when you start two freshmen, and now the hope is for some redshirt freshmen to step in and make a difference. The defensive backs might be all that stands between SMU and a title.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. The run defense was the best in the league thanked to Adrian Haywood, Brandon Bonds, and Randy Denman on the inside. The Mustangs have to find a good rotation right off the bat this spring to provide a base for the rest of the defense and not force the veteran linebackers to make all the plays. Losing star end Justin Rogers doesn't help the cause.
Spring attitude... It's time to win a title. Even with problems in the receiving corps, the offensive pop will be there with Willis along with backs Cedric Dorsey and DeMyron Martin. No Conference USA team has more good young talent, and if can all come together in spring ball, and new stars emerge before fall, the pieces are there to represent the West.

The early spring buzz ...
New head coach Bob Toledo didn't have much time to work to bring in a recruiting class, but he came through with a surprisingly decent haul helped mostly by retaining all the prospects who committed to Chris Scelfo. Toledo is known as an offensive coach able to get his teams to put up big numbers, but the change in systems was still an issue for many. His ability to sell the players that Tulane was still the place to come to was a big hurdle to overcome. Part of the success came from hiring assistants who knew the area, rather than coaches from the West Coast.
The big spring question is ... How are things going to be different under Toledo? On defense, expect more of an emphasis placed on forcing turnovers. For a team that finished 112th in the nation in turnover margin, that's welcome news. Offensively, at least early on, the emphasis will be placed on the running game until the passing game comes around. Eventually, Toledo would want a near equal balance.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Scott Elliott has the experience after spelling Lester Ricard over the last few years, and now he has to prove he can be the type of steady leader and playmaker who can keep the chains moving. When Matt Forte eventually returns from a knee injury, he'll be the main man in the attack, and Ray Boudreaux, Ade Tuyo and Andre Anderson might be key backs early on, but it's Elliott who has to shine in spring ball.
Spring attitude... Be more competitive. Katrina, the nomadic season that followed, and last year's awful campaign that got worse as things wore on are all over. Under Toledo, the program has a fresh start with a slew of new players from the recruiting class that'll get chances to start right away. Until they hit campus, the returning starters, eight on defense and five on offense, have to show they have the potential to be far more consistent.

Tulsa  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
Tulsa got a huge break snagging Todd Graham, one of the hottest new coaches on the scene, to replace one of the new hot names, Steve Kragthorpe. It got an even bigger break by getting Gus Malzahn from Arkansas to run the offense and act as the assistant head coach. With this staff, there's no reason to start from scratch and no reason to expect any of the momentum created by Kragthorpe to slow down.
The big spring question is ... How will the Graham/Malzahn marriage work out? Major Applewhite didn't follow Graham to Tulsa getting a fantastic, higher profile gig as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama, but from all reports, it's not like the two were necessarily on the same page. It's not a sure thing that the Major would've gone to Tulsa had he not gotten the Bama gig. It's been well documented how Malzahn and Houston Nutt weren't exactly eye-to-eye on how things should be run at Arkansas. It'll be interesting to note if everyone is on the same page from the start.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. The three top wide receivers, Idris Moss, Ryan Buff and Donnie Johnson, are gone taking away the comfort zone for QB Paul Smith. Jesse Meyer, Kyle Grooms and Nick Henderson will be some of the new names involved, and under the new coaches, watch for one to emerge and become a Conference USA star. Look for more passes to the running backs and tight ends early on. 
Spring attitude... Nothing changes. Graham's Rice team did all the little things right and won all the close games, and Malzahn will be coaching with something to prove after the way things didn't work out at Arkansas. There are some big holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but on talent, Tulsa will go back to a bowl and be in the thick of the Conference USA title race.

UTEP  Spring Practice Begins: March 22  Game: April 20
The early spring buzz ...
Just being respectable isn't good enough for Mike Price, who's teams have been tremendous disappointments over the last few seasons. He shook up the coaching staff by switching around some of the duties, while cranking up the off-season workout program hoping for a stronger, better conditioned team coming into this season.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any offensive linemen available? With all five starters returning, the O line is expected to be one of the team's top strengths after a subpar season. Unfortunately, three projected starters will be out this spring including emerging star tackle Tyler Ribitzki. Considering a replacement is needed for QB Jordan Palmer, and the running game has to get far better, the line needs all the practice time it can get.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Palmer might not have been the steadiest quarterback around, but he was a long-time starter who made the offense go. Expect a battle all off-season between Kyle Wright, Brandis Dew, Lorne Sam, and Trevor Vittatoe that won't be settled until opening day, so the more one can stand out this spring, the more the coaching staff will have to work with before summer drills.
Spring attitude... Time to win the title. There are some major concerns on both sides of the ball and major replacements needed, but there's still a lot of speed and athleticism. Now the team has to figure out how to focus for a full season and not collapse again over yet another second half. How does UTEP avoid that? Be in better shape, more focused, do all the little things right, and be much, much sharper.



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