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2006 C-USA Spring Lookaheads

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Feb 25, 2006


Lookaheads, top position battles, what to look for and more for all the Conference USA teams before 2006 spring practice.


By Pete Fiutak 

East Division
East Carolina
    Spring practice starts March 2, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Can the Pirates figure out how to put points on the board? Skip Holtz's attack will have few problems moving the ball, but the offense that averaged close to 400 yards per game last year only averaged 24 points per outing. The light went on at the end of the year with 65 combined points against Marshall and UAB, but the failures against UCF and Tulsa killed bowl hopes. With all the top skill players back, 30+ points per game is a must.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Especially on the right side. 330-pound center Gary Freeman is gone, as is right guard Chris Sellers and right tackle Guy Whimper. Step one this spring will be to jockey around the lineup to make the pieces fit to find some cohesion going into the summer.
Spring attitude... Time to take another step. Holtz halted the free-fall in his first season, and now it's time to make ECU a Conference USA power again. Big strides need to be made on the run defense, and the offense needs to tighten up and be more consistent, but the talent is there to be in the hunt for the East title. If last year's team can go 5-6, this year's team can go at least 7-5 with a bowl bid.

Marshall    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Whatever happened to the Marshall offense? The days of Pennington, Moss and Leftwich are long gone with the Herd finishing dead last in the league in scoring averaging a mere 18.55 points per game and only 16.8 against D-I teams. Under head coach Mark Snyder, the defense will always be fine, but the offense needs to be more explosive and far more consistent. That begins with settling on a starting quarterback, something the coaching staff wasn't able to do last year.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back. The back seven needs some attending to losing five starters, but the biggest loss is in the secondary with three starters gone from the league's best pass defense that finished the year 12th in the nation allowing a mere 178 yards per game. Finding a few shut down corners this spring would go a long way to settling down the D going into the summer.
Spring attitude... It might not take that much to be a contender. The Herd won its share of close games last year beating SMU, UAB and Tulane by a total of five points, but there was also a two-point, self-inflicted loss to Kansas State, and overtime loss to Southern Miss and a 34-29 home loss to East Carolina. A few good bounces the right way and a winning season and bowl bid are possible. The team needs to use this spring to make its own breaks.

Memphis    Spring practice starts March 14, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Can the momentum continue? With three straight winning seasons and three straight bowl appearances, this could be considered the best stretch ever in Memphis football history. After all the adversity with the quarterback situation last year, the program has to feel like it can overcome anything. However, the East is stronger this year and the team will have to get over the loss of star RB DeAngelo Williams.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Maurice Avery saved the season with the move from receiver to quarterback, but he's gone now. Will Hudgens and Patrick Byrne, who both got knocked out for the year with broken legs, are expected to be back in time for spring ball with one of them needing to shine early on. The ground game will be in good hands with Joseph Doss a speedy back good enough to ease the loss of Williams, but the passing game has to do more than 130 yards per game.
Spring attitude... Win the conference title. There are big holes to fill, but the program is in a position, and the schedule is favorable enough, to finally get over the hump and play for the championship. With Southern Miss and UCF coming to Memphis, and the road games spread out, the team might never get a better chance. However, it's not going to happen unless the defense patches things up right away on the front six and the offense becomes more diverse.

Southern Miss    Spring practice starts March 10, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Can Southern Miss get back to having a Southern Miss-like defense? To win the Conference USA title, the Golden Eagles need more production on both sides of the ball. The D allowed close to 400 yards per game, but while it bent, it didn't break much with the league's best scoring defense. The secondary has to be much tighter, and the run defense has to make more plays at the point of attack.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. USM always seems able to plug in the holes on defense, but the offense has always been a problem. Eight starters return, but the big loss is at quarterback where long-time starter Dustin Almond is gone after playing in 46 games. Jeremy Young isn't starting from scratch after seeing time in 2004, but he wasn't all that great completing 18 of 46 passes for 213 yards and two interceptions. However, he adds a rushing element that Almond never had.
Spring attitude... Anyone, anywhere, any time is nice, but taking care of business is the first priority. Southern Miss has always prided itself on being a nasty out against the big boys, but winning the Conference USA title has to be the main goal. That might be hard to focus on with the season opener at Florida and a home date with NC State on September 16th. Playing 2005 title game combatants UCF and Tulsa on the road in the first two conference games means the Golden Eagles had better be rolling right away.

UAB   
The big spring question is ... Can UAB figure out how to win all the games it's supposed to? There were wins over UTEP and Memphis last year, but there was also a stunning loss to SMU along with the bowl-eligibility killing loss to East Carolina to close out the regular season. There won't be heart-and-soul QB Darrell Hackney to count on anymore, so it'll be up to the veterans to provide some stability and consistency throughout the season. That means new leaders have to emerge this spring.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. Along with seeing if Chris Williams can take Hackney's place at quarterback, the Blazers have to find replacements for Sam Williamson and Ernest Respress on the defensive interior. They were the key cogs in the run defense, and now Sam Kendrick and Clarence Respress have to take over.
Spring attitude... Win the East. Even without Hackney, there are enough returning talent on both sides of the ball to hope for a bounce-back season and a bowl bid. With 14 starters coming back and kicker/punter Parker Mullins, there's no reason the division title can't be there for the taking going into season-ending road trips to Southern Miss and UCF.

UCF    Spring practice starts March 22, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... How will the team use the heartbreaking Hawaii Bowl loss to Nevada? Considering the winless 2004 season, there can't be too much hand wringing over losing the Conference USA title game and a bowl game on a missed kick. Those disappointments should be turned into positives for this young and very experienced team. The coaching staff has more than enough motivation to use all off-season.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. Everyone else returns on both sides of the ball, so it'll be all about improving and tweaking in most areas. However, the line loses two key players in pass rushing terror Paul Carrington and strong tackle Friser Nelson. 320-pound tackle Bryan Gabourel has to play more of a role, and Chris Welsh and Kareem Reid have to replace Carrington's nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
Spring attitude... Anything less than a Conference USA title will be a disappointment. With 17 starters and punter Aaron Horne returning, the foundation is there to improve on last year's fantastic season. With Southern Miss the first Conference game followed up by a road trip to Marshall, the Golden Knights won't be able to afford an early slip.

West Division
Houston
    Spring practice starts March 8, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... After three years under Art Briles, is Houston finally in a position to challenge for the Conference USA title? Thanks to the return of QB Kevin Kolb, the offense should still be explosive. The defense wasn't a prize last year, but just about everyone comes back meaning there's hope the experience turns into production. Briles has done a great job making the program relevant, and now it's time to take the next step.
The most important position to watch is ... Receiver. Vincent Marshall's 71 catches, 939 yards and six touchdowns makes for a big return, but the Cougars lose dependable target Kendal Briles and his 45 grabs, 369 yards and a score. Donnie Avery is a solid deep threat who has to become a top number two target, and Anthony Alridge has to play more of a role. If they can all come through, Kolb should have a monster year.
Spring attitude... Every close game has to belong to Houston. Five Cougar games were decided by a touchdown or less with Houston winning two of them. There can't be any home losses like the ones to Memphis and SMU with the Cougars needing to own Robertson Stadium with UTEP, UCF and Tulsa coming to town during a pivotal three-game stretch. Everything is in place to win, so the attitude has to be Conference USA title or bust.

Rice    Spring practice starts March 1, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... How many square pegs can fit into the round holes? Rice has been such a one-dimensional team for such a long time, it's not going to be easy for Todd Graham and the new coaching staff to hit the ground running, so to speak. It'll take all spring to do the proper talent evaluation to come up with the right skill players for the right spots. There's a lot of work to be done.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. With the changes in the coaching staff and the move to more of a passing game, does Rice have a quarterback who can throw? The nation's worst passing team last year has three quarterbacks in the mix with Joel Armstrong, Chase Clement and John Shepherd all getting chances to show what they can do. Expect Armstrong to eventually switch positions, but someone has to emerge this spring.
Spring attitude... Patience. Conference USA has more teams with returning experience than just about any other conference, so there might be some big-time lumps taken. There might be plenty of returning starters for the Owls, but seven road games and early home dates against Houston and Texas will make for a tough year. That's fine; Rice isn't going bowling. There are so many young players that this year has to be used as a stepping stone to 2007.

SMU      Spring practice starts March 3, Spring Game April 8
The big spring question is ... Can SMU stop being so flaky? How could a team that lost to Texas A&M 66-8 and a nomadic Tulane team 31-10 also beat TCU, Houston and UTEP? Had the Mustangs been able to pull out an overtime win over Marshall, they would've been bowl eligible. Things are definitely on the upswing for Phil Bennett's club, but consistency has to be the key. 
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. The quarterback situation will eventually be fine with Chris Philips good enough to handle the job, but the defense has to maintain the relatively high standard it set last year when it finished second in the league against the run and in the top half in most of the other categories. Safety/linebacker Alvin Nnabuife was a top playmaker who'll be sorely missed on the strongside, while Reggie Carrington has to prove he can replace the man in the middle, D.D. Lee.
Spring attitude... Build on the three game winning streak that ended 2005. Not only did SMU win it final three games, it beat bowl bound Houston and UTEP teams. There was even a great battle with eventual Conference USA champions Tulsa before the streak. In other words, the program has taken a big leap forward to become more competitive. Now the extra step needs to be taken to become bowl eligible. The team has to have that sort of positive attitude from day one.

Tulane   
The big spring question is ... Can Lester Ricard be Lester Ricard again? Scott Elliott took over the starting quarterback job late last year, but he wasn't fantastic. Nick Cannon has talent, but the job has to be Ricard's, who has to regain the form he had pre-injury in 2004. He struggled with his accuracy all year and couldn't keep the offense moving. The 6-5, 222-pound junior has NFL skills, but he has to play up to his talent.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker and defensive back. The run D was one of the worst in the country last year, but it doesn't help to lose six members of the defensive back seven including all three starting linebackers. Long-time man in the middle Anthony Cannon hurts the most, but the losses in the secondary will really sting with Houston's passing attack coming up in the opener.
Spring attitude... It can't be any worse than last year. Has any team ever had to deal with more bizarre off-the-field adversity than Tulane did in the aftermath of Katrina? With an 11-game road trip and with all the concerns about home and real life issues, Tulane can be forgiven for going 2-9 and falling apart over the final eight games. However, this is a talented team that won't want to use any excuses this season. There's no reason the offense can't be among the best in the league.

Tulsa    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Can the team be that solid again? Where was the weakness last year? The Golden Hurricane was strong in every area with the league's best scoring offense, one of the league's best pass defenses, and finished fourth in the nation in turnover margin. The team has to focus on doing all the little things right again; that shouldn't be a problem with this coaching staff.
The most important position to watch is ... Receiver. Tight ends who catch 87 passes for 1,235 yards and nine touchdowns don't come around Tulsa every year. Garrett Mills will be the biggest loss, while kick returner/receiver Ashlan Davis and his 35 catches for 451 yards and five scores will also be missed. It doesn't help that former RB Uril Parrish was the team's third leading receiver. Tarrion Adams and Idris Moss have to establish themselves as top targets early on this spring.
Spring attitude... Be prepared for every team's best shot. Tulsa has to realize it'll have a bull's-eye on its back in every league game and can't afford to take a week off. The title season might have been a shocker, but the team really was good as evidenced by the bowl win over Fresno State. There's hope for a repeat performance with the lines returning virtually intact and QB Paul Smith a good leader.

UTEP  
The big spring question is ... Can the team live up to expectations? Considering where the program was a few years ago, it's strange to say a year could be a disappointment, but the losses to UAB and SMU to blow a chance at playing for the Conference USA title and the ugly blowout loss to Toledo in the GMAC Bowl put a sour note on an otherwise good season. With 14 returning starters including QB Jordan Palmer, the team has to start playing well week-in-and-week-out.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. The skill positions will be fine, and there isn't one big area of loss on the defense, so the only real concern will be to improve the offensive line. Three starters return from the GMAC Bowl team, but left tackle Josh House and 320-pound left guard Jose Garcia are gone. Depth will be important to develop on the right side losing the two main backups.
Spring attitude... Tighten up. UTEP has the firepower to be the favorite to win the title, but the turnovers were appalling giving away a whopping 34 last year. It starts with Palmer, who couldn't stop giving the ball away over the final few games with eight interceptions in his final three games and 19 thrown picks on the year. If he cuts his turnovers in half, UTEP will be much better.