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2008 Early Conference USA Lookaheads
Southern Miss RB Damion Fletcher
Southern Miss RB Damion Fletcher
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Feb 15, 2008


Here's an early look-ahead at each Conference USA team with what needs working on and why to be excited and grouchy.

2008 C-USA Team Lookaheads

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

2007 Pages
2007 Conference USA Season | 2007 C-USA Lookbacks/Recaps
East  UAB | UCF | East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | Southern Miss
West  Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP

East

East Carolina
Why to get excited: Skip Holtz is still around. After a nice season, complete with a Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State, it wouldn't have been a shock if Holtz was gone to one of the bigger job openings that came up, but he's back, along with nine starters on defense and seven on offense. Outside of a clunker against Marshall, the ECU put up big points over the second half of the season, and the pieces are in place to keep up the pace.
Why to be grouchy: One of the most important cogs, RB Chris Johnson, is gone. The offense worked because it didn't turn the ball over, took advantage of almost every opportunity, and had a great running game. If Jonathan Williams, a bigger back than Johnson, or Dominique Lindsay can't be a bit of a workhorse, Conference USA's 11th ranked offense in total yards will have problems consistently cranking out drives.
The number one thing to work on is: Pass defense. Even with the benefit of a strong defensive line that generated plenty of pressure, and led the league in tackles for loss, the secondary was abysmal allowing 289 yards per game. Three starters are back, led by safeties FS Van Eskridge, and strong safeties J.J. Milbrook and Chris Mattocks, and they have to be far, far better.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Chris Johnson
Biggest defensive loss: LB Fred Wilson
Best returning offensive player: WR Jamar Bryant, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Zack Slate, Sr.

Marshall
Why to get excited: The Thundering Herd lost four games by a touchdown or less, and if it can get a little bit of a boost on defense, those close defeats could turn into wins. That boost comes in the form of Albert McClellan, the 2007 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year who went down just before the year began with a knee injury. With nine returning starters, the addition of a star pass rusher like McClellan should make a night-and-day difference. Nine starters are also back on defense.
Why to be grouchy: Is McClellan going to be 100%? The Herd was second-to-last in the nation in tackles for loss and 112th in sacks. A healthy McClellan changes all that in a hurry, but if he's taken away by good offensive blocking schemes, there's no one else ready to emerge and take over. Losing QB Bernard Morris shouldn't be a big hit, but it is.
The number one thing to work on is: Forcing turnovers. Nebraska was second-to-last in the nation in takeaways with 11. Marshall was on the bottom forcing a mere seven. The defense never helped out the O, and while it might not be a killer group coming back, it needs to be more disruptive and far, far better at getting off the field. The Thundering Herd was 111th in the nation in third down D allowing offenses to convert 47.6% of the time.
Biggest offensive loss: C Doug Legursky
Biggest defensive loss: DE Ryland Wilson
Best returning offensive player: TE Cody Slate, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Albert McClellan, Jr.

Memphis
Why to get excited: The Tigers came up with a winning season and went to a bowl despite getting nothing, absolutely nothing, from the defense. The offense carried things, and while QB Martin Hankins is gone, Will Hudgens and Matt Malouf can each throw, and T.J. Pitts isn't a bad back to work around. The receiving corps is loaded, the O line returns four starters from a group that finished tenth in the nation, and first in Conference USA, in sacks allowed.
Why to be grouchy: For good and bad, most of the defense is back. While getting eight starters back would normally be cause for excitement, there's a huge question mark about the talent. To make things worse, the one player who could play, LB Jake Kasser, is gone. Offensively, Hudgens can play, but Hankins was the star who made things go. Losing RB Joseph Doss isn't a plus.
The number one thing to work on is: Defense, defense and more defense. The line was a mega-disappointment generating no pass rush and getting shoved around against the run. The punting game could use a big boost after finishing last in the league, and 115th in the nation, averaging 31.13 yards per boot.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Martin Hankins
Biggest defensive loss: LB Jake Kasser
Best returning offensive player: WR Duke Calhoun, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: FS Brandon Patterson, Sr.

Southern Miss
Why to get excited: It's not like the program got bad under Jeff Bower, but it could use a little freshening up. Whether or not Larry Fedora will provide it is still a question, but at least there's a bit of new blood flowing through. With RB Damion Fletcher and TE Shawn Nelson back, the Golden Eagles have two of the most talented players in the conference,, while  the defense gets back enough good pieces in the back seven to hope for another decent year.
Why to be grouchy: And the starting quarterback will be ... ? With Jeremy Young and Stephen Reaves both gone, the quarterback battle will be topic one this spring. There are major, MAJOR losses on the lines losing Matthew Chatelain and Martavius Prince, both C-USA first teamers, off the defensive side, and Chris Clark and Nick Dean off the offensive side. There were be a little bit of a transitional period no matter how good Fedora is.
The number one thing to work on is: Upgrade the overall talent level. Southern Miss has always done a fantastic job of winning with average players, but Fedora and his staff are fighting hard to pluck some potential next-level prospects. Getting RB Desmon Johnson is a coup, and CB Marcal Robinson could quickly be a lock-down starter. The overall offense could stand to be steadier, especially in the passing game.
Biggest offensive loss: OGs Chris Clark & Nick Dean
Biggest defensive loss: DEs Martavius Prince & Matthew Chatelain
Best returning offensive player: RB Damion Fletcher, Jr.
Best returning defensive player:
LB Gerald McRath, Jr.

UAB
Why to get excited: 2007, head coach Neil Callaway's first year, was acknowledged as a transitional season, and now the hope is for a big jump in overall production with eight starters back on offense and eight returning on defense. Making things even better is the return of All-Conference USA PK Swayze Waters, who was also a solid punter.
Why to be grouchy: Yeah, last year might have been about getting from point A to point B, but the team got worse as the season went on with a six-game losing streak to close things out. There was only one win over an FBS team, Tulane, and the team was inconsistent and unproductive throughout. Most of the starters are back on offense, but replacing guard Adam Truitt and Jo Arnold, along with their backups, will be tough early on.
The number one thing to work on is: More production from the quarterbacks. The offense played around all year with the combination of Sam Hunt and Joseph Webb, and while there were plenty of passing yards, this was one of the most inefficient attacks in America. Hoping Webb, a starting receiver at the end of the year, and Anthony Speight can move the ball. Defensively, stopping the run is job one after finishing dead last in the country.
Biggest offensive loss: OGs Jo Arnold & Adam Truitt
Biggest defensive loss: FS Will Dunbar
Best returning offensive player: WR Frantrell Forrest, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: LB Joe Henderson, Sr.

UCF
Why to get excited: There are gaping holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but head coach George O'Leary and his staff have done a strong job recruiting over the last few years and have good reserves waiting in the wings. The secondary led the league in pass efficiency defense, and everyone is back including all-conference performers Joe Burnett and Sha'Reff Rashad. The defensive back seven might be the best in the league, but ...
Why to be grouchy: ... the early departure of 2,000-yard RB Kevin Smith takes away the offense. While the top receivers are back, QB Michael Greco has to emerge in place of Kyle Israel, and a back has to emerge to try to replace at least half of Smith's production. Taking away C Kyle Smith and OT Josh Sitton, two first-team all-stars, off the line is a killer, while three starters are gone off the defensive line including end Leger Douzable.
The number one thing to work on is: Balance. Smith isn't around to carry the entire attack, so Greco has to add more to the passing game, while Phillip Smith or true freshman LaTavius Murray has to get the running game going. The kicking game could use some help losing first-team All-Conference USA long snapper Michael Buscemi and decent PK Michael Torres.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Kevin Smith
Biggest defensive loss: DE Leger Douzable
Best returning offensive player: OT Patrick Brown, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: CB Joe Burnett, Sr.

West

Houston
Why to get excited: By getting Kevin Sumlin from Oklahoma, and Washington State, where he used to be an assistant, not picking him, the offense should continue to shine. The former Sooner offensive assistant will have a hard time keeping the O No. 4 in the nation, but there's no reason to think this can't be a possible Conference USA champion with a good quarterback situation in Case Keenum and Blake Joseph, while eight starters return to the league's best defense.
Why to be grouchy: Sumlin has to work out the kinks of being a first-time head coach. There will be an adjustment period. Just enough key players are gone off both sides of the ball, most notably RB Anthony Alridge, all the starting receivers, including Donnie Avery, and FS Rocky Schwartz.
The number one thing to work on is: Punting. Along with getting the new coaching staff in sync with the players, the special teams needs work with PK T.J. Lawrence gone alone with Avery and Perry McDaniel, who weren't awful returners. 6-4, 245-pound junior-to-be Chase Turner has to get more blast on his kicks after the team netted a mere 31.19 yards per punt.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Anthony Alridge & WR Donnie Avery
Biggest defensive loss: FS Rocky Schwartz
Best returning offensive player: QB Case Keenum, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: DE Phillip Hunt, Sr.

Rice
Why to get excited: It took a little while, but the offense got rolling, really rolling, in November as everything seemed to click at another level under head coach David Bailiff. Two starters are gone off the offensive line, and versatile receiver/runner/quarterback Joel Armstrong graduates, but the key parts are back including QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard. The passing attack should be among the most productive in the league, but that's partly because ...
Why to be grouchy: ... the Owls, like last year, will always be in shootouts. The pass defense was the worst in America allowing 312 yards per game, and now two starters have to be replaced including SS Aubrey White. This isn't a program that can afford to lose good, big bodied players on the D line, and it'll be hard to replace tackles George Chukwu and Jonathan Cary.
The number one thing to work on is: Coming up with a stop against any passer with a pulse. The Owl D got a little bit of a pass rush and did a decent job of getting into the backfield, but it never seemed to matter; the corners never came up with a play. Ball control from the offense didn't matter since teams struck quickly when they needed to. Defensive talent will always be an issue, but if it can force a few turnovers and make a couple of stops on third downs, the offense should be able to pick up the slack.
Biggest offensive loss: OG Robbie Heos
Biggest defensive loss: DT George Chukwu
Best returning offensive player: QB Chase Clement, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Brian Raines, Sr.

SMU
Why to get excited: June Jones, June Jones, June Jones. Get ready for high-octane fun and excitement as the Jones passing attack will help put the Mustangs on the map. Best of all, many of the pieces are already in place with QB Justin Willis accurate and talented, and most of the starting receivers coming back off a not-that-bad passing attack. Thomas Morstead should once again be one of the nation's best punters. The defense might have stunk, but it was very young up front.
Why to be grouchy: The defense has a long, long way to go. It was a mega-disappointment that got worse as the year went on, and the D will need time to be more productive against all the high-powered Conference USA offenses. Three starters are gone off the offensive line meaning the transition into a higher-octane passing attack could take a little while to come together. The pass protection wasn't there last year and Willis survived ... but barely.
The number one thing to work on is: Willis. He doesn't have a big-time arm, but he can be accurate and he's a good runner. The faster he gets it, and the faster he handles what Jones will throw at him, the faster SMU will be productive. The secondary could use a big boost in production after struggling against everyone from start to finish. The program might have been in a transition late in the year, but Jones still has to deal with a D that allowed 147 points over its final three games.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Zack Sledge
Biggest defensive loss: LB Wilton McCray
Best returning offensive player: QB Justin Willis, Jr.
Best returning defensive player:
LB Will Bonilla, Sr.

Tulane
Why to get excited: It's the second year under head coach Bob Toledo after finishing off relatively strong winning two of the final three games. The team was extremely close to pulling off a nice season (instead of finishing 4-8) with an overtime loss to Army and close losses to UAB and Memphis. Nine starters return on offense while seven are back on a D that led the league against the run. However ...
Why to be grouchy: ... the losses are huge. The offense was all about 2,000-yard back Matt Forte, while defensive tackles Antonio Harris and Avery Williams were blocks of granite who'll be sorely missed. The secondary was awful, and it's not going to help losing CB Carlis Jackson and SS Joe Goosby.
The number one thing to work on is: Getting better play out of the secondary. The Green Wave had a fantastic pass rush, but it didn't matter; the defensive backs still got lit up like a Christmas tree. In the pass happy Conference USA, the pass defense has to be a strength. More help in one of the nation's worst all-around return games would be nice. Tulane averaged a mere 4.39 yards per punt return and 18.34 yards per kickoff return.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Matt Forte
Biggest defensive loss: DT Antonio Harris
Best returning offensive player: WR Jeremy Williams, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Evan Lee, Sr.

Tulsa
Why to get excited: Does anyone realize it was Tulsa, not Texas Tech or Hawaii, who had the nation's best offense? The Golden Hurricane averaged a ridiculous 544 yards and 41 points per game, and head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn are still around, along with eight offensive starters. Most of the key skill position players are in place to expect another huge season, but ...
Why to be grouchy: ... can QB Paul Smith be replaced? The star triggerman meant everything to the offense, and now it'll be up to David Johnson, or a newcomer, to keep the momentum going. The defense was abysmal overall, and now it has to replace tackling machines Chris Chamberlain, Alain Karatepeyan and Nelson Coleman from the linebacking corps. Tulsa is still lucky enough to be in the easier of the two divisions, but it'll likely take a step back with all the big losses on defense.
The number one thing to work on is: Figuring out if Jacob Bower can be the man. Johnson was the backup behind Smith, but Bower, a top JUCO transfer who originally started at BYU and turned down several decent passing schools might be the answer. Of course, after last year, it's all about boosting up a defense that gave up points and yards in bunches. It shut down Houston and Bowling Green in two of the key games of the year, but got torched by everyone else.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Paul Smith
Biggest defensive loss: LBs
Chris Chamberlain, Alain Karatepeyan and Nelson Coleman
Best returning offensive player: WR Trae Johnson, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: DE Moton Hopkins, Sr.

UTEP
Why to get excited: As ugly as things might have gotten over the second half of the season, there were still a few good offensive signs to expect things to be better this season under QB Trevor Vittatoe. Vittatoe didn't lead the way to wins, but he put up big numbers with 290 yards or more in six of his final seven games with 25 total touchdown passes and a mere seven picks. He appears to be a good one to revolve the program around for the next few years.
Why to be grouchy: Eight starters are back. That might sound like a positive, but the D was 117th in the nation last year allowing 505 yards and 37 points per game. Fine, so getting a ton of experience back isn't that bad, but losing three of the top layers, linebackers Jeremy Jones and Torrey Huckaby, and corner Quintin Demps, will be felt.
The number one thing to work on is: Generating a pass rush. The secondary had a nightmare of a time against anyone who could throw the forward pass with the biggest problem coming on the defensive front seven that generated a mere 16 sacks. The offense might be good enough to play in some shootouts, but the D still has to be better.
Biggest offensive loss: RB Marcus Thomas
Biggest defensive loss: CB Quintin Demps
Best returning offensive player: WR Jeff Moturi, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: FS Braxton Amy, Jr.