2008 Spring Preview - The Sun Belt
Arkansas State QB Corey Leonard
Arkansas State QB Corey Leonard
Posted Mar 4, 2008

As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Sun Belt team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

Sun Belt Spring Football Previews

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2007 Sun Belt Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Sun Belt
2008 Sun Belt Insider Spring Questions & Answers

Arkansas State  Begins: Feb. 27  Game: April 5
The early spring buzz ... After winning the Sun Belt title a few years ago, the Indians took a step back with a strong team, going 5-7, and now the fear has to be that a window has shut. The rest of the league has improved, and with several big losses on both sides of the ball, this might turn into a rebuilding year unless several new recruits can fill in the gaps early on. Of course, one of the league's best teams for the last several seasons isn't just going to roll over, but there can't be any mistakes, and there have to be some big wins over the other top programs, which there weren't last year.
The big spring question is ...
How do you replace an NFL-caliber secondary? Tyrell Johnson and Khayyam Burns were special safeties, and the corner tandem of Darren Toney and Montis Harrison were excellent. What's most amazing was how the defensive backs produced without any form of a pass rush. The defensive front seven has to do a better job of getting into the backfield to help out the new DBs.
The most important position to watch is ... Besides defensive back, offensive guard. Four starters are gone off a good, but not great line that was strong for the running game and did nothing in pass protection. The line's best player, tackle Matt Mandich, is back, but that's it. This spring needs to be all about finding the right mix in the interior, while securing the right tackle spot by hoping Mark Clemons is ready.
Spring attitude... Reload ... quickly. Last year's team underachieved, and this year's needs to overachieve. There's too much talent to not finish in the top four, but that's hardly good enough for a program that can win the Sun Belt title for the second time in three years. As long as QB Corey Leonard is upright, and as long as RB Reggie Arnold, who played hurt last year, is rolling, and as long good replacements can be found on the O line and in the secondary, this team should be in the hunt all season long.

Florida Atlantic Begins: March 26  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... It's been well documented how the program was built by Howard Schnelleberger from scratch, and last year was the culmination of one of the most surprising and successful stories in college football history. Florida players are starting to take notice. No, FAU didn't exactly steal players away from Florida and Miami, but it beat out some bigger name programs for a few key recruits, like RB Xavier Stinson, and it's certainly on the radar for every mid-level player in the greater Miami area.
The big spring question is ... Will the defense get into the backfield ... ever? The defensive front is built on quickness and athleticism on the outside, but it almost never got to the quarterback and rarely made plays behind the line. That's the one main thing missing from a defense that was one of the best in the Sun Belt. Instead of giving up 31 points per game, if it can allow around 26, that would lead to another winning season.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Stinson probably won't see the field until 2009, but he might be thrown into the mix earlier than expected if Charles Pierre and William Rose don't start providing more of a punch. Everyone will be focusing on stopping Rusty Smith and the Owl passing game, so there will be plenty of opportunities to get the ground game working. Now a runner has to take advantage of the chance.
Spring attitude... Do it again. With ten starters returning on offense, not including dangerous receiver Frantz Simeon, who missed all of last year after not going to class, and eight starters returning on defense, the defending champions will have no real excuse not to go to another New Orleans Bowl. At least that's the attitude. Schnellenberger won't let his team shoot for anything lower.

Florida International  Begins: March 8  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Mario Cristobal was hired because of his ability to recruit the Miami area. Unfortunately, FIU had a hard time getting the mid-to-lower level talent with player after player getting snagged up by other programs. FIU got its share of decent talents, but it's not like Cristobal did anything special. Even so, the coaching staff is excited about the class and is pointing to the way the team started to improve at the end of the year as an indicator of where things are heading.
The big spring question is ... Can anyone actually play? Nine starters return on offense, with QB Wayne Younger returning from a collarbone injury, and eight coming back on defense, but where are the difference makers? This was a very young team in several areas, so the hope is for experience to turn into production, while needing some of the recruits, like DE James Jones and OT Cedrick Mack, to provide an upgrade.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. This was the nation's most inefficient passing team, so the competition for the starting quarterback job is still open. Younger is back along with Paul McCall, who saw time late last season, and tall sophomore Colt Anderson to see if anyone can throw the forward pass on a regular basis. It would help if a receiver or two emerged as a threat.
Spring attitude... "No one respects us." Everyone says it, but it's only really true about 6% of the time. This will be one of those cases with everyone almost certain to rank the Golden Panthers last in the preseason Sun Belt poll. Since the overall expectations are going to be low, any sort of success will be hailed. When you win one game in the last 23, there's nowhere to go but up.

Middle Tennessee  Begins: March 17  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Now the team is ready to turn the corner and get to a bowl game. Really. After years of being just on the outside of the Sun Belt top spot looking in, the Blue Raiders might finally be loaded enough to win the title and get to New Orleans. There were some growing pains last year and there are some major replacements needed on the defensive front, but Rick Stockstill and his staff have done a nice job of recruiting over the last few years and has put together a roster with as much speed as any in the league.
The big spring question is ... Is the run defense going to be any better? The line had two fantastic defenders in ends Tavares Jones and Erik Walden, and there was decent size in the linebacking corps and talent in the secondary, but the Blue Raiders was way too hard a time slowing down decent ground attacks allowing 200 yards per game. When the run D was on, like it was in a 24-7 win over Arkansas State, the team dominated. When it was off, like it was over the final three games when it allowed 999 yards to UL Monroe, UL Lafayette and Troy, the team struggled.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. You don't lose players like Jones and Walden and get better, but the defense is going to have to try to generate even more of a pass rush with junior Chris McCoy and sophomore Emmanuel Perez on the outside, and hope the tackles, Trevor Jenkins, Wes Hofacker, Dwight Smith and Derek Mason, can provide more of an interior push.
Spring attitude... It's now or it might be never. Middle Tennessee was the best team in the league by far in 2006, and then it choked late against Troy. It was one of the most talented teams in the league last year, and lost its final two games to finish 5-7. With the rest of the league getting better, Stockstill has to prove he can get the job done. It's going to be tougher than ever.

North Texas  Begins: March 6  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Yeah, North Texas went 2-10 and suffered the indignity of losing to FIU, but there was little question that this is becoming one scary program under head coach Todd Dodge. When his passing offense was working, it was REALLY working, but it couldn't make up for all the defensive issues. Welcome to the 2008 recruiting class. Dodge loaded up with new defensive talent, especially in the secondary, and if there can be just a little bit of improvement (things can't be any worse after finishing last in the nation in scoring D allowing 45 points per game), there will be an instant turnaround.
The big spring question is ...
Fine, so can any of these new defensive players actually play? New defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach will find out right away as everyone will get a shot for a starting spot; no job is safe. The run defense was the biggest problem, but the secondary received the most attention with nine defensive backs brought in led by James Hamilton, along with Dwaylon Cook and Jeremy Phillips, who might be moved elsewhere, like receiver and linebacker, respectively. JUCO transfer Alonzo Horton has to be the pass rushing end the team so desperately missed.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. You'd think the Mean Green would be set after spending most of last year allowing then-freshman Giovanni Vizza time to make mistakes, but he'll have to work to keep the gig with star recruit Riley Dodge, the son of the head coach who could've gone to Texas, the future of the offense and the one who'll get the fan base fired up. Athletic Willie Taylor is also a solid quarterback prospect who plans to be in the mix sooner than later. Whoever gets the job will be one of the nation's passing leaders.
Spring attitude... Spirited. With the league's best recruiting class instantly upgrading the talent level, and a hot head coach that's almost certain to be off to bigger and better things one there's the slightest bit of success, this should be the Sun Belt team to watch out for this spring. No one, no one will have any interest in playing against this offense now that it's had a year to get the pieces in place.

Troy    Begins: March 20  Game: April 29
The early spring buzz ... For those who thought the window might have closed on the Trojans' opportunity to go on a run of Sun Belt titles, with a slew of key personnel losses and the league getting better, the recruiting class quickly changed that. Considering the success the program has had of cranking out a few great pro prospects, like end Osi Umenyiora and corner Leodis McKelvin, getting defensive prospects to come to Troy isn't a problem. Head coach Larry Blakeney loaded up in the secondary with plenty of ready-made starters to go along with a stud DT, Tim Lamb, to ensure the drop-off likely won't come.
The big spring question is ... Considering all the major losses on defense and in the offensive backfield, and the loss of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin to Auburn, what can the team revolve around this spring? The O line. Helped a bit by having a mobile quarterback like Omar Haugabook, the Troy line was fantastic in pass protection while it did a great job for the running game. All five starters return up front along with all the backups, so there will be good competition for the backup jobs while the starting five, led by senior RT Dion Small, will be the best in the league.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Haugabook was the Sun Belt's best player over the last two years and won't be easily replaced. Ready to give it a try are Tanner Jones and Jamie Hampton, two backups who have the most upside, while juniors Levi Brown and Jonathan Chandler will each get looks. The real excitement will surround true freshman Corey Robinson from Kentucky, who set the national high school record for touchdown passes in a season with 91.
Spring attitude... Don't accept a slip. After the stunning home loss to Florida Atlantic to finish 8-4 with a snub from the bowls, it might be easy for the program to call this a rebuilding year with an eye to a huge 2009, when the team will be loaded. The talent level from top to bottom, even with the newcomers, is the best in the Sun Belt, and anything less than a trip to New Orleans will be unacceptable. At least that's what the coaching staff will be selling.

UL Lafayette     Begins: Feb. 22  Game: March 15
The early spring buzz ... It's now or never. After winning just three games with a young, young team, there has to be more wins and more hope or else this will likely be the last year of the Rickey Bustle era. The coaching staff had a few shakeups highlighted by offensive line coach Ron Hudson taking over the offensive coordinator duties from Blake Anderson, who left for Southern Miss, and now the pressure is on everyone from top to bottom to produce.
The big spring question is ... Is the defense going to show up? Everyone had their way with the Ragin' Cajuns, especially on the ground averaging 228 yards per game. In the Sun Belt, if you're not at least average against the run, you have no prayer of being in the race. Making matters worse is the loss of ends Greg Hathorn and Rodney Hardeway and tackle Korey Raymond off the line.
The most important position to watch is ... Left tackle. The defense stunk, so it's not like the production is going to be appreciably worse without three starters on the line and both corners. The offense has to continue to run the ball considering QB Michael Desormeaux just isn't a passer, and the line is in place to keep rolling ... except at the most key position. Jesse Newman is a fringe NFL prospect and a first team All-Sun Belt performer who'll be sorely missed, and now it's up to promising sophomore Nasser Jamal to show he can handle the work.
Spring attitude... Battle for every spot. Plenty of key starters are gone, but there are loaded of young backups who are ready to be in the mix for starting jobs. The key to every team trying to build is competition, and ULL will have it with several options to work with this spring on the D line, in the secondary, and at wide receiver. After going 3-9, major changes are necessary.

UL Monroe  Begins: Feb. 28  Game: March 15
The early spring buzz ... For the second straight season, the program rocked over the second half of the season only to end up falling short of a winning season. Beating Alabama, and finishing with five wins in the final six games, with the one loss coming in a 43-40 shootout against Middle Tennessee, has set the bar high with the coaching staff thinking this is the year the program finally turns the corner and wins the Sun Belt. Everything is there to do it.
The big spring question is ... Is Frank Goodin good enough to replace Calvin Dawson? The sophomore back is a quick runner who had a nice 2007 as the understudy, but for an offense that became so reliant on Dawson, this is still an issue. QB Kinsmon Lancaster, now a senior, has to do more in the passing game, especially on third downs. The offense was relatively balanced, and now there has to be more big plays down the field.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. The offensive line needs work and cornerback is an issue, but the league's best run defense has the biggest holes in the middle where 315-pound Kendal Mouton and All-Sun Belt second teamer David Cooper are gone along with backup Ricky Williams. DeMarcus Carmouche needs to be a star.
Spring attitude... It's time. Even with plenty of issues to deal with on both sides of the ball, the Warhawks are primed and ready for finally coming up with a winning season. There hasn't been one at the D-I level since 1980, and this team is more than good enough to finally make real noise. The team has been close, but hasn't been able to finish. There's enough talent to be the best team yet under head coach Charlie Weatherbie.