Sun Belt Spring Football Previews
2007 Sun Belt Spring Analysis
Early Lookaheads -
2008 Sun Belt Insider Spring
Questions & Answers
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.