2008 Spring Preview - Conference USA
UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe
UTEP QB Trevor Vittatoe
Posted Mar 7, 2008

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

Spring Preview 2008

Conference USA Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 
- 2007 Conference USA Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Conference USA
2008 Conference USA Insider Spring Questions & Answers


East Carolina   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Back-to-back winning seasons and bowl invitations have the Pirates approaching their glory days when they were a perennial mid-major powerhouse under Steve Logan.  It’s that success, capped by a stunning upset of Boise State in last December’s Hawaii Bowl, that has East Carolina fans grateful that Skip Holtz will be back on the sidelines in Greenville.  Even without do-it-all star RB Chris Johnson, the program has enough returning talent and an air of confidence that this is the season it breaks through with a division crown and a spot in the Conference USA title game.
The big spring question is ... Can Johnson be replaced?  As good as he was running the ball as a senior, Johnson may be missed more as a kickoff returner and a receiver out of the backfield.  The Pirates are actually well-stocked in the backfield, returning letterwinners Dominique Lindsay, Jonathan Williams, Norman Whitley, and Brandon Simmons this fall.  The future star is Williams, a 6-1, 210-pounder that averaged almost seven yards a carry in limited action as a true freshman last year
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. While the Pirates are in good shape at safety, it’s a different story at cornerback, where the program lacks any true stoppers.  East Carolina returns four players with starting experience, but that’s from a unit that was 114th in pass defense a year ago, so someone needs to really step up his game in the spring and summer.  Hope can be found in Derek Blacknall and Emanuel Davis, a couple of redshirt freshmen with an opportunity to make a quick ascent up the depth chart.
Spring attitude... Get over the hump.  The Pirates squandered a chance to win the East Division late last year, which will haunt them until they can make amends in 2008.  The return of both primary quarterbacks, Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney, and one of the league’s deepest defensive lines should signal no worse than a third consecutive December bowl game.   

Marshall  Spring Practice Begins: April 1  Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... After just 12 wins over the last three years, there’s a noticeable sense of urgency for the Herd and head coach Mark Snyder to win right now.  Snyder has brought in new coordinators for each side of the ball and an uncharacteristic seven junior college transfers to help ignite a program that started 0-7 a year ago and hasn’t had a winning season since 2003.  A young program the last couple of years, Marshall returns a ton of regulars in 2008, including star DE Albert McClellan, who missed all of last season with torn knee ligaments.
The big spring question is ... Who replaces Bernard Morris at quarterback?  New offensive coordinator John Shannon performed magic at Toledo, but will need more consistency behind center to do the same thing in Huntington.  There’ll be a logjam and no shortage of talent in the early going, with Georgia Tech transfer Jonathan Garner, redshirt freshmen Chris Smith and Mark Cann, and last year’s backups, Brian Anderson and Wesley Beardain, jostling for position on the depth chart.
The most important position to watch is ... Middle linebacker.  Starter Josh Johnson left the program with a year of eligibility remaining, and his primary backup, Will Albin, was a senior in 2007.  One option for new defensive coordinator Rick Minter will be to permanently shift Maurice Kitchens inside, a move he made often when Johnson was out of the lineup last season.  Kitchens had 90 tackles and four sacks as a junior, showing good versatility when asked to play out of position.
Spring attitude... It’s now or never for Snyder and the Herd, which finally have the depth and experience to make a strong push for a winning season in 2008.  While McClellan’s return will give an enormous lift to the defense, the offense needs to develop a steady quarterback that can deliver passes to top pass-catchers, WR Darius Passmore and TE Cody Slate.

Memphis  Spring Practice Begins: March 18  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Although it was nice getting back to the postseason and winning seven games, head coach Tommy West realizes that Memphis isn’t going to contend for a league championship until it toughens up on defense.  The unit has been brutal the last two years, responding poorly to coaching changes and forcing the offense to air it out more than the staff would like.  West has changed coordinators again, hiring former Miami assistant Tim Walton, who was offered this job following the 2006 campaign.  He inherits a defense that has potential up front, but needs an overhaul in the back seven.
The big spring question is ... Who takes over for Martin Hankins at quarterback?  Hankins was underappreciated at Memphis, throwing 43 touchdowns the last two seasons, and won’t be easily replaced.  Since the strength of this team is at wide receiver, the staff needs to uncover the best passer to distribute them the ball.  Senior Will Hudgens has, by far, the most experience, and sophomore Matt Malouf brings an interesting blend of run and pass.  The wild card, however, is JUCO transfer Arkelon Hall, a former Washington State signee and one of the highest-rated prep quarterbacks of 2005.  
The most important position to watch is ... Running back.  Ever since DeAngelo Williams graduated, the running game has been almost non-existent for the Tigers.  That must change in 2008, especially with a new hurler barking out signals.  Joseph Doss had his moments, but now that he’s gone, one of the juniors, either Miguel Barnes or T.J. Pitts, needs to run with the authority of an every down back in order to take a little heat off the passing game.
Spring attitude... Last year’s unexpected turnaround was a big boost to a program that had reached a crossroads.  The Tigers only lost 14 seniors from that team, returning enough depth and experience to be right back in the hunt for a mid-level postseason game.  Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton head a receiving corps that brings back last year’s top seven producers, promising news for whichever quarterback gets the nod in August.

Southern Miss  Spring Practice Begins: March 18  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Few schools in the nation will be undergoing a bigger philosophical overhaul than Southern Miss, which has replaced the tortoise, Jeff Bower, with the hare, Larry Fedora.  Bower was a pillar of consistency in Hattiesburg, but Fedora brings a new energy and a 21st century offensive attack that has already caught the eye of top recruits, such as WR DeAndre Brown, who spurned most of the SEC to play for the Eagles.  The program’s 15 practices and spring game will be the first opportunity to see why Fedora gets labeled one of the best offensive minds in the sport.
The big spring question is ... Is there a quarterback capable of running Fedora’s offense this soon?  The coach’s spread attack won’t abandon the run, especially with RB Damion Fletcher on the roster, but it will lean more heavily on one-back formations and no-huddle sets.  Fedora plans to attack relentlessly, but may have to do so with unproven Martevious Young calling signals.  The graduations of Jeremy Young and Stephen Reaves mean the sophomore is the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line.  Until the offense becomes prolific, Southern Miss will still need lots of help from its defense and running attack to win games.  The weakest link of the defense figures to be the defensive line, which loses all four starters, two of which were names First Team All-Conference USA in 2007.  The pressure is on untested underclassmen, such as ends Roshaad Byrd and Deddrick Jones, and tackle Anthony Gray, to soar past expectations.
Spring attitude... For the first time in years, there’s a feeling of rebirth surrounding the Southern Miss program.  How long that lasts will depend on the play of Young and the rest of the quarterbacks, who hold the key to the Golden Eagles’ success.  It’s too much to expect any of the passers to be Zac Robinson right out of the gate, so USM is unlikely to be playing in the Liberty Bowl this December.

UAB  Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Now that the storm of last season has passed, Neil Callaway can move on to the next phase of his rebuilding process in Birmingham.  The Blazers were too young and inexperienced to compete effectively in 2007, winning just two games and slipping as the season progressed.  All of that youth, however, is now a year older, and Callaway padded his last recruiting class with 11 junior college players that should be able to contribute right away.  It may not show up in the final standings, but UAB figures to be in a better position to hold its ground this year versus the rest of the league.
The big spring question is ...
Can the Blazers develop a running game? Last year’s team ranked last in the league on the ground, a major concern for Callaway, who’d like to develop a presence between the tackles.  Hope, however, comes in the form of four returning starters along the offensive line and the availability of RB Aaron Johns, an academic casualty a year ago that’s working his way back to the field.  An Alabama transfer, he has far more upside than any UAB back currently on the roster.
The most important position to watch is ...
Defensive line.  The UAB defense fell apart in the second half of last season, largely because of a lack of a pass rush.  The Blazers had just five sacks over the final six games, allowing an average of 40 points and going 0-6.  It’s incumbent on the young kids, such as ends Joe Happe and Bryant Turner, to continue getting stronger while evolving into more consistent edge rushers.
Spring attitude... The Blazers understand that their rebuilding blueprint won’t happen overnight, so this spring is about creating momentum and a positive atmosphere, while weaving some of the JUCO transfers into the two-deep.  With QB Sam Hunt out of eligibility, Joseph Webb has a chance to lock down the starting job and emerge into one of the team leaders.

UCF   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Yeah, star RB Kevin Smith’s decision to leave early for the NFL pulled the rug out from under the Knights, but in the big picture, it doesn’t change where the program is headed.  Although the backfield will need to be retooled, the facilities are still top-notch, the coaching staff is terrific, and the campus location bodes well for recruiting for the foreseeable future.  In other words, UCF remains one of the favorites to repeat as Conference USA champ after winning 10 games and solidifying its foundation a year ago.
The big spring question is ...
Can this defense carry the offense in the early stages of the season?  It might have to, considering the departures of Smith, QB Kyle Israel, and the team’s two best offensive linemen.  The defense returns nine starters, 10 if you count LB Jordan Richards, who was slated to start before suffering a season-ending injury.  The Knights have done a nice job recruiting defensive speed in recent years, and got a huge break when all-league corner Joe Burnett passed on the NFL to return for his senior season.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback.  How well Phillip Smith is able to replace Kevin Smith in the running game will depend plenty on the play of the new quarterback.  The Knights must get more from a passing game that was last in the league and 105th nationally a season ago.  The battle will focus on sophomore Joe Weatherford, brother of Florida State’s Drew Weatherford, and junior Michael Greco, a 220-pound dual threat that conjures up images of a poor man’s Tim Tebow.
Spring attitude... Maintain.  In recent years, UCF has been wildly unpredictable; a trend the school hopes to end in 2008.  If the Knights can find answers in the backfield and continue the defensive momentum they had at the end of last season, there’s no reason they won’t be right back in the thick of the Conference USA hunt later this year.


Houston  Spring Practice Begins: March 8  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Although Art Briles is at Baylor, and the dynamic duo of RB Anthony Alridge and WR Donnie Avery are preparing for the NFL, the Cougars remain a team with an explosive offensive personality.  New head coach Kevin Sumlin was previously the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.  His first offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, plans to remake the Houston attack in the image of the one he just left at Texas Tech, spreading the field and airing it out.  And with both of last year’s starting quarterbacks, Case Keenum and Blake Joseph, returning, the Cougar offense may not slip as much as conventional wisdom is suggesting.
The big spring question is ... Will Sumlin embrace the two-quarterback system the way Briles did in 2007? While each quarterback is now experienced and offers a different set of strengths, the new staff is more likely to anoint one player, and build the offense around him.  Although Joseph has the stronger arm, Keenum is more accurate on the intermediate routes and moves well outside the pocket, making him a real nice fit for Holgorsen’s spread offense.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver.  Not only is Avery out of eligibility, but so is Jeron Harvey, last year’s second-leading receiver.  If the offense is going to click, Keenum and Joseph will need reliable sets of hands, putting pressure on last season’s backups, such as L.J. Castile, Tim Monroe, and Chris Gilbert, to step up and seize starting jobs.  The Cougars have recruited well at the position in recent years, which should start to bear fruit in 2008.
Spring attitude... In two years, the Cougars have lost franchise QB Kevin Kolb and architect Briles, but they’re still planning on maintaining the success of the past couple of seasons.  In a wide open West Division, the offense will birth new stats hounds in the passing game, and the defense has enough talent up front to make a seamless switch to a 4-3 base alignment.

Rice  Spring Practice Begins: March 10  Game: March 29
The early spring buzz ... While the return of QB Chase Clement and receivers Jarett Dillard, Toren Dixon, and James Casey mean the Owls will again fly high on offense, they need more to compete in Conference USA.  More from the defense, more from the running game, and a whole lot more from the special teams.  Rice never found its footing last year, sinking back to reality after being the league’s feel-good story of 2006.  Head coach David Bailiff is back for his second season in Houston, determined to make the Owls more than a one-dimensional outfit that relies exclusively on Clement’s ability to make plays with his arm and feet.
The big spring question is ... Is there any hope for the defense?  Last year’s unit returns virtually intact, but that was a group which yielded at least 34 points in 10 of the last 11 games, and allowed a ridiculous 37 touchdown passes.  Some progress must be made on this side of the ball if the Owls have any hope of improving on last year’s three wins.  Building blocks can be found in junior S Andrew Sendejo, sophomore DE Scott Solomon, and an undersized, yet productive, set of linebackers.
The most important position to watch is ... The defensive line.  It all starts up front for a Rice defense that isn’t all that bad at the second and third levels.  Up front, however, the Owls have problems stopping opposing running games and generating pressure without selling out.  Last year’s front four accounted for just seven sacks, and moves on without starting tackles George Chukwu and Jonathan Cary, making depth on the inside a touchy subject.
Spring attitude...
After playing its best football of the season in November, Rice is hoping to build on last year’s 2-2 finish.  With the passing game in capable hands, the Owl staff will spend the next six months trying to revamp every other area of the program in an effort to make the school more competitive on Saturdays. 

SMU   Spring Practice Begins: March 3  Game: April 5
The early spring buzz ... The firing of Phil Bennett and eventual hiring of June Jones on the Hilltop creates a change of culture for Mustang players.  Not only will they be adapting to new playbooks and terminology on both sides of the ball, but they’ll also have to get used to more media attention.  With Jones comes the high-powered Run and Shoot attack and an increase in attention at a school that hasn’t produced this many football headlines since getting hit with the NCAA death penalty two decades ago.  SMU needs a system, or a blueprint, of how to rebuild a program, which is exactly what Jones is capable of delivering.
The big spring question is ... How long before SMU looks like Hawaii? The bigger question will be at quarterback, where Justin Willis, who has the talent and potential to blow up in the new offense, has been suspended indefinitely from the team for the dreaded “violation of team rules.” Willis doesn’t have a howitzer, but then again, that hasn’t been a prerequisite for success for Jones’ pupils.  The junior understands the game well, has a good pocket presence, and throws a catchable ball, which would be ingredients for a solid season in year one under Jones … if he’s back on the team. For now, the Mustangs have to go forward with Zach Rhodes, Logan Turner, Michael Morse and Daniel Miller until true freshmen Bo Levi Mitchell, who was going to Hawaii until Jones changed jobs, and Braden Smith get to school.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver.  In this offense, you need capable receivers.  Lots of them.  Junior Emmanuel Sanders is a real nice start, but the Mustangs need quantity to go along with quality.  Expect Jones to remain open to all possibilities in his first year, including playing true freshmen and converting certain running backs and defensive backs that show a propensity for catching passes.
Spring attitude... There’s a rare air of excitement surrounding the SMU program that’s directly related to the arrival of Jones.  He brings a positive attitude, a history of success, and a fancy offense to a school that’s been pining for years for good news.  While the defense will remain a liability, the offense will eventually get to a point where it keeps the Mustangs competitive in league games that were blowouts a year ago.  In lieu of a miracle, SMU will win a few more games than it did in 2007.

Tulane  Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... With 2,000-yard rusher Matt Forte off to the NFL, second-year head coach Bob Toledo needs to concoct ways to keep his players and fans thinking positive this spring.  It won’t be easy.  Forte was the franchise, the quarterback situation is unsettled, and defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer left in January after doing a nice job in 2007.  Toledo wouldn’t mind opening the passing game this fall, but Anthony Scelfo, Scott Elliott, and Kevin Moore did little to instill confidence last season, combining for just 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.  Maybe 2007 recruit Joe Kemp can push for the job in April, now that’ll he’s removing his redshirt.
The big spring question is ... Who carries the load on the ground? Not only is Forte out of eligibility, but so are two of his primary backups, Ade Tuyo and Ray Boudreaux.  Junior Andre Anderson will compete with sophomores Andre Agers and J.T. McDonald for the right to run behind the underrated guard tandem of seniors Troy Kropog and Michael Parenton.  Even sophomore FB Jordan Stephany could get a chance for touches if no one seizes the job before the start of the season.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback.  There’s no longer any guarantee that the Green Wave will be able to run the ball, putting a ton pressure on one of the quarterbacks to emerge as a passing threat.  Scelfo got more reps than anyone else last year, but also threw more picks than touchdowns, and was 14th in the 12-team Conference USA in passing efficiency.  Elliott was no better in spot duty, and Moore is green.  The receiving corps, led by Jeremy Williams and Brian King, has upside if it has a reliable battery mate to deliver the ball.
Spring attitude... Even though Toledo is about to embark on his second season in New Orleans, Tulane is still firmly in rebuilding mode.  With no star power on either side of the ball and question marks in the backfield, the Green Wave will struggle to surpass last year’s four wins, especially with LSU and Alabama on the non-conference schedule.  

Tulsa  Spring Practice Begins: March 11  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... With or without record-setting QB Paul Smith, the Hurricane plans to keep the good times rolling in 2008.  Whether Steve Kragthorpe or Todd Graham is on the sidelines, it’s become clear that Tulsa is a place where you can win consistently and attract high quality depth and talent.  Of course, it didn’t hurt having Gus Malzahn on staff, the mad scientist behind a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that cranked out 41 points and a nation’s-high 544 yards a game in 2007.  Even without its triggerman, there’s enough supporting talent, including last year’s top six pass-catchers and four starting linemen, to be just as efficient in year two of the new regime.
The big spring question is ... Is David Johnson the successor to Smith at quarterback? The senior is the most logical choice to lead the offense, having backed up Smith and spent a season in the system.  However, Johnson is no lock to win the job, and will get pushed hard by sophomore Clark Harrell and Jacob Bower, one of this year’s highest-rated JUCO quarterbacks.  Whoever wins the job will be positioned for a huge season, so the competition figures to be intense from March to August.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker.  After allowing more than 40 points five times in 2007, the Hurricane has to get much better on defense if it plans to win a league championship.  The top priority will be to rebuild a set of linebackers that loses all three starters, Nelson Coleman, Chris Chamberlain, and Alain Karatepeyan, each of whom had more than 100 tackles a year ago.  Holdovers Mike Bryan and Tanner Antle, and junior college transfer Kaipo Sarkissian will get every opportunity to fill the voids on the Tulsa defense this fall.
Spring attitude...
Take the next step by winning a Conference USA championship.  While the offense isn’t going to skip a beat, Tulsa needs to stiffen on defense, no small request considering how much is being lost at linebacker.  A star will be born as soon as Graham and Malzahn decide on their next starter under center.   

UTEP  Spring Practice Begins: March 9  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... If the Miners are going to reverse the trend of back-to-back losing seasons, they’ll have to find some answers on defense and learn how to finish a season.  UTEP was gutted for at least 45 points six different times in 2007, finishing the year in tatters for the third straight season.  Mike Price shook up his staff and signed some quick fixes out of the junior college ranks, but there’s no easy solution for a unit that was routinely abused last year.  New defensive coordinator Osia Lewis will bring from New Mexico a 3-3-5 set that uses three hybrid safeties and attacks from different spots on the field.
The big spring question is ... Is Price entering must-win territory this season?  The program appreciates its head coach, but a third losing season in-a-row would surely make things uncomfortable around El Paso.  Price quickly raised expectations with back-to-back eight-win seasons, but wasn’t able to keep the momentum going in 2006 and 2007.  The Miners’ problems in close games and inability to win late in the year have become scathing indictments of a coaching staff that needs to answer the call in 2008.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback.  As if finishing 117th nationally in pass defense isn’t troubling enough, the Miners must face the prospect of replacing their best defensive player, First Team All-Conference USA corner Quintin Demps.  The defensive backs got no help from the pass rush last year, but in case that doesn’t change, Lewis would be well-advised to beef up on players that can cover some of the league’s better receivers.
Spring attitude... The offense will move the ball.  The defense won’t stop a team from the FBS.  Why should anyone expect this season to be different than the last two?  The Trevor Vittatoe-to-Jeff Moturi connection will be electric and the running game will be fine even without Marcus Thomas, but until the Miners prove they can make a stop late in the game, they’re west Texas’ version of Rice.