2009 Early Conference USA Lookaheads
UAB QB Joe Webb
UAB QB Joe Webb
Posted Jan 18, 2009

The Conference USA season should have its share of playmakers once again with UAB QB Joe Webb one of the unsung stars ready to break out. Check out the early lookahead at each Conference USA team, what needs working on, and why to be excited for the 2009 season.

East  UAB | UCF | East Carolina | Marshall | Memphis | Southern Miss
West  Houston | Rice | SMU | Tulane | Tulsa | UTEP
- 2008 CFN All-CUSA Team
| 2008 CFN Preseason All-CUSA Team
- 2007 Conference USA Lookback/Recaps

 - 2008 Conference USA Early Lookbacks & Recaps

East Carolina  
CFN Preseason Prediction: 6-6   Final Record: 9-5

Why to get excited
: Both lines will be rock solid. Depth and talent in the trenches has become a trademark of a Skip Holtz team, and next season will be no different. Bolstered by all-league C Sean Allen, the offensive line is welcoming back seven players with starting experience. On defense, the interior will be manned by first team All-Conference DE C.J. Wilson and tackles Jay Ross and Linval Joseph, a pair of honorable mention selections. Both of these units will make everyone around them a little better.

Why to be grouchy: There an APB out for offensive playmakers. Although QB Patrick Pinkney was up-and-down, his leadership will be sorely missed. The Pirates need some young targets, like Darryl Freeney, to rise up and offset the graduation of TE Davon Drew and the suspension of WR Jamar Bryant. Now that the running game by committee didn’t flourish, it’d be nice if the program can settle on a single workhorse.

The number one thing to work on is: Cutting down on turnovers. The staff will spend the offseason working on the fundamentals of holding on to the football. East Carolina turned the ball over 28 times, despite throwing just nine interceptions all year. The culprit was fumbling, which the Pirates did more frequently than all but two programs in the country.

Biggest offensive loss: QB Patrick Pinkney
Biggest defensive loss: LB Pierre Bell
Best returning offensive player: C Sean Allen, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE C.J. Wilson, Sr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 6-6   Final Record: 8-5

Why to get excited
: The offense is going to be unstoppable. With QB Case Keenum and all of his favorite weapons back, you might want to rename these guys the Houston Rockets because they’ll be downright explosive. The same school that averaged 562 yards a game in the first year of a new regime will surround Keenum with 1,000-yard rusher Bryce Beall and all but one of the 15 players who caught a pass in 2008. If the retooled line does its job, 50 points a game will be the target.

Why to be grouchy: The Cougars will need every one of those points to win certain games. Even after finishing 100th nationally in total defense and yielding 413 yards a game, Houston may not have bottomed out in 2008. Seven regulars from that group, including sack artist Phillip Hunt and all-star S Kenneth Fontenette, have run out of eligibility. The result? Houston will be involved in plenty of track meets.

The number one thing to work on is: Developing new edge rushers. While Houston won’t stop many opponents on downs next fall, it can still leave a defensive footprint by hurrying the quarterback and forcing mistakes. With the graduations of Hunt and Tate Stewart go 20 of last year’s 24 sacks, putting pressure on the likes of Arkansas transfer Tyrell Graham and freshman Mohammed Usman to fill the void.

Biggest offensive loss: T Sebastian Vollmer
Biggest defensive loss: DE Phillip Hunt
Best returning offensive player: QB Case Keenum, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Marcus McGraw, Soph.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 7-5  Final Record: 4-8

Why to get excited
: The defensive line has a chance to be really good. All of the key parts are back in Huntington, including DT Montel Glasco, who missed 2008 and was approved for a sixth year of eligibility. On the outside, Michael Janac showed late-season flashes of being a pass-rushing force, and Albert McClellan should be ready to rock in his second season removed from major knee surgery. If the Herd gets the McClellan that had 20 tackles for loss in 2006, the entire defense will benefit from his presence.  

Why to be grouchy: There’s still no sign of the next big thing at quarterback for the Herd. It’s been a long six years since Byron Leftwich graduated, a dry spell that isn’t likely to end in 2009. Freshman Mark Cann won the job in the summer, but 11 games and 13 picks, it remained unsure if he was truly the quarterback of the future. He’ll face competition to hold on to that job when the team reconvenes in the spring.

The number one thing to work on is: The passing attack. This is Marshall, right? It’s about time the school starts acting like it. The Herd was 100th nationally in passing efficiency, looking especially inept on third down and in the red zone. While the running game is set with Darius Marshall, Marshall needs more production through the air in order to make the offense click.

Biggest offensive loss: WR Darius Passmore
Biggest defensive loss: S C.J. Spillman
Best returning offensive player: RB Darius Marshall, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Albert McClellan, Sr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 5-7  Final Record: 6-7

Why to get excited: QB Arkelon Hall is ready to explode in his second year removed from junior college. He’s got the right combination of arm strength and quick feet to be a star in this league, especially since he’s surrounded by a nice supporting cast. Curtis Steele emerged as one of Conference USA’s premier backs in his debut, and Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun give the Tigers a head start on a very dangerous corps of wide receivers. 

Why to be grouchy: There’s a lot of work to be done on both lines. On offense, three new starters must be cultivated, including a couple to supplant first team all-league T Brandon Pearce and rock steady C Philip Beliles. Over on the other side of the ball, three more regulars are gone, topped by another first team all-leaguer, Clinton McDonald.

The number one thing to work on is: More big plays from the defense. Over the course of 13 games, the Tigers created only 18 turnovers and had just 23 sacks, poor production compared to the rest of the league. The loss of McDonald, who applied constant pressure from the inside will make everyone’s job a little harder next fall.   

Biggest offensive loss: T Brandon Pearce
Biggest defensive loss: DT Clinton McDonald
Best returning offensive player: RB Curtis Steele, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Greg Jackson, Sr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 3-9   Final Record: 10-3

Why to get excited
: In the modern era of Rice football, the program has never been on more solid footing. Coming off a 10-win season and two bowl games in the last three years have allowed head coach David Bailiff to ramp up his ability to attract a higher caliber of athlete to Houston. For all of those kids on the roster, witnessing the school’s first bowl victory in over half a century will pay dividends over the next few seasons.

Why to be grouchy: Like it or not, it’s rebuilding time at Rice. Yeah, the talent is better than a few years ago, but there’s no way to replace QB Chase Clement, WR Jarett Dillard, and TE James Casey, who became the equivalent of conquering heroes for Owl football. Clement, in particular, is irreplaceable after accounting for an amazing 118 touchdowns over the past three seasons.

The number one thing to work on is: Red zone defense. Without the offense to bail it out at every turn, the D has to make some progress after allowing 452 yards and 33 points a game. The Owls were especially generous with their backs against the end zone, giving up 37 touchdowns in the 47 times opponents drove into the red area.

Biggest offensive loss: QB Chase Clement
Biggest defensive loss: LB Brian Raines
Best returning offensive player: WR Toren Dixon, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: S Andrew Sendejo, Sr.       

CFN Preseason Prediction: 3-9  Final Record: 1-11

Why to get excited: Now that June Jones’ system and philosophies have been fully installed, the Mustangs can begin the next phase of the rebuilding plan. Sure, last year was ugly, but beneath the 1-11 record was a young team that got better as the season progressed and better acquainted with the expectations of the new staff. Plus, all of the main parts of the run-and-shoot, from QB Bo Levi Mitchell to receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson, are back in the fold.  

Why to be grouchy: The defense is overmatched in the West Division of Conference USA. While using so many wide-eyed kids was a factor, it’s never easy to justify yielding 38 points a game or finishing last in the country in pass efficiency defense. No, June Jones didn’t build his empire on air-tight defenses, but this unit needs to make some progress for the program, as a whole, to improve.     

The number one thing to work on is: Generating more defensive pressure. After seeing the Mustangs give up 33 touchdown passes while picking off just eight, it’s clear they don’t have the defensive backs to shut people down. It would help, however, if they got more support from a defense that had just 18 sacks all year. DE Youri Yenga did his part, but now he needs some help, or else SMU will once again be putty in quarterbacks’ hands.

Biggest offensive loss: G Sean Lobo
Biggest defensive loss: NG Serge Elizee
Best returning offensive player: WR Emmanuel Sanders, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Youri Yenga, Jr.

Southern Miss
CFN Preseason Prediction: 8-4  Final Record: 7-6

Why to get excited: Now that the offense has had a year to digest Larry Fedora’s playbook, it’s ready to take flight. The best is yet to come for QB Austin Davis, who came along steadily as a freshman, throwing 23 touchdown passes and rushing for 508 yards and nine more scores. He caught a break when Damion Fletcher, the league’s best back, opted to return to Hattiesburg for his senior year. Now all the Eagles need is for precocious WR DeAndre Brown to rehab his broken leg in time for the opener.   

Why to be grouchy: LB Gerald McRath leaves behind a giant hole in the middle of the D. The defense really turned things around down the stretch last year, but maintaining that momentum got a lot tougher after McRath declared early for the NFL Draft. He’s a sideline-to-sideline terror, who notched more than 100 stops in each of the last three seasons.

The number one thing to work on is: Special teams. Had the special teams been more proficient in 2008, that 7-6 record could have easily been 9-4. The Golden Eagles were in the bottom half of the league in the return game, were awful at covering punts, and connected on just 10-of-19 field goals during the reason season. The only way is up for whoever succeeds P/PK Britt Barefoot.  

Biggest offensive loss: T Ryan McKee
Biggest defensive loss: LB Gerald McRath
Best returning offensive player: RB Damion Fletcher, Sr.
Best returning defensive player
: DT Anthony Gray, Jr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 5-7   Final Record: 2-10

Why to get excited
: RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams will be returning from injuries after missing the final five and seven games, respectively. The Green Wave was never the same after losing its two best playmakers, averaging just 13 points a game in the second half. Before getting hurt, Anderson was doing a pretty fair impression of Matt Forte, running for 728 yards in his four previous games. In Williams’ five games, he’d caught 27 passes for 437 yards and five scores.        

Why to be grouchy: Five years after J.P. Losman left New Orleans, Tulane is still hunting for stability at quarterback. Nine different players took a stab at throwing a pass in 2008, but none of them wowed head coach Bob Toledo. While Kevin Moore looks the part at 6-5 and 230 pounds, he regressed as the season wound down, throwing only three touchdown passes and nine picks in the final seven games.  

The number one thing to work on is: Run defense. Was this really the same team that held its first four opponents, including Alabama, under 100 yards on the ground? The Green Wave was shredded the rest of the way, allowing a mind-boggling 868 rushing yards in the final two games, and ending the year 113th nationally at stopping the run.

Biggest offensive loss: T Troy Kropog
Biggest defensive loss: DE Reggie Scott
Best returning offensive player: RB Andre Anderson, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Logan Kelley, Sr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 8-4  Final Record: 11-3

Why to get excited
: After 21 wins and more than 1,200 points over the last two seasons, Todd Graham has created a plug-and-play offense that’s virtually immune to being crippled by the loss of a single player. Take last year, for instance. The Hurricane couldn’t possibly replace record-setting QB Paul Smith, right? Uh-uh. Career backup David Johnson promptly took over, throwing for 46 touchdown passes on the nation’s second highest-scoring attack. That bodes well for Jacob Bower, or whoever succeeds Johnson.

Why to be grouchy: The defense keeps getting in the way of a Conference USA championship. While the offense continues doing its thing, the D has been unable to hold up its end, especially late in the year. After starting 8-0, the Hurricane yielded 100 points in back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Houston to end the dream season. For the year, Tulsa was 74th in the country in total defense.

The number one thing to work on is: Somehow tighten up the pass defense. This is where things got particularly out of control for the defense. The Hurricane had a nearly 4:1 ratio of touchdowns allowed to interceptions, which was among the worst in America. In the low point of the year for the secondary, Houston’s Case Keenum surgically carved up Tulsa for six scoring strikes without turning the ball over.

Biggest offensive loss: QB David Johnson
Biggest defensive loss: DE Moton Hopkins
Best returning offensive player: WR Damaris Johnson, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: S James Lockett, Sr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 2-10  Final Record: 4-8

Why to get excited
: Progress, finally. It’s taken a few years of hard work and lean times, but the Blazers have started peaking around the corner. Gains were evident in a 3-2 finish that included a near upset of the eventual league champ, East Carolina. QB Joe Webb emerged as the second coming of Darrell Hackney, sparking the offense with 1,000 yards on the ground and 10 touchdown passes. He’ll be the centerpiece of an offense that doesn’t lose a single player from the two-deep.

Why to be grouchy: The back seven is in need of a facelift. The Blazers’ three best defensive players, LB Joe Henderson, CB Kevin Sanders, and S Will Dunbar, have run out of eligibility. That’s troubling news for a UAB defense that ranked 106th nationally a year ago and yielded at least 45 points on four different occasions.

The number one thing to work on is: Preventing the big play. Only three teams in America, SMU, North Texas, and Iowa State, gave up more yards per pass attempt than the Blazers. With Sanders, Dunbar, and Matt Taylor no longer in Birmingham, containing some of the league’s better passers becomes the responsibility of unproven kids, like Chase Daniel, Terrell Springs, and Marquis Coleman.   

Biggest offensive loss: P/PK Swayze Waters
Biggest defensive loss: LB Joe Henderson
Best returning offensive player: QB Joe Webb, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Bryant Turner, Jr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 7-5  Final Record: 4-8

Why to get excited
: The defensive line will challenge as the best unit in Conference USA. All but one member of last year’s rotation will be back in Orlando next fall. Second team all-leaguers, Bruce Miller and Torrell Troup, will man the outside and inside, respectively. Miller has a non-stop motor, parlaying all of that energy into a league-best 17 tackles for loss in 2008. Troup is a 6-3, 320-pound immovable object, who played an integral role in the conference’s top-ranked run D. They’ll get plenty of help from DE Jarvis Geathers and DT Travis Timmons.       

Why to be grouchy: There’s no evidence that last year’s feeble offense will be much better. The Knights pulled up the rear in total offense, averaging a mere 229 yards and 16 points a game. At quarterback, George O’Leary tried Rob Calabrese, Michael Greco, and Joe Weatherford, none of whom completed more than 50% of his passes. There’s hope that true freshman RB Brynn Harvey can become an every-down back and receivers Kamar Aiken and A.J. Guyton can bounce back from injury-riddled years.

The number one thing to work on is: The offense. This is where O’Leary is going to earn his paycheck in 2009…or lose it. UCF did absolutely nothing right when it had the ball, bumbling on third down, failing to get a push up front, and reaching the red zone just 27 times all season. For tangible gains to happen, this will have to be a total team effort, including improved blocking and better execution from the skill players.  

Biggest offensive loss: T Patrick Brown
Biggest defensive loss: CB Joe Burnett
Best returning offensive player: WR Kamar Aiken, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Bruce Miller, Jr.

CFN Preseason Prediction: 5-7  Final Record: 5-7

Why to get excited
: This could be Mike Price’s most exciting offense since he landed in El Paso. All but two regulars return to a group that hung up 33 points and 406 yards a game. The headliner is QB Trevor Vittatoe, who has tossed 58 touchdown passes and only 16 interceptions in his first two years of action. He’ll get plenty of help from receivers Kris Adams, Jeff Moturi, and James Thomas, and a veteran front wall that brings back four starters.        

Why to be grouchy: The defense continues to be the Miners’ Achilles’ heel. Whether it was through the air or on the ground, UTEP had few answers for opposing offenses, ranking 104th or lower in both categories. In their seven losses, the Miners gave up just under 50 points a game. Now matter what the offense does in 2009, if the defense continues to play this poorly, there won’t be enough points to make that much-needed return to the postseason. 

The number one thing to work on is: Pass defense. The Miner secondary didn’t discriminate last fall—everyone had their way with it through the air. No program in America gave up more touchdown passes, and on third downs, the opposition faced little resistance. UTEP will continue to be sub par on defense. However, it has to do a better job of getting the ball back to the high-powered offense, either on downs or turnovers.    

Biggest offensive loss: C Robby Felix
Biggest defensive loss: LB Adam Vincent
Best returning offensive player: QB Trevor Vittatoe, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: S Braxton Amy, Jr.

- 2008 Conference USA Early Lookbacks & Recaps