2009 Early Sun Belt Lookaheads
Florida Atlantic QB Rusty Smith
Florida Atlantic QB Rusty Smith
Posted Feb 11, 2009

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

2009 Sun Belt Early Lookaheads

2009 Pages
Arkansas State | Florida Atlantic | Florida International | MTSU
North Texas | Troy | UL Lafayette | UL Monroe | Western Kentucky

2008 Pages
Arkansas State | Florida Atlantic | Florida International | Middle Tennessee
North Texas | Troy | UL Lafayette | UL Monroe
- 2008 CFN All-Sun Belt Team
| 2008 CFN Preseason All-SEC Team
- 2007 Sun Belt Lookback/Recaps | 2008 Sun Belt Lookaheads

 - 2008 Sun Belt Lookbacks/Recaps

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

Why to get excited
: Corey Leonard and Reggie Arnold. Leonard is the Sun Belt’s best all-around quarterback, while Arnold is a 100-yard rushing day waiting to happen. These two will be among the top starts of the Sun Belt season, while the defense gets eight starters back including Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, DE Alex Carrington. PK Josh Aracuo will be among the best in America.

Why to be grouchy: Who’s going to pave the way for Leonard, Arnold and the running game? OT Matt Mandich was an all-star, and the line loses three other starters, only getting back right guard Drew Hilton. Ben Owens was a special linebacker who’ll be missed, while corner Dominique Williams was also a producer.

The number one thing to work on is: The offensive line. While the line struggled in pass protection, that was partly because Corey Leonard was often times dropped behind the line trying to make things happen. ASU is a bit of a factory when it comes to producing good blockers, but it’ll be the key to the Sun Belt season. If the front five comes through with a big year, ASU will be in the Sun Belt title hunt until the end.

Biggest offensive loss
: OT Matt Mandich
Biggest defensive loss: LB Ben Owens
Best returning offensive player: QB Corey Leonard, Sr. & RB Reggie Arnold, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: DE Alex Carrington, Sr.

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

Why to get excited
: Rusty Smith. FAU led the Sun Belt in passing last year thanks to Smith, a 6-5, 230-pound pro prospect who was the 2007 Sun Belt Player of the Year. With TE Jamari Grant and all the top receivers returning, there’s no reason FAU shouldn’t be in the mix for a second conference championship in three years mainly because of the offense. However …

Why to be grouchy: The defense is going to have to start from scratch in several areas. Eight starters are gone including star tackle Jervonte Jackson, corner Corey Small, LB Frantz Joseph, and safety Greg Joseph. The Owl defense was fine last year, but nothing special, and now it’ll have to deal with a massive overhaul. Making matters worse, the defense needs to …

The number one thing to work on is: … figure out how to generate pressure. The Owls are supposed to be ultra-athletic and extremely quick up front, but getting into the backfield was a major problem with just 13 sacks on the year while finishing 110th in the nation in tackles for loss. The production against the run was all but non-existent for key stretches.

Biggest offensive loss
: RB Charles Pierre
Biggest defensive loss: DT Jervonte Jackson
Best returning offensive player: QB Rusty Smith, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: FS Ed Alexander, Jr.

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

Why to get excited
: The team that became competitive and dangerous over the course of last year should be even better if the experience can turn into more production. QB Paul McCall is back to lead an offense that returns nine starters. The offense finished last in the Sun Belt in rushing and total offense, but was fifth in scoring. It’ll have to carry the weight for a while because … 

Why to be grouchy: … almost everyone of note is gone off the defense. CB Anthony Gaitor is special, and linebackers Scott Bryant and Tyler Clawson are back, but the entire defensive front needs to be replaced, along with three starters in the defensive backfield. Head coach Mario Cristobal is bringing in the athletes, but it’s asking a lot to plus the holes up right away.

The number one thing to work on is: Besides the defensive line that’s starting from scratch, the running game needs work. The stats weren’t great partly because the offensive line gave up a slew of sacks. Even so, it’s not like the running backs were producing much as FIU finished last in the Sun Belt in rushing averaging just 99 yards per game. Starting backs Julian Reams and A’mod Ned are gone, meaning the spring will be about finding new bodies to carry the rock.

Biggest offensive loss
: RBs Julian Reams & A’mod Ned
Biggest defensive loss: DE Quentin Newman
Best returning offensive player: WR T.Y. Hilton, Soph.
Best returning defensive player: LB Scott Bryant, Sr.

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

Why to get excited
: The Blue Raiders will be loaded with veterans on both sides of the ball. Ten starters return on offense, with the one replacement at quarterback. Dwight Dasher, with a little more seasoning, should be a batter player than last year’s starter, Joe Craddock. The defense gets back six starters.

Why to be grouchy: Everyone comes back on the special teams. That might seem like a good thing, but the Blue Raiders were among the worst in America in punting and return game, On the plus side, PK Alex Gendreau is back after hitting 10-of-14 field goals. Outside linebackers Lonnie Clemons and Ivon Hickman were two good defenders who will be missed.

The number one thing to work on is: The running game. There’s no excuse to have speedy veterans like Phillip Tanner and Desmond Gee and be so bad at running the ball. The rushing numbers will be far better, if only because projected starting quarterback Dwight Dasher is a runner, but the backs have to do more behind a veteran offensive line. Middle Tennessee was strong last year in pass protection, and now the front five has to push someone around.

Biggest offensive loss
: QB Joe Craddock
Biggest defensive loss: DT Trevor Jenkins
Best returning offensive player: RB Phillip Tanner, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Danny Carmichael, Sr.

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

Why to get excited
: While the overall talent level might be in question, there’s experience returning in several key areas. The offensive line returns intact, and that includes the reserves, while the defense gets back eight starters. Yes, the defense was the worst in college football, but at least it’ll now be among the most experienced in the Sun Belt.

Why to be grouchy: Can anyone on defense actually play? There’s LB Toby Nwigwe, who would’ve received more Sun Belt respect if he had played on a better team, and Craig Robertson is a strong running mate. Everything else is up for grabs. The defensive line needs to be night-and-day better for the team to make any overall improvements.

The number one thing to work on is: The passing game. This is supposed to be what North Texas is able to do, and now it’ll have to move on without QB Giovanni Vizza, who’s transferring to Texas A&M, and top WR Casey Fitzgerald, who graduated. There is a buzz around what might be ahead with Riley Dodge, the coach’s son and the star recruit of a few years ago, expected to get the starting nod. Good receiver recruits are choosing UNT for the chance to play with him.

Biggest offensive loss
: WR Casey Fitzgerald
Biggest defensive loss: DT Isaac Thomas
Best returning offensive player: QB Riley Dodge, RFr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Toby Nwigwe, Sr.

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

Why to get excited
: The defending Sun Belt champions are loaded, especially on defense. The defensive tackles are gone, but Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield are terrific ends to lead the front four. The linebacking tandem of Boris Lee and Bear Woods might be the best in America, and not just the Sun Belt. Offensively, QB Levi Brown and WR Jerrel Jernigan are talented playmakers to build around.

Why to be grouchy: The offensive line and secondary need work. Troy was able to reload in the secondary last year, but now it has to replace all four starter including Sherrod Martin and Terrence Moore. Troy had the best offensive line in the Sun Belt by far, but now it has to replace three starters including First Team All-Sun Belt tackles Chris Jamison and Dion Small.

The number one thing to work on is: The offensive tackles. Not only are Jamison and Small gone, but so is key reserve Will Chambliss, who was good enough to start on the left side. Nic Riley and Jacob Creech will get the first look this spring, but the line has to find two steady blockers or the league’s No. 2 offense is going to sputter early on.

Biggest offensive loss
: OTs Dion Small and Chris Jamison
Biggest defensive loss: Safeties Terrence Moore and Sherrod Martin
Best returning offensive player: WR Jerrel Jernigan, Jr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Boris Lee, Sr.

UL Lafayette
CFN Preseason Prediction: 4-8  Final Record: 6-6

Why to get excited
: It might not take too much to get over the hump and hit the magical seven-win mark needed to get to a bowl. The defense was a nightmare last season, but three starters return to the front four while three starters are back in the secondary. The depth was young, extremely young, but now there’s a year of experience to work with.

Why to be grouchy: You don’t just replace QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy. How good were they? Fenroy was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year, while Desormeaux was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year. The defense might be experienced, but it’ll have to make huge strides to be better than last season when it was among the worst in the nation.

The number one thing to work on is: Better defensive line play. ULL managed just 16 sacks on the year, was 100th in the nation in tackles for loss, and allowed a whopping 213 rushing yards per game; the worst in the Sun Belt. The offense isn’t going to be as potent, so if ULL wants to be in the title chase, it needs better play from the front four.

Biggest offensive loss
: RB Tyrell Fenroy & QB Michael Desormeaux
Biggest defensive loss: SS Derik Keyes
Best returning offensive player: C Chris Fisher, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Daylon McCoy, Jr.

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

Why to get excited
: Eight starters return on offense, and one of the key starters, QB Kinsmon Lancaster, can be replaced by solid backup Trey Revell. However, there won’t be the rushing production out of the quarterback spot like there was with Lancaster. Defensively, nine starters return to a group that struggled, but should be far better.

Why to be grouchy: Lancaster was a special player who was able to make things happen even when the line wasn’t giving him much help. The passing game was lousy to begin with, and even though there should be more overall production with Revell under center, but he won’t have one of the team’s best targets, All-Sun Belt TE Zeek Zacharie.

The number one thing to work on is: Generating pressure. It’s this simple. If the front four is able to start getting into the backfield on a more regular basis, the still-improving secondary would get more of a break. The offensive line gets four starters returning, and now it has to find one thing it’s able to do well.

Biggest offensive loss
: QB Kinsmon Lancaster
Biggest defensive loss: S Chance Payne
Best returning offensive player: WR Darrell McNeal, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Cardia Jackson, Sr.

Western Kentucky

CFN Preseason Prediction: Not Available  Final Record: 2-10

Why to get excited
: Along with having the Sun Belt’s best recruiting class this year, WKU has a vast array of options returning for most of the key spots (with an emphasis on “most” … more on that in a moment).  Eight starters return on offense, including leading receiver, Jake Gaebler, and the defense that was so strong throughout last year welcomes back seven starters.

Why to be grouchy: K.J. Black is transferring. The team’s best quarterback will transfer to Prairie View A&M. After getting hurt last year, and being demoted for a time, Black fell out of favor with the program, and vice versa, and needed a new start. That means Brandon Smith will go into the spring as the main option, but it’ll be an open casting call to find the right fit, which means ....

The number one thing to work on is: … finding a starting quarterback. With Black gone, along with starter David Wolke, Smith will get the first shot with inexperienced redshirt freshmen Kawaun Jakes, Anthony Sheppard, and Marcus Vasquez all getting a chance to show what they can do. The offense was abysmal last year, and if there isn’t more production from the quarterback, it’ll be more of the same.

Biggest offensive loss
: QB David Wolke
Biggest defensive loss: FS Travis Watters 
Best returning offensive player: WR Jake Gaebler, Sr.
Best returning defensive player: LB Blake Boyd, Sr.