Spring Preview 2009 - Conference USA

Posted Mar 8, 2009

The quarterback play will be strong in Conference USA with UAB's Joe Webb, ECU's Patrick Pinkney, and Houston's Case Keenum leading the way. Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Conference USA team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2009

Conference USA Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 
2009 Early Conference USA Lookaheads
2008 Conference USA Lookbacks/Recaps

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


East Carolina   Begins: March 16  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Now that the Pirates have reached the Conference USA mountaintop, they’ll spend the spring session trying to stay there. Three straight winning seasons and bowl invitations under Skip Holtz have the program rekindling the Steve Logan glory days, when it was a perennial mid-major nuisance. The program received good news in January, when the NCAA granted Patrick Pinkney a sixth year of eligibility. While not considered an NFL-caliber quarterback, his experience, leadership, and quick feet will be welcomed additions to an offense looking for some playmakers.    

The big spring question is ...  Will there be a Jamar Bryant sighting this spring? The East Carolina offense desperately needs his production and big-play ability at wide receiver, but he’s been serving a suspension since last October for a violation of team rules. He had 48 catches and six touchdowns as a sophomore, and had 19 grabs and three scores through the first four games of last year. Holtz has left the door open for Harris to return to the team, assuming he can achieve certain benchmarks and remain out of the doghouse. This is an ongoing process that might not have a resolution until the summer.   

The most important position to watch is ... defensive end. All-star C.J. Wilson is back at one spot, but he’ll need support to prevent the opposition from doubling him on every passing down. Blue-collar Zack Slate is gone, which will open up the competition for a handful of wannabe starters. Senior Scotty Robinson is the veteran, but he hasn’t shown an ability to consistently get to the passer. Pushing Robinson for the opening will be an ensemble of unproven linemen, including Josh Smith, A.J. Johnson, Maurice Mercer, and Allen Crowder.  

Spring attitude... With a league title on the mantle and two marquee wins last September, the Pirates will be playing this season with the wind at their backs. While Holtz doesn’t always have the flashiest players, like Tulsa or Houston, his program is rock solid along both lines, and fundamentally ahead of the curve. There’s enough veteran talent in Greenville for East Carolina to play giant killer and compete for a crown once again. Dates with West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech provide plenty of chances to make more national noise.

Marshall  Begins: March 31  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... After four straight losing seasons, there’s an unmistakable feeling of unrest around the program that’s created a sense of desperation. Embattled head coach Mark Snyder has had a busy offseason, juggling his staff and adding a bunch of junior college transfers, who can help right away. September games against West Virginia and Virginia Tech make playing better within the league an absolute must. The Herd has struggled badly versus Conference USA opponents in recent years, a trend that could earn Snyder a pink slip at the end of his fifth season in Huntington.  

The big spring question is ...  Can incumbent QB Mark Cann hold on to his starting job? He played modestly well as a redshirt freshman, throwing 14 touchdown passes and getting picked 13 times. Still, this program expects more from its quarterback, something Cann will have to produce beginning in April. If he leaves the door open a crack, junior Brian Anderson is the one who’ll likely bust through. When Cann sat out the regular season finale, it was Anderson, who burned Tulsa for three touchdowns and 177 yards on 14-of-19 passing.  

The most important position to watch is ... middle linebacker. For the second straight, the Herd is looking to replace one of its best players from the middle of the defense. Last year, Josh Johnson was missed. This year, it’ll be Maurice Kitchens, an all-leaguer, who was second on the team with 97 tackles. A pair of last season’s true freshmen, Tyson Gale and Kellen Harris, are being groomed for the job. Gale appeared in seven games, with most of his work coming on special teams. In nine games, Harris had 16 tackles and a couple behind the line. He’ll be the favorite to take over when camp begins.

Spring attitude... If last year was a now-or-never situation for Snyder and the Herd, what does that make this spring? The coach and the school realize they’re running out of mulligans. It’s not as if Marshall doesn’t have talent relative to the rest of the league, which makes this run of futility so frustrating. Next month will be used mainly to settle on a quarterback and get all of those transfers implemented into the system.

Memphis  Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Although five bowl games in six years is an admirable show of consistency, Tommy West knows that at some point his Tigers need to break through with at least a division title. Memphis appears to have plateaued, doing just enough to win six or seven games and earn a bowl berth. West also realizes that reaching a new level of success will require more from a defense that has failed to meet his expectations. The graduation of All-Conference USA DT Clinton McDonald and the recent departure of coordinator Tim Walton to the Detroit Lions make West’s defensive goals a lot tougher to attain.  

The big spring question is ...  Is QB Arkelon Hall on the verge of erupting? He showed hints of breaking out in his first year out of junior college, but an injury stunted his growth. Now, with a year of experience behind him, he’s eyeing a monster final season with Memphis. He’s got a strong arm and good moves outside the pocket. He also has the luxury of being surrounded by 1,000-yard rusher Curtis Steele and one of the deepest groups of receivers in the league. This spring could be just the springboard Hall needs to take off in 2009.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive tackle. Not only is McDonald gone, but so is nose guard Freddie Barnett and key reserve Brandon Douglas. The Tigers have enough problems stopping the run without having to plug holes on the inside of the line. As a true freshman, Frank Trotter looked like a young McDonald, shooting the gaps as an undersized interior lineman. By the end of the year, the 315-pound Joel McLeod was backing up Barnett at the nose. Those two kids will be asked to mature in a hurry beginning this spring.

Spring attitude... Elevate. Hey, the December bowl invitations are welcomed around Memphis, but this program is craving a bigger spotlight and a shot at a crown. While the offense puts the Tigers in a position to raise the bar, the defense still has some work to do. West and whoever he hires as a coordinator will spend long hours over the next few months trying to get this unit to the level of East Carolina, last year’s East champion. 

Southern Miss  Begins: March 9  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... A five-game winning streak and a comeback win in the New Orleans Bowl have the Golden Eagles soaring into a new season. What appeared to be a flop for rookie head coach Larry Fedora wound up being a catapult for he and the entire program. Plus, he successfully installed a more wide-open offensive attack at a school that had been ultra-conservative for years under Jeff Bower. With the toughest part of the transition seemingly behind it, Southern Miss is looking ahead with lofty expectations about the future.

The big spring question is ...  How long before DeAndre Brown is running patterns again? Although Brown won’t be available this spring, he’ll still be the most talked about player in March and April. He’s that good of a receiver. While his teammates are practicing, he’ll be continuing to rehab that badly broken leg suffered in the bowl game. While it certainly was a bad break, the team remains hopeful he’ll be running in the summer and available for the opener. After catching 67 passes and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman, it’s understandable why every fan in Hattiesburg is monitoring his progress. 

The most important position to watch is ... tight end. Regardless of Brown’s health, the tight end plays an important role in Fedora’s offense, especially when future pro Shawn Nelson was manning the position. He had 53 catches for 557 yards and three touchdowns a year ago, the kind of production that’ll be tough to replace. Getting the first crack will be Jonathan Massey, who played in all 13 games as a true freshman, and had a couple of scoring catches.

Spring attitude... So much for the transition from Bower to Fedora being a painful one. The Golden Eagles have adapted to a completely new philosophy on the fly, which bodes well for the next few years. Assuming Brown is healthy and RB Damion Fletcher handles his legal problems, QB Austin Davis could be the pilot of one of the league’s top offenses. By the time last October rolled around, Davis was a natural in the offense, mixing in his runs and passes perfectly. This is a dangerous team in an East Division that’s up for grabs.

UAB  Begins: March 18   Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... The Blazers are going to start this spring as optimistic as they’ve been in five years. Despite only winning four games last season, UAB finished 3-2 and played its best football over the final two months. Now that Neil Callaway is entering his third season in Birmingham, he’s been able to instill his philosophies into the program and attract his type of players. Plus, he welcomes back multi-dimensional QB Joe Webb, who proved a year ago to be one of the better kept secrets in Conference USA.

The big spring question is ...  Is Webb going to get any help from his teammates? Being a one-man show may look good in boxscores, but it’s rarely enough to produce where it matters most. Not only did he throw for 2,367 yards, but he also ran for 1,021 more, or almost twice as much as the next best Blazer. If Webb can’t get a little more support from shifty Rashaud Slaughter and the more powerful Justin Brooks, he’s liable to run out of gas before the calendar says November.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. Gone from a defensive backfield that ranked 108th nationally are four seniors, including all-league first-teamer Kevin Sanders. The Blazer staff will have to really dig deep in order to piece this group together. Brandon Carlisle and Chase Daniel should be set at cornerback and safety, respectively. After those two, however, the pecking order is up in the air. Terrell Springs, Andre Hicks, Ugonna Amarikwa, and Marquis Colemen played enough as freshmen to get long looks this spring.           

Spring attitude... Stay positive and keep moving forward. UAB isn’t ready to compete for the East Division, but the program got markedly better last season, and now has a borderline star at quarterback to rally around. If the Blazers can match last year’s growth spurt in 2009, they’ll be in the hunt for bowl eligibility in the last few weeks of the season. For that to happen, the defense must improve and the offense needs big plays from someone other than Webb and his favorite target Frantrell Forrest.

UCF   Begins: March 9   Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... Good luck getting a good handle on George O’Leary’s Knights. The same school that arguably has the best natural resources of any Conference USA program has also had two four-win seasons wrapped around the 2007 league title year. UCF will be trying to bounce back from a miserable campaign that began with so much promise and so many veteran starters. O’Leary has juggled his staff in an attempt to reverse the trend. Most notable was the hiring of offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe, who has a long resume, is well respected in coaching circles, and will adapt to the personnel he inherits.   

The big spring question is ...  How much of an impact will Taaffe actually have on the offense? It better be profound because the Knights were atrocious in 2008, averaging 16 points a game and finishing last nationally in total offense. The first order of business will be to coach up the quarterbacks, namely Rob Calabrese, who cracked the lineup as a true freshman. Taaffe plans to assess and work on the fundamentals of each player, many of whom are going to benefit from his presence. The Knights will also benefit from the returns of young back Brynn Harvey and WR A.J. Guyton, who missed last year with an ACL tear.  

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive backfield. All four starters are gone, including CB Joe Burnett and S Sha’reff Rashad, who were All-Conference USA first teamers. It’ll be the dawn of a new era at the position after the program had grown used to the same lineup and familiar faces for nearly four years. Rising juniors Justin Boddie and Darin Baldwin have been itching at the chance to take over for Burnett and Rashad, respectively. The talented pair is likely to be joined in the lineup by CB Emery Allen and S Reggie Weams, although competition is sure to come from the program’s younger players.

Spring attitude... Bounce back. UCF has good athletes, great facilities, and a pretty good coaching staff. It should not be wallowing in Conference USA’s second division. Beginning in March, the Knights will attempt to solidify both backfields, while regaining some lost swagger. Taaffe’s role will be instrumental in the team getting back on track. If he can’t make a difference with the offense, UCF is staring down the barrel of another losing season.   


Houston  Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... As transitions go, Kevin Sumlin enjoyed a smooth one in his first season at Houston, winning seven of the last nine games and cranking up the offense. With that first year now out of the way, the coach and his staff believe they’ve got an enormous upside. The Cougar passing game, in particular, might conjure up images of David Klingler and Andre Ware. A year after finishing second nationally in total offense, Houston welcomes back QB Case Keenum and all of his favorite weapons. If the retooled offensive line gels, this attack is poised to once again put up staggering numbers in a league that doesn’t play a lot of defense.   

The big spring question is ...  Who’s going to pressure the quarterback now that Phillip Hunt is gone? To have any chance of making strides on defense, the Cougars need to get some kind of a push up front. Hunt led Conference USA in sacks and Tate Stewart was a starter, so both defensive ends are going to be missed. Mohammed Usman and Michael Ray are a couple of speedy edge rushers, who got a taste of action as freshmen, and will have a chance to make impacts early in their careers.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Make no mistake about it. This Cougar team is going to live and die based on the play of the offense. Injuries aside, the only thing that’ll keep it from churning out point is a line that doesn’t adjust to three new starters. Solid replacements for G Michael Bloesch and tackles Sebastian Vollmer and SirVincent Rogers must be developed in April. The staff has high hopes that Jaryd Anderson, Josh Bell, and Matt Hart can do their parts to keep Keenum from taking too many hits.

Spring attitude... For good reason, the Cougars cannot wait until the start of the season. They’ll begin September as one of the favorites to win Conference USA, courtesy of a high-powered offense that’s promises to be one of the best shows in town. If the defense provides any support in the form of takeaways, Houston has an outside shot to get in the BCS buster conversation early in the year.

Rice  Begins: March 9   Game: April 1

The early spring buzz ... In the modern era of Owl football, there’s never been more excitement surrounding the program than there is at this very moment. Even as stars Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard, and James Casey exit, Rice is riding high after winning 10 games, including a bowl game for the first time in more than half a century. Head coach David Bailiff has been able to parlay this mini-renaissance into a five-year contract extension and the school’s best recruiting class in years. Even those young players who got minimal reps are going to benefit from being a part of last fall’s historical season.  

The big spring question is ...  Are the good times over on offense? There’s going to be an inevitable decline after losing three All-Conference USA first teamers, especially Clement. Not only did he finish his career with 125 total touchdowns, but his play in the clutch makes him irreplaceable. At least the guy filling his shoes, John Thomas Shepherd, is a senior with an intimate knowledge of the system. Dillard and Casey combined for 33 touchdown catches in 2008, and are going to make someone’s NFL roster in September. The Owls won’t hesitate to air it out with a new cast, but the results won’t be nearly as prolific.

The most important position to watch is ... cornerback. With the offense unlikely to once again ring up 41 points a game, the defense will be asked to make a few more stops than usual. Last year’s team had a couple of seniors at cornerback, yet still yielded 34 touchdown passes through the air. Hope can be found in Chris Jammer and Jarrett Ben, who held up well as true freshmen, and a host of other letter-winning underclassmen from the 2008 squad. 

Spring attitude... Since there’s not a ton of margin for error when you’re Rice, the last thing the school can afford to do is fall off the map with a three-win season. The Owls are eager to prove that they’re a bowl-worthy institution, even when Clement and Dillard aren’t around to rewrite the record books. Unless Shepherd is the second coming, Rice will need more help from RB C.J. Ugokwe and that leaky D.

SMU   Begins: March 30  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... Boy, what a difference a year makes. Last year, the Mustangs and first-year head coach June Jones spent most of April getting to know one another and adapting to the run-and-shoot offense. This spring, the holdovers are far more comfortable with the staff and the system that figures to eventually light a fire under the program. One thing that hasn’t changed is the no-nonsense demeanor of the head coach, whose three-strike policy has shaken up the campus and thinned out the roster. Jones has let it be known in no uncertain terms that his kids either follow the rules or exit the team

The big spring question is ...  Was last season rock bottom on the Hilltop? The Mustangs actually appeared to reach their low point in September before battling back and playing much better over the final two months. While the wins didn’t come, a degree of confidence did, which should have a carryover effect into this season. Plus, Jones used a ton of young players, including true freshman QB Bo Levi Mitchell, who should be better prepared to contribute with that full season in the rear view mirror.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. As you might expect, SMU’s best chance for a growth spurt is going to come courtesy of the offense. If Mitchell, however, doesn’t get the time to set his feet and find the open man, the passing game is sure to sputter. The Mustangs must make strides in pass protection, even after losing three seniors with starting experience to graduation. By the end of 2008, Jones had four freshmen in the two-deep, which should pay dividends this season. Tackle Kelvin Beachum, C Blake McJunkin, and guards Josh LeRibeus and Bryce Tennison are set to be the young cornerstones of the SMU front wall.

Spring attitude... While 2008 was about building a new foundation in Dallas, 2009 will be about erecting some positive steps and a few more wins. Flanked by Aldrick Robinson, Emmanuel Sanders, and one of the league’s best receiving corps, Mitchell is liable to play like a poor-man’s Timmy Chang in his second year. Of the Mustangs’ final eight losses, four were by a touchdown or less. Don’t be surprised if a couple of those games go SMU’s as the team continues maturing together.

Tulane  Begins: March 31   Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... The Green Wave believes it’s got a chance to be more competitive in 2009 if some of its key offensive players can get healthy and remain that way for all 12 games. RB Andre Anderson had rushed for 864 yards and seven scores when he fractured and dislocated his right shoulder and was lost for the year. When Jeremy Williams broke his hand in early October, he’d already caught 27 balls for 437 yards and five touchdowns. While both players will be ready for the start of the season, head coach Bob Toledo might want to limit their contact in April. When Anderson and Williams are at full strength, they’re two of the better skill position players in Conference USA and capable of making life so much easier for the starting quarterback.

The big spring question is ...  So, who’s that starting quarterback going to be? Although Kevin Moore got most of the reps in 2008, he hardly stood out, throwing one touchdown pass in his final five games and finishing 92nd nationally in passing efficiency. Redshirt freshman Joe Kemp gave the offense a spark in the Oct. 25 loss to Rice, but was lost for the year two weeks later to a broken collarbone. For the second straight year, the two hurlers are going to lock horns in a battle that probably won’t have a winner until late August.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive tackle. If Tulane is going to make any progress in run defense, it’s going to need more help from the interior linemen. After starting so strong in September, the Green Wave got absolutely destroyed at the point of attack over the final two months of the season. On the brighter side of things, just about everyone is back from a year ago, so experience shouldn’t be a major issue. Cedric Wilson, Chris Aumnu, and Justin Adams got considerable playing time as underclassmen, and will be asked to do even more this fall.

Spring attitude... Not since 2002 has Tulane enjoyed a winning season, a declining trend that shows no sign of ending. If the Green Wave is going to exceed expectations, it’ll come courtesy of an offense that’s not without potential. Anderson is a 1,000-yarder once he gets back on the field. Williams will be a weekly mismatch for suspect league pass defenses. And Moore and Kemp have good size and live arms. 

Tulsa  Begins: March 10    Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Over the last four years, Tulsa has evolved into one of the strongest mid-major programs, winning 38 games and piling up points like the hoops team. Changes at quarterback and head coach have not hindered the end results, indications that the Hurricane is here to stay. While there’ll be a new man behind center for the second straight year, the guy on the sidelines plans to stay there for a while. Todd Graham, who took what he inherited from Steve Kragthorpe and made it better, signed a 10-year, seven-digit agreement in early January.

The big spring question is ...  What happens to the offense now that coordinator Gus Malzahn is gone? Malzahn was the architect of the Hurricane’s high-octane spread offense, but he’s now employed by Auburn. In his place steps Herb Hand, who shared the coordinator’s role the last two years, and doesn’t plan to make changes to the no-huddle, hurry-up attack. Graham has been insistent that it’ll be business as usual for the offense no matter who’s wearing a headset and calling plays. Based on this latest recruiting class, Tulsa is obviously recruiting players who can excel in this system.   

The most important position to watch is ... the right side of the offensive line. Now that all-leaguers Justin Morsey and Rodrick Thomas have graduated, the Hurricane is looking to retool the right side of the line. If Jacob Bower, the likely new starter at quarterback, is to pick up where Paul Smith and David Johnson left off, he’s going to need time to run through his progressions. Looking to increase their playing time will be Travis Wike at tackle and Clint Anderson at guard. Both played extensively in 2008, and will be the frontrunners heading into spring.

Spring attitude... Tulsa has been so good of late, it’s easy to forget that it’s lost each of the last two league title games, failing to produce as expected on offense. The goals this season will be to finish stronger and play equally well throughout the year. Even without Malzahn and last year’s starting quarterback, the offense shouldn’t skip a beat. In fact, Bower will have a chance to be a household name by the midway point of the season.

UTEP  Begins: March 31   Game: May 2

The early spring buzz ... Three straight years of losing seasons have the Miners and their coaching staff approaching 2008 like a do-or-die season. While the program has had few problems scoring points, it continues to struggle on defense and is just 3-10 in November since 2006. Naturally, UTEP went heavy on defense with this latest recruiting class, including some junior-college players expected to contribute right away. The pressure will be on second-year defensive coordinator Osia Lewis to get better results from his unique 3-3-5 set that attacks from all angles and uses three active safeties.

The big spring question is ...  Has Price officially entered must-win territory in 2009? Hey, the administration still likes its head coach, but a fourth consecutive losing season would surely make things awkward around El Paso. Upon his arrival, Price quickly raised expectations with back-to-back eight-win seasons, yet has not been able to keep the momentum going since 2006. The Miners’ problems on defense and in close games have become unavoidable indictments of a coaching staff that needs to answer the bell this fall. They’ve only got two more seasons with prolific QB Trevor Vittatoe, and better capitalize while he’s still in town.   

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. On defense, it’s a take-your-pick scenario, but the defensive backfield will be under the most scrutiny after finishing 114th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Fortunately, there’s a decent mix of talent back, headed by Braxton Amy, who missed all of 2008 with a knee injury. Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith and Cornelius Brown are also all-league types as run stoppers, but they’ve got to improve once the ball is in the air.

Spring attitude... The offense will move the ball at will with Vittatoe and receivers Jeff Moturi and Kris Adams. The defense won’t stop any FBS opponents. It’s a familiar dichotomy around El Paso that’ll keep the Miners competitive in most league games, yet hovering around the .500 mark all year. If Lewis’ defense can keep creating takeaways like it did last, there’s still hope that this program can out gun its way to the postseason for the first time in four years.