Spring Preview 2010 - Conference USA
Houston QB Case Keenum
Houston QB Case Keenum
Posted Mar 20, 2010

Houston should be loaded once again, but will Case Keenum and the offense be enough to pull off the Conference USA title? Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Conference USA team.

Spring Preview 2010

C-USA Spring Preview

2010 Spring Preview
- 2010 Conference USA Spring Preview  
- 2010 C-USA Player You Must Know - Houston WR James Cleveland 
- 2010 Conference USA Offseason Lookback & Lookahead  
- 2010 Conference USA Pre-Preseason Rankings 
- 2010 Conference USA Recruiting Rankings 

By Richard Cirminiello 


Spring Practice Begins: March 24 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... The Blazers are clearly headed on the right path under head coach Neil Callaway, increasing their number of wins in each of the last two seasons. Staying in that direction and climbing back to .500, however, could require a quick fix now that prolific QB Joe Webb has graduated. Callaway signed more junior college transfers than any other school, signaling a determination to keep the momentum going. The staff needs to get those recruits up to speed as quickly as possible in April in an effort to fill holes on the offensive line and build some much-needed defensive depth.

The big spring question is ... Is there going to be life after Webb? Arguably the best Blazer ever, he was top 10 nationally in rushing, passing efficiency, and total offense, an amazing feat. His successor will be sophomore David Isabelle, who possesses many similar qualities, sans the relevant experience. He was recruited for this very moment, and had the luxury of learning behind Webb since arriving form high school two years ago.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. No one in the country gave up more yards a game through the air than UAB, which has to capitalize on having a slew of returning letterwinners. Webb was able to bail out the defensive backfield at times in 2009, but with the franchise gone, the back seven must begin making more stops and preventing so many big plays downfield. Getting dragged into shootouts will be more perilous than ever next season, especially if Isabelle is slow to adapt to his new role.

Spring attitude... Losing just a single senior of relevance could give Callaway his deepest defense since arriving from Georgia. Does that mean the Blazers will be making strides on that side of the ball? They'll attempt to make that case in the spring. For Isabelle, who's about to take control of an offense that features the quarterback, this is a huge session, as he looks to gain confidence and earn the confidence of those around him.

Spring Practice Begins
: March 19 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... The Knights' biggest hurdle to success this fall might be the calendar. As flighty as that might sound, the program has been horrible in even-numbered years of late, going 8-27 in the last three seasons and 26-14 with three bowl games in the last three odd-numbered years. Breaking the cycle will require the offense to find an able successor to QB Brett Hodges, who was a pleasant surprise in his only season after transferring from Wake Forest. The defense should again be outstanding, but if the offense reverts back to the futility of 2007 and 2008, UCF will have a difficult time putting together rare back-to-back winning seasons.

The big spring question is ... So who does replace Hodges? Although junior Rob Calabrese has the most experience and makes the most sense, he's had a habit of disappearing when he's had his shots for playing time. Repeating those bad habits could open the door for Stanford transfer L.D. Crow or early enrollee Jeffrey Godfrey, who turned down the likes of Tennessee, Miami, and Florida State to play in Orlando. George O'Leary would like to have a pecking order in place at the end of spring so his top two contenders can battle it out in the summer.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. After star DE Bruce Miller, the Knights will be flush with fresh faces and question marks. Three seniors have graduated, including all-stars DT Torrell Troup and DE Jarvis Geathers. If UCF wants to keep Miller from getting doubled constantly, it'll need support on the outside from veterans David Williams and Darius Nall, and on the inside from Wes Tunuufi Sauvao and a handful of untested linemen.

Spring attitude... Start a new trend. With all of the talk about the program's problems in alternating years, UCF is hoping to start a trend of a different kind. Consecutive winning seasons, for beginners. O'Leary's defense will be among the stingiest in Conference USA, making the offense the offseason focal point. More specifically, the Knights need to cultivate a steady quarterback to complement the underrated running of Brynn Harvey.

East Carolina
Spring Practice Begins:
March 15 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... Though it's always going to be difficult replacing a successful coach, Ruffin McNeill's job was further complicated by the departure of 28 seniors and a wave of long-time starters. After spending much of his first month keeping Skip Holtz's recruits from changing their minds, the next month or two will be used to learn more about the returning Pirates. Not a single area of the depth chart was spared from enduring graduation hits, so McNeill and his new staff must use the 15 practices wisely, fleshing out a soft pecking order before August and taking the first steps toward installing new systems on both sides of the line.

The big spring question is ... Who supplants veteran Patrick Pinkney at quarterback? While Pinkney wasn't prolific, he was a sixth-year senior who commanded respect and knew how to win close games. Filling his shoes will either be sophomore Josh Jordan or redshirt freshman Rio Johnson, who've thrown just seven combined passes at this level. At 6-4 and 218 pounds, Jordan is the better pocket passer of the pair. Johnson, however, is the better overall athlete, giving the staff more options with the playbook.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. It's a good thing McNeill's specialty is defense because he's going to be tested in his debut on the job. When all-star NG Linval Joseph declared early for the NFL Draft, East Carolina was essentially cleaned out on the front seven. Everyone of significance has graduated, including sack specialist C.J. Wilson, the program's best end in years. Looking to impress the staff will be Maurice Mercer, Steve Spence, and A.J. Johnson on the outside and Josh Smith, Michael Brooks, Antonio Allison, and Robert Jones.

Spring attitude... New coach. New starters. These will be interesting times for an East Carolina program that's won back-to-back Conference USA titles, yet won't be expected to three-peat in 2010. Ideally, McNeill would like to maintain the winning attitude that's permeated throughout Greenville, while adding his own thumbprint to his alma mater. Either out of necessity or design, every job will be up for grabs, which will make for an extremely competitive environment.


The early spring buzz ... With new head coach Doc Holliday comes a fresh outlook and energy. The Herd needs it. Stuck in neutral for years under Mark Snyder, the program turned the page and went after a coach who knows the state and knows how land talent, especially from Florida. Can he teach and maximize the talent he inherits on the roster? Everyone, from the players to the fans, can begin forming an opinion once camp opens. Beyond just the fundamentals and Xs and Os, Holliday and his staff will be looking to undo a culture of mediocrity that's been lingering like a bad odor for the past five seasons.

The big spring question is ... Is incumbent Brian Anderson just keeping the quarterback seat warm until Willy Korn arrives? Anderson was a disappointment in his first season as the starter, and with a new staff on board, he's got no additional edge in terms of digesting the playbook. Provided he graduates from Clemson in May, Korn will be available immediately, giving the Herd a significant upgrade at the position. Marshall has been looking for an answer behind center for years. Korn could be that guy unless the pending competition brings out the best in Anderson.

The most important position to watch is ... special teams. An utter abomination a year ago, Marshall needs to work on all facets of special teams in the spring and beyond. The lone silver lining in 2009 was PK Craig Ratanamorn, but he's exhausted his eligibility with the program. The Herd has to shore up its punting, kick coverage, and kick returns, putting pressure on Holliday's new special teams assistants to turn things around practically overnight.

Spring attitude... Just because the record has been mediocre of late does not mean Marshall is absent of talent. It has young playmakers on both sides of the ball, and if Korn can hit the ground running, young receivers Antavious Wilson and Aaron Dobson will be the primary beneficiaries. After getting a quick look at the talent on hand, Holliday and his staff do not believe the Herd is mired in rebuilding mode. Instead, they feel this team is ready to compete in an East Division that's up for grabs now that East Carolina is coming back to the pack.

Spring Practice Begins: March 17 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... When the Memphis administration fired a mildly successful veteran, like Tommy West, it made a statement that it was seeking a completely different direction. And that's exactly what it's going to get in 2010. Not only has a much younger, more energetic Larry Porter taken the reins, but the Tiger roster is being turned upside down. The offense alone is losing two quarterbacks, its top two rushers, its four best wide receivers, and all-star PK Matt Reagan. Essentially, Porter and his newly-formed staff will use these 15 practices to ratchet up the competition and develop a soft pecking order before the summer.

The big spring question is ... Who gets the nod at quarterback? While dual-threat Tyler Bass makes the most sense because he played some a year ago, he is coming off a shoulder injury and is going to face some eager competition. Will Gilchrist is finished with his redshirt season and itching to show why he was considered Tennessee's top prep quarterback from the 2009 class. And former Miami quarterback Cannon Smith has sat out a mandatory season after transferring and is ready for action. This is one of many areas that Memphis has to upgrade in the near term.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive end. If the feeble Tiger pass defense has any chance for a turnaround, it's not going to come from the current crop of defensive backs. No, Memphis has a much better chance of attacking from all angles and disrupting the passer, even though ends Greg Terrell, Jada Brown, and Josh Weaver have graduated. A lot will be expected from former heralded JUCO transfer Justin Thompson, who'll get pushed by Dasmine Cathey and a cadre of newcomers on campus.

Spring attitude... Everyone ought to wear name tags in March and April because there will be plenty of introductions taking place. This is the first step in a very long process that Memphis hopes will eventually make it a Conference USA power. The offense had been a staple in the past, with the likes of RB Curtis Steele and receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton, but those playmakers are no longer around. The Tigers need loads of help on both sides of the ball, which should make for a very fluid depth chart.

Southern Miss
Spring Practice Begins:
March 3 Game: April 10

The early spring buzz ... After missing the last seven games with a foot injury, getting QB Austin Davis back on the practice will be one of the main storylines this spring in Hattiesburg. Yeah, he'll be limited, but just getting the former Freshman All-American in pads is a positive step for the Golden Eagle offense. It's not as if his backup, Martevious Young, did poorly, but Davis is the kind of dual-threat who can really make Larry Fedora's offense purr. It should also be interesting to see if star WR DeAndre Brown is a little more fluid in his second year back from an awful leg break. As rookies in 2008, Davis-to-Brown was one of Conference USA's most lethal hook-ups.

The big spring question is ... What will the backfield look like now that all-time leading rusher Damion Fletcher and backup Tory Harrison are gone? Although you certainly get better by losing this pair, Southern Miss is excited about unveiling sophomore Tracy Lampley. Though not very big, he's got the burst and quickness to shred defenses when the Eagles spread out the field. Providing veteran support and a little muscle will be senior V.J. Floyd, who's spent his career in other's shadows.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Yes, Fedora's offense can be explosive in 2010, but you won't know it if the line can't be rebuilt in a hurry. This unit has taken a beating form graduation, losing four starters, including all-stars Ryan Hebert, and Kyle Burkhart. C Cameron Zipp will be the anchor of an ensemble that'll be forced to ask some of the unproven linemen, like Joe Duhon, Trevor Newsom, and Ben Schoenberger to blow past expectations out of the gate.

Spring attitude... As Southern Miss enters its third season under Fedora, there's a feeling that this program is about to turn the corner and make a bee-line for the top of the East Division. The return to full health of Davis and Brown would surely increase the likelihood of that happening. The Korey Williams-led defense figures to better, assuming the secondary can be bolstered, and both specialists are back. If, as expected, East Carolina drifts back to the pack, the Eagles are poised to fill the opening.


Spring Practice Begins:
March 27  Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... With few worries about the high-powered offense, Houston will spend most of the offseason tinkering with a defense that was its downfall in 2009. QB Case Keenum and the Cougars know they can score with anyone in the country, but in last season's four losses, they were abused for an average of 45 points a game. While only a few new starters need to be found on that side of the ball, that might not necessarily be a reason to celebrate. In response to last year's implosion, Kevin Sumlin has reshuffled his staff, adding former NFL assistant Brian Stewart as the team's new defensive coordinator.

The big spring question is ... Is there anything the Cougars can do differently to stop the run? The most glaring Achilles' heel on the team, they were garroted for 37 rushing touchdowns a year ago, culminating in a brutal effort versus Air Force in the bowl game. While no one is expecting a poor-man's Texas, something has to be done, or else Houston will be vulnerable in a bunch of shootouts. Even if it means committing more linebackers and safeties to run support, Stewart must devise a scheme over the next few months that keeps Houston from getting gashed on a weekly basis.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. It's asking a lot, but these guys will simply have to be everywhere this fall, going sideline-to-sideline to string plays out. The program actually has a handful of quality athletes at the position, headed by all-star and league-leading tackle Marcus McGraw. Phillip Steward and Kris Johnston showed flashes of potential as freshmen last fall, and will be asked to do plenty more in their second season of eligibility.

Spring attitude... As long as Keenum, Sumlin, and all of those dangerous weapons at running back and wide receiver return, Houston believes it's the class of Conference USA and has dreams of a BCS bowl game. With games against UCLA, Mississippi State, and Texas Tech, there'll be enough opportunities to impress those voters looking for decent non-conference wins. Getting beyond the West Division and actually winning a league crown could eventually depend on a defense that has a ton of work to do before September.

Spring Practice Begins: March 8 Game: March 31

The early spring buzz ... Last season, the Owls pinned their offensive fortunes on former Alabama QB Nick Fanuzzi. The program could be leaning on major program transfers again in 2010. Behind center, Fanuzzi is going to endure a challenge from Taylor Cook, a 6-7, 235-pound hurler, who began his career with Miami. At running back, one-time Michigan recruit Sam McGuffie has the speed and acceleration to light a spark under a Rice ground game that's been non-existent for years. One of the top-rated backs of the 2008 recruiting class, he ran for 486 yards and caught 19 passes in his Wolverine debut. If nothing else, the presence of Fanuzzi, Cook, and McGuffie can be an effective recruiting pitch to select players from BCS programs looking for a new lease on life.

The big spring question is ... Is the Owl D a lost cause? It'd be hard not to assume that if you've watched this group in action over the last few years. Rice was 103rd nationally in scoring defense in 2008 and dead last a year ago. There is some returning talent, like DE Scott Solomon and S Travis Bradshaw, but they'll need a lot more help, and the tackling simply has to improve. The offense should be much improved, but if the Owls want to truly make a quantum leap after going 2-10, they'll have to step it up on both sides of the ball.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. If the Owls are to even approach their success of 2008, they'll need to crank up the offense to offset that flimsy D. While they're in promising shape at quarterback, who catches the passes of Fanuzzi and Cook, especially now that top receiver Toren Dixon has graduated? Patrick Randolph should see a sharp increase in balls thrown his way, as will Pierre Beasley, Taylor Dupree, Roddy Maginot, and last season's handful of redshirts.

Spring attitude... In the aftermath of losing QB Chase Clement and receivers Jarett Dillard and James Casey, last season's plummet was inevitable. Now that the 2-10 debacle is behind it, however, Rice plans to build back up and make a run at .500. Do not expect the defense to contribute much to that quest. Instead, it'll be an offense, which has a bunch of useful parts, that will be the catalyst for a rebound.

Spring Practice Begins: March 29 Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... After going 8-5 and ambushing Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl, the Mustangs have a head of steam that swept through the latest recruiting cycle. June Jones has begun attracting a higher caliber of athlete to the Hilltop, which should concern the rest of Conference USA. There's suddenly a nice enough blend of returning vets and incoming talent for SMU to be considered a serious threat in the league after nearly storming the gates last fall. When QB Kyle Padron looks over his shoulder this season, he'll no longer see former starter Bo Levi Mitchell, who's transferring to Eastern Washington. Padron is the second-year player, who was so sharp in relief and ended the year with a breakthrough performance in the bowl game.

The big spring question is ... Can anyone replace all-star WR Emmanuel Sanders and take some heat off Aldrick Robinson? In this offense, you can never have too many reliable targets, and Padron doesn't want to get caught locking on to Robinson on every other down. It's time for letterwinners Terrance Wilkerson, Cole Beasley, Darius Johnson, Bradley Haynes, and Cole Loftin to blossom into more than just decoys and downfield blockers for Sanders and Robinson.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. Without any recognition, this unit did a solid job a year ago, picking off 17 passes and leading the league in pass efficiency defense. Turning last season into a trend will require the Mustangs to replace two of their best defensive backs, Rock Dennis and Bryan McCann, who had eight interceptions between them. It's a good thing SMU has a slew of returning letterwinners, which should make for heated competition. Chris Banjo figures to be one of the leaders at safety and Derrius Bell is expected back at corner after missing most of the year with an injury.

Spring attitude... After tasting success in 2009, SMU is poised to continue its climb up the Conference USA mountain. Bubbling over with confidence and getting deeper on both sides of the ball, Houston might be the only thing between it and a championship. As good as Padron was down the stretch, Jones has to make sure that his young gunslinger continues to grow within the offense and develop better timing with his receivers.

Spring Practice Begins: March 22 Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... One of the biggest surprises as Tulane begins another spring is that Bob Toledo is around to conduct it. The leader of a brutal three-year stretch, his Green Wave have gone just 9-27 and 5-19 in Conference USA play over that time. The coach might need to be a miracle worker to reverse a declining trend, especially since his two best playmakers, RB Andre Anderson and WR Jeremy Williams, are now pursuing careers in the NFL. At least the program broke the seal on two dozen freshmen in 2009, many of whom, like QB Ryan Griffin, will be asked to shoulder a much bigger load in the upcoming season.

The big spring question is ... Who are the new playmakers destined to support Griffin? Tulane is not going to win any games with its defense so it's incumbent upon the offense to be the catalyst in 2010. And if Griffin is going to evolve in his second year, he'll need plenty of help at the skill positions. Payton Jason was supposed to take over at running back, but is unlikely to suit up in the spring because of a serious knee injury. Albert Williams and J.T. McDonald will need to step up in his absence. Casey Robottom will be the most reliable of the receivers, but needs more help from D.J. Banks, Devin Figaro, and Ryan Grant.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. Three starters are gone, which could take the Green Wave all season to overcome. DE Reggie Scott, in particular, was a good one. It needs to get a lot more pressure in order to throw a life vest to a mediocre back seven. That it had just 15 sacks directly correlated to its No. 117 national ranking in pass efficiency D. One of the youngsters, such as sophomore Austen Jacks, needs to rise up and take some heat off the secondary.

Spring attitude... The hidden benefit of using so many kids a year ago is that those players have yet to be infected by seven consecutive losing seasons. They still believe in the future, which is a powerful thing at Tulane. Toledo must tap into that enthusiasm and pin his hopes on underclassmen, like Jacks, S Shakiel Smith, CB Ryan Travis … and Griffin. The sophomore will be carrying a heavy burden as he begins his third year on campus.

Spring Practice Begins:
March 9 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... After muddling through an uncharacteristically poor year, the Golden Hurricane will be looking to recapture its swagger during the offseason. The defense needs an overhaul and, even worse, the offense was pedestrian in the first year without inventive coordinator Gus Malzahn. To help address the defense, head coach Todd Graham has pieced together a class of high school kids and juco-transfers, with a focus on defensive backs who can run and disruptive front linemen. If any of them prove that they're ready this spring and summer, a lack of experience at this level will not keep them off the field.

The big spring question is ... Is there any hope for the defense? The Hurricane hasn't played tight defense since 2005, which was also its last championship season. Now, Tulsa is not going to be air-tight, especially after losing seven starters and a big chunk of the secondary. It can, however, be a little more opportunistic, creating turnovers and attacking from all angles in order to pressure the quarterback. As new regulars are sought, the defense will lean on DE Cory Dorris, LB Tanner Antle, and defensive backs DeAundre Brown and Dexter McCoil to be the leaders.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. If the offense is to maximize the talents of QB G.J. Kinne, WR Damaris Johnson, and RB Charles Clay, the blockers have to do a much better job in 2010. The line ranked 118th nationally in sacks allowed and did a poor job of run blocking. Only one player graduated from the unit, but experience alone won't be enough to solve its issues heading into this season.

Spring attitude... As a group, Tulsa is determined to not allow last season's mediocrity to develop into a trend. Graham and his staff have worked too hard in recent years to let that happen. With Kinne on the verge of becoming a special dual-threat playmaker, the offense should be able to get back on track. Getting back to the postseason and challenging in the West will rest on the shoulders of a defense that's desperately seeking consistency and an identity.

Spring Practice Begins
: March 25 Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... In response to the Miners' persistent defensive woes, Mike Price canned coordinator Osia Lewis after the season and replaced him with former UNLV line coach Andre Patterson. The switch means UTEP will not only have a new defensive boss, but also a new defensive system, scrapping Lewis' attacking 3-3-5 base set. Patterson will have an integral part in the program's immediate success, inheriting a defense that has long been the weak link in El Paso. A squad that has rarely lacked speed and athleticism, Price has tried to beef up his team's size and physicality through recruiting in the offseason.

The big spring question is ... Which Trevor Vittatoe shows up, the one from 2007 and 2008 or last year's disappointment? Boy, was his effort a surprise last fall or what? Considered one of the league's best all-around passers, he regressed as a junior and finished 54th nationally in passing efficiency. Considering that he finally had the support of a dynamite running game, his effort was a real head-scratcher. He did finish the regular season by carving up Marshall for five touchdowns and a career-high 517 yards, which the staff hopes can be carried into 2010.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. It's a good thing UTEP is eliminating one defensive back in a more traditional set because this group was routinely exposed. The Miners allowed 25 touchdown passes from a unit that included long-time veterans Braxton Amy, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, and Cornelius Brown. What happens now that they've departed? They're going to be real young, placing a ton of pressure on sophomore S DeShawn Grayson and the newcomers from the 2010 class.

Spring attitude... It might be now or never for a UTEP program that started so fast in Price's first couple of years, but have strung together four straight losing seasons. With a fourth-year starter under center, All-America candidate Donald Buckram at running back, and WR Kris Adams providing a deep threat, the offense will again be potent. It'll be up to that defense, which has to take a forward step or two if the Miners have any chance of creeping above the .500 mark.