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TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT C-USA--PART I

                                    by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

   Following is our look at Conference USA, first previewing the West half of the loop before taking a look at the East in our next installment.  Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2015 SU, pointspread, and O/U records included...  

    Perhaps the closest thing to a perennial power in Conference USA has been Louisiana Tech (2015 SUR 9-4, PSR 7-6, O/U 8-5), which has quietly cranked out at least eight wins in four of the past five seasons and romped to its second postseason win in a row last December when walloping Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl, 12 months after burying Illinois in the Dallas Bowl.  Considering the questionable status of the rest of the Western half of the loop, another bowl trip appears likely even with a demanding non-conference slate (more on that in a moment) and some considerable reloading to do after losing various key cogs to graduation.

    One key cog that has stuck around, however, is HC Skip Holtz, who seems to have found a home in Ruston.  While Holtz might still have a chance re-climb the coaching ladder at a “Big Five” conference school down the road, for the time being he seems content at Tech after being whip-sawed out of his last gig at South Florida.  With plenty of security at Tech, Holtz appears in no hurry to leave, and seems very unlikely to make a move similar to Southern Miss’ Todd Monken, who bailed out last winter to take a job on the staff of the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs.  

    (Besides, the NFL and the Holtz family don’t seem to mix, as those of us old enough to remember papa Lou’s one disastrous season with the New York Jets in 1976 before heading back to the college ranks at Arkansas, know.  So we don’t think Bulldog fans have to worry about Skip doing a “Todd Monken” anytime soon.)

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    Admittedly, however, the fact we are placing Tech on top of its division of C-USA has a much to do with the plight of the other entries in the Western half all having as many or more questions than the Bulldogs.  With half of the West also employing new head coaches this fall, the relative stability Holtz provides Tech must be viewed as a positive for the Ruston bunch, too.

    Holtz, who has done a nice job resurrecting his career at Tech, nonetheless has some significant questions to answer entering this season.  A potent offense that ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring (37.5 ppg) must replace a pair of NFL draftees in productive QB Jeff Driskel and decorated RB Kenneth Dixon, the latter a TD machine who was a fourth-round pick of the Ravens last April.  Dixon’s 87 career TDs will be almost impossible for one player to replace, as Holtz and new o.c. Todd Fitch likely to employ a RB-by-committee approach, with jr. waterbug Boston Scott (who gained 8.1 ypc in limited work last season that included a 77-yard run in the bowl win) the most likely to get extra carries.

    The QB position, however, is drawing the most scrutiny after Holtz was blessed with grad transfers Cody Sokol (via Iowa) and Driskel (via Florida) the last two seasons.  Driskel, a sixth-round pick of the 49ers, passed for over 4000 yards and 27 TDs last year out of the Holtz spread, but expected replacement jr. Ryan Higgins is not a greenhorn, having started six games pre-Sokol and Driskel, way back in 2013, when injuries decimated the QB position for Skip’s first Bulldog edition.  Higgins understandably struggled (just 6 TDP and 13 picks) when thrown in the fire as a frosh, but is now three years older and well-versed in the Holtz offense.

    Moreover, the versatile Higgins, who solidified his starting status in spring, is comfy in the read-option, though his primary task will be to get the ball in the hands of an experienced receiving corps which returns three starters including glue-fingered slot man Trent Taylor (99 catches last season) and deep threat wide man Carlos Henderson (21.5 yards per reception in 2015).  Utah transfer Alfred Smith is another Henderson-like speedburner who along with soph returnee Kam McKnight were the main storylines of the spring game when combining for 226 yards worth of receptions.  The line is in good shape with three returning starters plus G Kirby Watson, a starter in 2014 who missed all of 2015 due to injury.

    While most C-USA observers believe the offense will not drop off too much from recent editions, especially if QB Higgins is up to the task, there are question about a “D” that lost eight starters from one of the better stop units in the conference.  Very difficult to replace will be star DT Vernon Butler, a 1st-round NFL draft pick of the Carolina Panthers and a main reason the Bulldogs were able to rank 13th nationally vs. the run a year ago.

    Transfers, including ex-Arizona State CB Ronald Lewis, ex-Hawaii CB Jerrell Jackson, and juco S DeMarion King, all  figure to get a chance to play in a hurry in the secondary around SS Xavier Woods, an All-CUSA pick as a frosh.  The Butler-less DL returns starting DEs Aaron Brown and Deldrick Canty.  The real concern for d.c. Blake Baker is a completely new LB corps that will be counting heavily upon RS frosh Donald Scott and Collin Scott to step into the mix and deliver right away.

    Tech has dealt with tough non-league schedules before and this season will be no different, as the Bulldogs figure to be substantial road underdogs in September dates at Arkansas and Texas Tech.  Early league tests at Middle Tennessee and at home vs. Western Kentucky will prove more enlightening regarding any expected challenge for conference honors.  The West title might eventual come down to a season-ending showdown vs. Southern Miss, a game in which Holtz should have no trouble getting the Bulldogs ready after the Golden Eagles won 58-24 at Ruston last November.

    Spread-wise, remember that Holtz was highly successful in a dog role a decade ago at East Carolina and is 6-1 as the “short” the past two seasons.  After covering 8 of 9 away from Joe Aillet Stadium in 2014, the Bulldogs only covered 2 of 6 on the road last season, though Skip’s two-year overall spread mark is a solid 18-9.


    Fans at Southern Miss (2015 SUR 9-5, PSR 10-4, O/U 6-8) were reminded once again of their place in college football’s pecking order after HC Todd Monken abruptly left his post for a chance to return to the NFL, this time on the Tampa Bay Bucs staff, after the Golden Eagles forged an uplifting breakthrough campaign last fall.  Though Monken’s surprise departure should not be equated with other disappearing acts into the night, like when the Colts abandoned Baltimore in the dead of night in early 1984 and headed to Indianapolis.  After all, it’s not often that coaches have a chance to make a move from Hattiesburg straight into the NFL and a coordinator’s gig.  Moreover, Monken has NFL roots and a connection to new Tampa Bay HC Dirk Koetter, with whom Monken served on the Jacksonville Jaguars staff between 2007-10.  Even the most diehard USM boosters did not begrudge Monken for his move.

    Rather than look on staff for Monken’s replacement, however, the Golden Eagles turned to Jay Hopson, who most recently had resurrected the fortunes at Alcorn State as the HC of the Braves.  Hopson also has USM roots, having served two stints on Jeff Bower’s staffs between 2001-03 and 2005-07, so he is not completely unfamiliar with Roberts Stadium and Hattiesburg.

    Thus, Golden Eagles fans have a bit better feel about the new braintrust than they did four years ago, when the program collapsed under Ellis Johnson, a decorated defensive coordinator who had failed in previous HC attempts and did the same at Hattiesburg, losing all 12 games in 2012 after Larry Fedora high-tailed it to North Carolina.  The program had been destructed in short order before Monken arrived in 2013 and began to slowly put the pieces together, resulting in last year’s crown in the West half of the loop and a berth in the Dallas Bowl.  Along with Monken’s move, o.c. du jour Chip Lindsey was also targeted and took a big pay raise to assume the same role at Arizona State.

    Hopson, and new o.c. Shannon Dawson (who was dismissed at Kentucky after last season), both have roots in the “Air Raid” so don’t expect too many schematic changes in the Golden Eagle offense that would dramatically more than double its per game scoring output last year, up to a whopping 39.9 ppg, ranking 13th in the country.  Moreover, the trigger-man of the renaissance, QB Nick Mullens, returns for his senior season after passing for a hefty 4476 yards and 38 TDs a year ago.  Thus, changing much of the offensive philosophy would seem ill-advised.

    Mullens, a four-year starter and last year’s C-USA Offensive MVP, has several of his key weapons returning around him, including jitterbug RB Ito Smith, who bounced for 1128 YR in the balanced Golden Eagle “O” that would rank 12th nationally last season.  The OL is long in the tooth with three multi-year starters led by C Cameron Tom, an All-CUSA selection.  

    Another plus for Mullens is the return of sr. WR D.J. Thompson, who caught an impressive 55 passes a year ago.  Former Middle Tennessee and juco transfer Shannon Smith has big-play potential that was flashed in spring, while holdover soph Korey Robertson is expected to make contributions.

    The defense will have more overt changes from the platoon that provided almost equal improvement to the offense a year ago when the Golden Eagles ranked first in C-USA in yards allowed.  Hopson, however, has brought in his own d.c., Tony Pecoraro, who plans to transition USM from its traditional 4-3 base alignments into a more multiple scheme featuring 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 looks.  Last year’s coordinator, David Duggan, who oversaw the dramatic upgrades, has been reassigned to coach the LBs.

    Many of the headliners from last year’s defense, including leading tackler sr. D’Nerius Antoine, who flourished last season at FS but was moved to OLB in spring, top pass rusher sr. DE Dylan Bradley, and a pair of stalwarts in the secondary, jr. CB Cornell Armstrong and all-name DD Picasso Nelson, Jr., remain in the fold.  Like Antoine, however, Bradley was also position-switched in spring, moved to DT by the new staff, causing some C-USA observers to wonder if Hopson and Pecoraro might be doing a bit too much tampering with what was a pretty good thing last fall.  Time will tell.    

    One area that could use some upgrading is on special teams, where sr. PK Stephen Brauchle missed four PATs and his only FG try beyond 40 yards last season.  Meanwhile, sr. P Tyler Sarazin hit more line drives last fall than Ichiro Suzuki, as only one of his 45 punts resulted in a fair catch.

    The schedule includes two non-league road games at SEC entries, but the Golden Eagles think they have a shot in the opener at Kentucky, where o.c. Dawson returns with a score to settle with Mark Stoops.   A midseason trip to LSU will prove a more difficult assignment.  USM might also be favored in all of its C-USA games and gets only Marshall among the top contenders from the East half.  Thus, another bowl visit is a minimum expectation this fall, though we wonder about the various staff and scheme changes on “D” that might make it hard to replicate last season’s nine wins and C-USA West crown.

    Spread-wise, Monken also forged quite a turnaround last season, as the Golden Eagles improved to 10-4 vs. the number after covering just 7 of 24 tries in Monken’s first two campaigns.  The Golden Eagles also handled several big numbers last season en route to a 7-1 mark as chalk.
 

    Longtime fans at Rice (2015 SUR 5-7, PSR 5-7, O/U 7-5) have seen worse than the late-season collapse last fall that broke the Owls’ three-year bowl streak.  After all, this was a program that went 45 years between 1961-2006 without going to a bowl and did not record a winning record for the entirety of the ‘70s or ‘80s.  So, for those Rice fans who can vividly recall the Gemini and Apollo space programs and the heyday of crosstown Mission Control, last year’s fade was no big deal.  But new-age Owl backers who have been used to some degrees of success in the HC David Bailiff era could be excused for voicing their displeasure when last season would  unravel after a promising beginning.

    It wasn’t just that 2015 took a nosedive for the Owls, it was the manner of their late-season collapse that alarmed the handful of loyal backers of the second-smallest FBS school (only Tulsa being smaller enrollment-wise).  Though having the excuse of being injury-riddled, the Rice defense nonetheless collapsed down the stretch last season, reaching its nadir when on the wrong end of a 65-10 bombing by Southern Miss in mid-November.  When the dust had cleared, the Owls ranked a nation’s worst in yards per play defense (7.1 ypp), while also finishing near the bottom of national stats in sacks (ranking a poor 111th with a mere 16) and with only two interceptions, part of a measly 10 takeaways, which tied for last in the country.

    Obviously, Rice has a crying need for playmakers on its traditionally undersized defense, though again, the spate of injuries a year ago had something to do with the downturn.  Bailiff was forced to use 31 true or redshirt frosh in 2015, the highest such mark in the country.

    As usual, the Owls’ best chance is to simply outscore foes, but that might be a bit more difficult after the departure of longtime QB Driphus Jackson.  Senior Tyler Stehling, Jackson’s caddy the past two years, gets his one shot at running the offense this fall after limited work a year ago when competing 24 of 48 passes for 320 yards and 2 TDs in five games.  The 6'6 Stehling is regarded as an accurate passer and is not afraid to move out of the pocket, but he does not quite bring the mobility that allowed Jackson to run some read-option the past two years.  Instead, the Owls expected to run more uptempo this season after Bailiff switched assignments for some of his offensive assistants, with Billy Lynch assuming play-calling duties and Larry Edmondson concentrates on the QBs in Rice’s unique co.-o.c. arrangement.

    Though the Owls are expected to play at a faster pace, the infantry component is not likely to be abandoned after Rice has been consistently able to balance its offense in recent years.  In fact, the run might become more integral this fall with the top four RBs still in the fold from a year ago, including 215-lb. sr.  slasher Darik Dillard, who has accounted for more than 1300 yards plus 16 TDs the past two seasons.  The ability to establish the run also allows Rice to play a bit more ball control and keep its vulnerable defense off of the field.  Three starters return on the OL, including soph tackles Calvin Anderson and Sam Pierce, who had to grow up quickly a year ago when thrown into the fire as frosh.

    Still, Stehling rates as a bit of an unknown especially in comparison to predecessor Jackson, who was able to get the ball downfield and into the hands of his receivers with some consistency.  There is experience among the passing targets, with sr. WR Zach Wright (39 catches LY) the leading receiver in 2015, while jr. WR Temi Alaka and sr. TE Connor Celia are other returning starters.

    Bailiff also is casting a wary eye upon his kicking game, especially with former walk-on PK Hayden Tobola making just 8 of his 13 FG tries a year ago.  Moreover, effective P James Farrimond has graduated, though soph replacement Jack Fox reportedly has a strong leg.

    Of course, getting back to a bowl will require a better showing on defense after last season’s meltdown.  Beleaguered coordinator Chris Thurmond is hoping that the experience forged by  fire due to injuries last fall will provide him with more capable depth as eight starters return to the defensive fold.  For what it’s worth, Bailiff claims to be impressed with the platoon’s athleticism, speed, and ability to tackle well in space, though Rice could do no better than hold foes to 36 ppg last season, tied for a poor 108th in the nation.  
 
    The DL rotation, mostly comprised of frosh a year ago, simply must generate more QB pressure.  Junior DE Grayson Schantz, who missed all but one game last season due to a torn ACL, is expected to help juice the pass rush.  The pivot point of the platoon is sr. MLB Alex Lyons, who has led the Owls in tackles each of the past two seasons.  Thurmond experimented with some position switches in spring, including sr. Tabari McCaskey, moved from OLB to SS, a change expected to stick into the regular season.

    Despite last season’s fade, the Owls did not exactly fall off of the map with five wins, and they’ve won a respectable 30 games since 2012, the most in a four-year span in school history.  They’ve also opened up a new $31 million football center in one of the endzones at the refurbished Rice Stadium, now downsized to 47,000 seats but still offering some of the best sightlines in college football.  With the exception of a Sept. 17 visit by Baylor, Rice figures to have a chance to win the other five home games in its new-look stadium, though the road slate is treacherous, with trips to C-USA powers Western Kentucky, Southern Miss, and La Tech, plus a season-ender at Pac-12 heavyweight Stanford.  Still, there appear to be enough winnable dates for the Owls to once again get bowl-eligible.  

    Spread-wise, Bailiff has often delivered impressive marks in his nine years on the job, and had covered 27 times over a 38-game stretch into early last season before the Owls dropped 7 of their last 9 vs. the number.  Bailiff has been able to take care of business lately as home chalk, covering 12 of 16 in that role since 2012.
  
     
     It’s not easy getting to back-to-back bowls at UTEP (2015 SUR 5-7, PSR 6-6, O/U 4-8), which has turned that trick only once in the past 61 years, when Mike Price took his first two Miner editions into the postseason in 2004 & ‘05.  So, using that as context, perhaps there should be no alarms going off at the Sun Bowl after HC Sean Kugler was unable to follow up the 2014 New Mexico Bowl qualifier with another bowl visit last season.

    Still, the plight of the UTEPs of the college football world was underlined quite nicely, unfortunately so,  by the 2015 Miners, who could not sustain a move to the .500 mark with a rash of injuries that exposed the lack of depth that often hinders programs  in the lower reaches of the FBS ranks.  Though considering how the QB position, among others, was impacted, perhaps Kugler did well to get to five wins, especially with an offense that would rank a poor 112th (at a mere 20.7 ppg) in scoring.  Along the way, Kugler’s team demonstrated some scrap, winning three games by exactly three points.  

    Entering his fourth season at his alma mater, Kugler does seem to have progressed the program from the deteriorating hulk he inherited from Price in 2013.  Still, there is a bit of unease in the border town, where locals who cheer for the AAA Chihuahuas of of the PCL during baseball season believe Kugler might be the coach to finally lend stability and success to the program.  Others, however, noting that Kugler is well-regarded in the profession and has past experience in the NFL ranks, wonder if Kugler might soon take the Todd Monken route out of C-USA and back to the pro ranks if the opportunity should arise.  Stay tuned for further developments.

    In the meantime, the Miners seem to have a fighting chance to get back into the bowl mix, but only if Kugler can find some continuity at the QB position.  Mack Leftwich, who took most of the snaps last fall, was lost for the season in spring due to an arm injury, and 2015 backups Ryan Metz and Kavika Johnson were less than convincing in their spring work.  There is a new option, Fresno State graduate transfer Zack Greenlee, who made a handful of starts for the Bulldogs and has two years of eligibility remaining.  Greenlee, however, left much to be desired with his performances in Fresno.  Thus, Kugler enters fall camp without a clear idea who will be taking snaps for the opener vs. New Mexico State on September 3.  

    On what appears to be the plus side, Kugler, calling on past coaching contacts, in particular the Fiesta Bowl-winning Boise State staff on which he served in 2006, dialed up old friend Brent Pease, also on that Broncos staff, to take over as offensive coordinator.  While Pease works on sorting out the QB mess, he can call upon slashing RB Aaron Jones, who gained 1314 YR in 2014 before missing almost all of last season with an ankle injury.  The top receivers from 2015 all return, including wideouts Jaquan White and Tyler Batson, who combined for 78 receptions a year ago.  There is a behemoth, Arkansas-sized OL averaging 320 pounds that has ample experience with three returning starters and the most NFL-looking player on the roster in 330-lb. RT Jerrod Brooks.  Touted juco transfer Tanner Stallings is slated to start at the C spot.

    The new coordinator theme continues on defense with the addition of vet d.c. Tom Mason, most recently at Hawaii but before that having established his credentials with June Jones at SMU and Pat Hill at Fresno State.  Mason, looking forward to some calm after being part of staffs where the head coaches (Jones at SMU in 2014, and Norm Chow at Hawaii last season) changed during the season the past two years, will be altering things on the stop end, importing his time-tested 3-4 alignment to replace the 4-2-5,  intent on installing his “fire-blitz” schemes that have blitzed on approximately 70% of plays the past few seasons.

    Mason’s blitzing might be extra risky with a secondary that has been exploited routinely in recent years and ranked a poor 110th in pass defense a year ago.  Getting back 2014 All-CUSA SS Devin Cockrell, who missed last season with injury, adds a potential anchor to the defensive backfield.  There is plenty of experience surrounding Cockrell, most of it from being thrown into the fire due to injuries a year ago.  The other projected first-stringers in the secondary have 19 starts between them.

    Though eight players return to the "D" with starting experience, Mason was doing plenty of juggling in the spring with position changes designed to better fit the new 3-4 looks.  Former DTs Brian Madunezim and Mike Sota have both been moved to DE to flank NG Gino Breselin, who will be a third-year starter in the fall.  Some of the DEs from 2015 have been switched to OLB spots in the new scheme.  Last year’s leading tackler Alvin Jones anchors the LB group from his position on the inside.

    A year ago, the Miners were not helped by playing just five games in the Sun Bowl, but this season will have the benefit of seven home games, with winnable non-conference dates vs. nearby NMSU and Army sandwiched around a trip to Texas, and FCS Houston Baptist perhaps providing a W that will be valuable for bowl candidacy.  If UTEP can avoid last year’s rash of injuries and new o.c. Pease steers some consistency out of his available QBs, a return to the postseason mix is not out of the question.

    Spread-wise, Kugler has made a nice fortress out of the Sun Bowl, where the Miners are 7-2-1 vs. the line the past two years.  UTEP also covered 5 of its last 6 a year ago after the bottom seemed to drop out of the season following embarrassing back-to-back losses to UTSA and FIU, suggesting some real resilience within the Miner ranks.  

  
No
one in Denton would complain if they could simply walk everything back and forget last season at North Texas (2015 SUR 1-11, PSR 4-8, O/U 5-7), where the campaign became a train wreck by Columbus Day and prompted the in-season dismissal of sour HC Dan McCarney. The Mean Green team could not have pretended any better to be sabotaging its much-disliked coach when refusing to compete in the homecoming game vs. Big Sky Portland State, which roared to a 45-0 halftime lead and stretched the margin to 66-0 before UNT averted a shutout in the final two minutes.  The decision to can McCarney was probably reached by halftime but administrators would wait until the game concluded before un-apologetically hitting the eject button on their head coach.  

    The Mean Green could have been excused for humming the “Wicked Witch is Dead” tune from the Wizard of Oz in the wake of McCarney’s ouster, and did become more competitive thereafter under o.c. and interim HC Mike Canales, who had pulled similar duty a few years before when McCarney predecessor Todd Dodge was also a midseason casualty.  UNT actually covered the spread in four of its last seven games and would notch its lone straight-up W of the season when topping UTSA at futuristic Apogee Stadium, 30-23.  Though Canales, who deserved an award for keeping the UNT ship afloat as he did following Dodge’s dismissal five years earlier, was not retained and has landed on the staff of Matt Wells at Utah State.

    Still, a thorough housecleaning was in order just two years after UNT would record a 9-4 SU mark and win the Dallas Bowl over UNLV.  Stepping into the breach is the well-regarded Seth Littrell, most recently o.c. for Larry Fedora at North Carolina and the Tar Heels, who would rank in the top ten nationally in scoring last season.  Though some wondered why the 37-year-old Littrell would take the Mean Green job, others have correctly pointed out that UNT, due to its resources and location at the north end of the talent-rich DFW Metroplex, is in fact an ideal stepping-stone position, and that it should not take long for the right coach to win at Denton in C-USA.

    Whether that happens this season is open to conjecture, however, as the Littrell spread would appear a poor fit for the inherited talent recruited to run a pro-style offense during the McCarney years.  But the Mean Green plans to wing it for Littrell and his o.c. Graham Harrell, another Air Raid disciple dating from his days as a QB for Mike Leach at Texas Tech and most recently on the Leach staffs at Washington State.

    The first dilemma for Littrell and Harrell is to find a QB to run the Air Raid.  At the outset, look for Alabama grad transfer Alec Morris, who couldn’t advance beyond third string at Tuscaloosa the past couple of years, to take the snaps.  Morris does not have many established targets on hand; jr. Turner Smiley is the only returning wideout who caught more than 15 passes a year ago (Smiley caught all of 25).  But, the McCarney offense wasn’t exactly designed to pile up the aerial stats, ranking 126th in passing efficiency a year ago.  C-USA sources suggest that some of the untested wideouts from last season, such as potential big-play threat soph Tee Goree, might emerge as surprising weapons.

    Littrell does inherit a quality RB, jr. Jeffrey Wilson, who gained 830 YR a year ago as well as a decent receiver out of the backfield, and also perhaps the bridge between the past UNT offense and the new one.  Scatback Willy Ivery gained 6.6 ypc a year ago and provides a nice change-of-pace.  A combination of transfers and young charges hope to form a cohesive OL around a couple of returning starters, including C Kaydon Kirby, who missed spring after the passing of his father but is expected back in the fall.

    Unfortunately for Littrell, the stop unit he inherits in Denton was even worse a year ago than the offense, allowing a whopping 41.3 ppg and ranking in triple digits in every meaningful defensive category.  New d.c. Mike Ekeler, used to working with more talent after career stops at Georgia, Nebraska, USC, and LSU,  has reckoned (correctly, it would seem) that there is not enough DL manpower on hand to effectively run the Mean Green’s old 4-3.  Thus, springtime was spent installing the new-look 3-4 with lots of nickel packages that appears a better fit with an overflow of secondary components on hand.  Four starters return in the defensive backfield, and safeties James Gray and Kishawn McClain were UNT’s leading tacklers a year ago.

    Gray and McClain, however, were required to make over 100 tackles each a year ago, suggesting bigger problems up front,  especially a rush defense that was one of the worst in the country when allowing a whopping 240 ypg.   The new-look “D” will feature hybrid positions at DE/LB and LB/nickel back.  Jucos Josh Wheeler and Eji Ejiya and even true frosh William Johnson are expect to make major contributions in those roles and provide support around sr. LB Fred Scott, one of six returning starters on the platoon.

    The Mean Green enters 2016 flying well under the radar, but aside from a mid-September trip to Florida does not look to be that overmatched in the rest of its non-league slate.  Of course, how quickly the new Littrell offense begins to click, or resemble clicking, and how much improvement the new schemes provide on defense will determine whatever level of upgrade UNT achieves from a year ago.  After losing 66-7 to Portland State last October, it would be hard drop much lower.  

    Spread-wise, the Mean Green would lose 13 of its last 17 on the board under McCarney before making the aforementioned mild recovery down the stretch a year ago under Canales.  Still, UNT was only 8-16 vs. the number the past two seasons, including 5-13 its last 18 as a dog.  As mentioned before, there’s nowhere to go but up for Littrell and the rest of his new staff in Denton.  


    They like their football in the state of Texas, even at a relatively-new gridiron outpost such as UTSA (2015 SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7, O/U 7-5).  Much like their counterparts elsewhere in the Lone Star State, the Roadrunner backers also want to win now, and the thank you they gave program architect HC Larry Coker for getting UTSA football off the ground after a 2011 debut was forcing him out after two consecutive disappointing seasons.
 
    In retrospect, Coker devoted much energy to getting the program competitive ASAP, and his collection of transfers and jucos would get the Roadrunners up to speed by year three, when they would fashion a 7-5 SU mark and a 5-3 record in their first year of C-USA competition.  Unfortunately, much of the core of the team would graduate after 2013, and the next wave of replenishments had to hit the ground running in 2014 & ‘15.  On occasion, the Roadrunners would compete, but after getting the locals excited in 2013, the recent dropoff proved a letdown.

    Tasked with helping the program reach the next level is new HC Frank Wilson, hired away from LSU, where he served as the RB coach for Les Miles.  Wilson, rumored for several jobs the past couple of years, has a reputation as a top-flight recruiter, but has never been a head coach in his career.  Thus, we are a bit reluctant to forecast a big upgrade for the Roadrunners, remembering how another recent LSU RB coach, Larry Porter, with credentials much the same as Wilson’s, would fail miserably in a disastrous 2-year head coaching stint at Memphis.

    Wilson’s first task is to pump some life into a listless offense that would rank 104th in scoring (just 22.6 ppg) a year ago.  Fortunately for Wilson, grad transfer QB Jared Johnson arrives from  Stephen F Austin after earning Southland Conference Offensive MVP honors a year ago.  While with the Bearkats, Johnson passed for 5352 yards and ran for another 1601, and allows Wilson and his new o.c. Frank Scelfo to utilize some read-option packages if they so desire.  Of course, jr. Dalton Sturm is still in the mix after taking the majority of the snaps last season and passing for 1354 yards and 13 TDs.  Wilson thus has what seems are two decent options to run the offense.

    There are also supporting weapons in place, including sr. RB Jarveon Williams, who banged his way to 1042 YR last fall despite fighting thru injuries that would cause him to miss the finale vs. MTSU. With Williams doing the heavy-duty work, UTSA would run the ball over 50% of the time a year ago, and Wilson’s roots at run-happy LSU suggest the infantry will also be featured this fall at the Alamodome.  Last year’s leading receiver, wideout Kerry Thomas, Jr., returns after catching 52 passes, though replacing key TE David Morgan (NFL Vikings sixth-round pick) might not be easy.  

    Three starters are back along an OL that did a decent job opening holes for Williams and other RBs but needs to shore up its pass blocking after allowing 44 sacks a year ago.  Wilson will also need better production from PK Daniel Portillo, who was just 1-for-7 on FG tries beyond 40 yards and missed 5 PATs last season.

    Wilson and new d.c. Pete Golding plan to temporarily keep the stop unit’s existing 4-2-5 looks, utilized in the Coker regime, for at least one more season as it still appears the best fit for the personnel on hand.   The strength on the stop side figures to be the DL which returns three of four starters from a platoon that held its own vs. the run but was often torched thru the air a year ago.   Watch the progress of 6'6 DE Marcus Davenport, who has All-CUSA potential if he can add a bit more weight and strength to his frame.  

    There are concerns, however, across the back seven, where playmakers need to emerge at the LB spots, and where newcomers will be starting on both corners.  There is some experience in the secondary, however, where safeties Michael Egwuaga and Nate Gaines combined for six picks a year ago, and where a starter at a safety spot in 2014, Chase Dahlquist, returns to active duty after missing all of 2015 due to injury.  Still, upgrades are required for what was the lowest-ranked C-USA pass defense and the 117th nationally vs. the pass a year ago.

    Aside from the opener vs. Alabama State, the Roadrunners are going to be significant underdogs in their other non-league games at Colorado State, home vs. Arizona State, and at Texas A&M.  Yet there are what appears to be some winnable dates in C-USA.  Still, Wilson’s credentials as a head coach are unknown, and he must sort out the QB situation while hoping to forge some upgrades on defense for the ‘runners to improve upon last year’s 3 wins.  That might be a challenge.  

    Spread-wise, Coker’s teams were underperforming on the road the past two seasons, covering just 3 of 11 chances away from the Alamodome, and were just 7-15 vs. the number their last 22 on board.  Those numbers do not present much of a bar for Wilson’s first edition to clear.

NEXT UP: CONFERENCE USA--PART II


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