by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The eternal quest for football relevance continues this fall at UAB, which, even when it hires an new coach, only gets mention outside of its local area by accident.

That’s just part of the reality for existence at one of the permanent members of the college gridiron underclass, one that is happy to exist on whatever crumbs are left over in a football-mad region that nonetheless has better things to do than worry about the Blazers.

Which is a shame, in a way, because UAB’s position in the new order of college football is a lot more substantive than many realize. For it was the Blazers, along with UCF, who provided the modern template for start-up gridiron programs, a fad that has grown to near-epidemic proportions in recent years.

For all of the newcomers to the football big-time such as UT-San Antonio, Georgia Southern, South Alabama, and Charlotte, UAB showed how it could be done in rapid order in the ‘90s. Beginning at the Division III level in 1991, the Blazers fast-forwarded their program to the point where they were a full-fledged Division I-A independent entry by 1996. After taking baby steps in its first few years of existence under HC Jim Hilyer, former Cincinnati, Rice, and Vanderbilt HC Watson Brown (right; brother of Texas HC Mack) took the fledgling program to new heights shortly after his hire in 1995.

Brown, indeed, became the face of UAB football in the late ‘90s (when the program moved from the independent ranks into recently-organized football division of Conference USA) and into the new millennium. The Blazers got competitive in a hurry under Brown, and had become a force to be reckoned with by the 2000 season when scoring a 13-10 win at LSU, UAB’s first-ever over an SEC opponent. The Blazers’ initial postseason experience came in in 2004, advancing to the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu.

Too much progress, perhaps, too soon? The LSU result in 2000 underlined the risk SEC powers were taking when scheduling an entry such as UAB, which would approach such high-profile opportunities with fanatical resolve. That win at Baton Rouge especially caught the attention of in-state Auburn and Alabama, neither of which had any desire to have another burgeoning football entity emerge in their own backyards. Although the Tigers gave a very-early version of the Blazers a shot back in 1996 (in UAB’s first-ever game as a I-A entry), the Crimson Tide has avoided the Birmingham branch like the plague. Indeed, that 1996 opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium is the only instance of either Auburn or Bama ever scheduling UAB on the gridiron.

Thus, over the past decade, the influence of the “big boys” in the state (especially the Crimson Tide) has succeeded in making life more difficult for UAB. Which was never more apparent than a couple of developments in recent years, when the Blazer program was looking to take some important steps forward.

After UAB lost some momentum following the 2004 bowl season, and Brown resigned to take the Tennessee Tech job, the Blazers seemed poised to name up-and-comer Jimbo Fisher, then LSU’s offensive coordinator, as the new head coach for 2007. But the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, which oversees all schools in the state (including Alabama and Auburn) and has a heavy Crimson Tide influence, nixed the deal. An influential member of the state board just happened to be Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jr., who, if sources are to be believed, had no interest in Fisher leading a surge at UAB. Instead, the state board (and Bryant, Jr.) recommended Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway (left), a respected assistant but not considered a homerun hire as was Fisher.

Predictably, the Blazers found no traction under Callaway, slipping further into irrelevance before his ouster at the end of last season (more on UAB’s new direction in a moment). In the meantime, the Crimson Tide-influenced state board continued in its quest to suppress the Blazer threat early in 2011.

With UAB seeking to build a 35,000-seat on-campus stadium, and developing a financial plan for its construction with significant private and corporate sponsorship that precluded the necessity for public funds (indeed, the creative model in which almost all university stadium deals are apt to follow in the future), the state board nonetheless rejected the plan out of hand, without even putting it to a vote of board members. Which has condemned UAB for the foreseeable future to decaying Legion Field, a historic facility but lacking in almost every amenity that newer stadiums routinely provide.

In a sketchy neighborhood on the west side of town, Legion Field is so Spartan that it doesn’t even have permanent concession stands. Moreover, the once-familiar upper deck on the east side of the stadium was condemned several years ago, resulting in its dismantling. Which is why the current-day Legion Field looks a bit smaller than it used to appear.

Indeed, UAB knows how it feels to be Cinderella before the ball, with the ugly stepsisters getting all of the attention. Unlike the fairy tale, however, the Blazers are not going to be able to escape their humble living quarters to ever have a chance at wearing the glass slipper. Alabama and Auburn will see to that.

Thus, the Blazer program, which generated enough momentum under Watson Brown to get airborne almost twenty years ago, stays only in low-altitude flight, likely beneath the college football radar screen in perpetuity.

Resigned to this fate, UAB continues to solider on, finally ridding itself of Callaway once his buyout became affordable (again, the state board wasn’t about to go out of its way to authorize a Callaway dismissal if it had a reason to stonewall it) following another lackluster 3-9 performance in 2011.

By the way, if Bear Bryant, Jr. wanted to make sure UAB wouldn’t pose an in-state threat by hiring Callaway, he was right; Callaway’s four-year mark at UAB was 18-42, and the Blazers’ string of sub-.500 seasons is now seven straight. Support at Legion Field is almost non-existent; Birmingham, only 60 or so miles east from Tuscaloosa, will always be Crimson Tide country.

Assuming this seemingly-thankless coaching task at Legion Field is Garrick McGee, a former Oklahoma QB and most-recently Bobby Petrino’s offensive coordinator at Arkansas. McGee was tabbed to succeed Callaway last December...but that was just the beginning of the story in the offseason. Petrino’s subsequent dismissal in Fayetteville unknowingly thrust McGee back into focus in April, as it was rumored that Arkansas might want to tap its former o.c. as its new coach. Trial balloons floated from Razorback Stadium, however, suggested that McGee might not be anxious to make another move so quickly. To McGee’s credit, he re-emphasized his commitment to his new job with the Blazers and took himself out of the discussion at Arkansas, which instead opted for Weber State HC and former aide John L. Smith (who has considerable top-level head coaching experience).

That chapter, however, might not be closed, for if John L. (on a one-year deal) doesn’t stick in Fayetteville, McGee could certainly re-enter the Arkansas equation, although his potential candidacy would likely have to include some success this fall at UAB...which is hardly assured.

McGee’s credentials suggest the Blazers ought to know what they’re doing on the attack end, but predecessor Callaway promised similar things four years ago. Regional sources still wonder if McGee, who coached the QBs at Arkansas before becoming Petrino’s o.c. the past two years and admittedly oversaw some powerful strike forces in Fayetteville, was simply in the right place at the right time, and that it was the Petrino influence that really put the zip in Razorback offense. McGee also had the benefit of top-flight QBs such as Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson the past two years with the Razorbacks; no Mallett or Wilson-types appear to exist on the UAB roster.

Instead, McGee will go to battle with jr. QB Jonathan Perry, a modest playmaker who performed with occasional flair when starting eight games a year ago for Callaway and passed for 2042 yards in the process. But there is no experience in reserve at the QB spot, and the supporting cast can be generously referred to as suspect.

That’s mostly because of a completely-rebuilt offensive line that lost five seniors, and four starters, from an attack that still could only manage 20.8 ppg (ranked a lowly 108th nationally) a year ago. A rebooted OL is hardly the best news for Perry, considered by the few in the region who keep tabs on UAB football as less of a difference-maker than Joe Webb, a predecessor from early in the Callaway regime who has invited a few comparisons.

Perry (left), whose skills do not necessarily translate to the McGee version of the spread imported from Arkansas, nonetheless impressed in spring when completing roughly 60% of his throws in scrimmage work, although McGee says that percentage will be expected to improve in the fall. McGee would prefer that the next viable QB alternative, touted frosh Josh Greer, be redshirted; most CUSA sources believe the only way Greer gets on the field in 2012 is if Perry goes down with injury in the first half of the season, which would tempt McGee to lift Greer’s expected redshirt.

At least there are going to be plenty of familiar receiving targets for Perry in the new McGee offense. Junior wideout Jackie Williams (right), with 88 catches the past two seasons (58 of those a year ago), had already emerged as Perry’s preferred go-to-target before McGee arrived, while sr. Nick Adams also started for much of 2011. Soph Jamarcus Nelson, who owns sprinter-like speed and gained better than 21 yards per catch on his 17 receptions (with 4 TDs) in 2011, and true frosh Nyiakki Height, could also flourish in the McGee offense.

Meanwhile, the infantry, which was sporadic in the final Callaway season partly due to nagging injuries that curtailed the production of do-everything RB Pat Shed, now features versatile jr. Greg Franklin (left), who displayed some spark last fall when gaining 5.1 ypc rushing for 430 yards in relief of Shed. Look for Franklin’s numbers to increase markedly now that he is the unquestioned feature back. Slashing RS frosh Bashir Coles could be another alternative after starring in the spring game.

McGee also seems to have a reliable PK, as Ty Long converted 16 of 19 FG tries as a frosh last fall, including the game-winner in a major upset over eventual CUSA champ Southern Miss.

Unfortunately, McGee’s offensive background doesn’t figure to much help a defense that sagged alarmingly last season (ranking a woeful 110th in scoring at 36.8 ppg and 114th overall when permitting a whopping 486 ypg) and returns only four starters.

There isn’t much for new d.c. Reggie Johnson to work with, especially in a completely rebuilt secondary that was strafed for nearly 300 ypg (again, a sorry 114th national ranking) and must replace all of its 2011 starters. At the top of the new depth chart, only sr. CB Cornelius Richards and jr. FS Calvin Jones have experienced any appreciable playing time in the past. Sources say there is room for newcomers to make an impact and to keep an eye on true frosh recruit Kelton Brackett, an in-state product from Pritchard who starred in prep All-Star games following last season who could quickly work his way into the lineup, as might jucos CB D’Andre Green and S Cortez Webb.

The front seven might have to compensate for all of that inexperience in the DB corps. Johnson’s 3-4 looks will attempt to feature impact LBs Marvin Burdette (right), a 5'11 230-lb. fireplug with a whopping 249 career tackles, and OLB Greg Irvin, who displayed nose for the pigskin last fall when recovering five fumbles. But the defensive line didn’t do much of a job last season, shouldering much of the blame for allowing over 5.2 ypc, and the last edition of the Callaway "D" was embarrassingly deficient in the pass rush category, recording just 8 sacks all of 2011 to rank a distant last in that category nationally.

Johnson, looking to get more push up front, has moved one of his two returning DE starters, jr. Connor Boyett (left), to a DT position. Soph DE Diaheem Williams hinted at providing some extra push from the edge when recording three sacks in the spring game. No matter, prospects are hardly encouraging for this stop unit which allowed 35 points or more (often much more) in half of its games a year ago and was bad enough to allow 49 points to Tulane (Tulane?) and 38 points vs. Florida Atlantic.

The McGee regime is also likely to get off to a slow start, with payday trips to Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State on deck in September. Still, it’s worth noting that Callaway’s last Blazer edition, understandably downgraded after that early-season debacle vs. Tulane, proved a capable pointspread performer with QB Perry at the controls when covering 7 of its last 10 on the board (and six of its last eight as an underdog) a year ago. Remember, however, that the Blazers have also historically provided very poor value as chalk, covering only 19 of 54 chances as a favorite since 2000 (and only 2-7 laying points the past two seasons).

Summary...Even in the modest CUSA gridiron neighborhood, UAB remains one of the poorer residents, with a less-than-modest support base and facilities that make it hard to envision a sustained breakthrough at any time in the near future. Indeed, the Blazers are between a rock and a hard place; if the McGee hire happens to work, he immediately gets on a short list of in-demand coaches and isn’t likely to stick around UAB for too long, and there is a real possibility that Arkansas could come courting after this season if the first McGee Blazer team shows any promise this fall. We’re not, however, expecting any miracles this season in Birmingham, as McGee inherits a team with considerable holes to fill, especially on defense. Perhaps QB Perry makes the offense dangerous, but we’re not holding our breath. The Blazers should continue to fly well beneath the radar until further notice.

There is, however, a branch of our favorite Dreamland BBQ in Birmingham, so any trip to a UAB home game can always be worthwhile!


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