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What to watch in the Sun Belt this spring

2/23/2010

Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Arkansas State Red Wolves

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Three-time All-Sun Belt rusher Reggie Arnold is gone and finding his replacement will be their top priority. Derek Lawson, who was third on the team in rushing with 244 yards and two touchdowns, returns and he’ll be the incumbent through spring. But he’ll face competition from Sir Gregory Thornton and Frankie Jackson in the fall.

  • Ryan Aplin, who started three of the final four games last season, should be the leading quarterback this spring. Redshirt freshman Phillip Butterfield, however, will also challenge him for the spot. Butterfield was in the mix last fall camp before his season ended with a knee injury.

  • Arkansas State is currently without an offensive coordinator after Clay Helton, who came over from Memphis last month, left for USC last week. The Red Wolves still have a month before spring football starts, but trying to fill that void this late is going to make any transition to a new offense tough.

Florida Atlantic Owls

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The Owls lost seven starters from the offense, including four from the offensive line. The only player returning is center Ryan Wischnefski. Several players will be fighting for those spots, including Troy Niblack, Samuel McRoy, Jared Pizzuti and Max Karrick. The 2009 FAU offensive line was the best in the program’s short history. It helped FAU become the No. 2 passing offense in the Sun Belt.

  • FAU returns senior quarterback Jeff Van Camp, who started the second half of the season after Rusty Smith was injured. But six of the team’s top seven receivers are gone, including both tight ends Jason Harmon and Jamari Grant. Senior Lester Jean is the lone returning receiver. He had 501 yards and four touchdowns last season. The good thing is that FAU quarterbacks like to spread the ball around, so developing a new rapport with some receivers this spring shouldn’t be too difficult.

  • The team is counting on new defensive coordinator Kurt Van Valkenburgh and secondary coach Dick Hopkins to make the defense competitive. The Owls had one of the worst defenses in the country and one of the worst in program history. There will be a lot of competition in the secondary, especially since three walk-ons filled those starting roles.

Florida International Golden Panthers

Spring practice starts: March 3

Spring game: April 1

What to watch:

  • Senior Wayne Younger and junior transfer Wesley Carroll, who came from Mississippi State where he was an all-freshman selection in 2008, will compete for the starting quarterback job after Paul McCall graduated. Younger played in spot time last year and threw four interceptions and no touchdowns.

  • Darriet Perry should be the leader heading into the running back competition, but Perry struggled at times last year, mostly because of injuries. Kendall Berry, who played out of the Wildcat last year, and Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden also will compete for the starting role.

  • New offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield will be happy to see star receiver T.Y. Hilton back after he struggled with knee injuries most of last year. Hilton is one of the most dynamic receivers in the conference and having him healthy should give the offense confidence.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Spring practice starts: March 3

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

  • The Louisiana-Lafayette running game, which had been the strength of the team for the past four years, took a dip in production last season. The Ragin’ Cajuns used a few different backs, but couldn’t find the consistency they had with Tyrell Fenroy. Yobes Walker is the leading returning rusher with 412 yards and two touchdowns last year, but there will be a lot of competition this spring and fall to find a true go-to back.

  • The offensive line was a strength last season after allowing just 13 sacks all year. But three of those starters are gone, including left guard Brad Bustle and center Chris Fisher. The backups were freshmen or transfers last season, which will make this spring crucial to get some continuity going.

  • ULL will need to find replacements for top linebackers Antwyne Zanders and Jezreel Washington, who were among the team leaders in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Daylon McCoy has experience and should step in easily, but players such as Richard Brooks and Kyron Benoit will duke it out for the final starting role.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • With new head coach Todd Berry taking over as the quarterbacks coach, the competition for starter is open. Trey Revell, Zach Rhodes, Kolton Browning and Cody Wells will all be competing, but Revell and Wells are the only two that played last year. Revell was the starter most of the season, but Wells was productive in his two starts, throwing for 267 and 279 yards at Kentucky and Troy, but also threw three interceptions in each game.

  • The Warhawks have three vacant spots on the offensive line and junior college transfers Ryan McCaul and Jordan Karriman will be counted on to fill them. Seniors A.J. DeGroot and Andrew Stout and junior Josh Andrews also will compete for playing time on the line. The offensive line was one of the bright spots for the Warhawks -- allowing just 1.33 sacks per game and helping the running game to 183.92 yards per game.

  • The loss of Aaron Morgan is a big blow to the defensive line. He led the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Ken Dorsey, Jordan Landy and Quantez Hunter will compete to earn the starting job. Landry was Morgan’s backup last year, but played sparingly.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

  • The Blue Raiders are trying to find an offensive coordinator to replace Tony Franklin, who took the same position at Louisiana Tech. Franklin was a big reason for MTSU’s 10-win season and it will be interesting to see the direction the offense goes without him. The Blue Raiders lose four offensive starters, but quarterback Dwight Dasher, who was the key offensive cog, remains.

  • The Blue Raiders need a deep snapper after three-year starter Adam Wade unexpectedly quit the team in January. Wade graduated in December and decided not to pursue a master’s degree. Finding a replacement will be at the top of the list since kicker Alan Gendreau is a Lou Groza Award candidate in 2010.

  • Linebacker Danny Carmichael has been a staple for the defense and will be key to replace this spring. Carmichael was second on the team in tackles and third in both sacks and tackles for loss. Redshirt freshman Stephen Roberts and junior Gorby Loreus will be the top two candidates to fill the void.

North Texas Mean Green

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • This is a pivotal season for coach Todd Dodge and he thinks he has to win enough games for bowl eligibility. This team isn’t far. Five of the Mean Green’s 10 losses last year were by four points or less and most of them were because the team tripped late. This spring, Dodge will need to get his team to believe it can win those close games.

  • The team’s six top receivers return, but UNT will be working a couple newbies into the fold in Oklahoma transfer Tyler Stradford and junior college transfer Christopher Bynes. All eight will be battling to be quarterback Riley Dodge’s top target.

  • Defense will again be the focal point for the Mean Green after being their Achilles heel last year. They gave up 412.33 yards and 35.58 points per game last season. UNT also needs to do a better job of getting to the quarterback as they averaged just one sack a game.

Troy Trojans

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 3

What to watch:

  • Jaime Hampton should be the starting quarterback after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Hampton was the starter in 2008 before suffering the injury midway through the season. He decided to redshirt last year to allow Levi Brown to start uncontested. Junior Dantavious Parker and junior college transfer Greg Jenkins figure to be the top challengers for the starting role.

  • The Troy defense was hit hard with the loss of eight senior starters. Several of the backups saw time, but it’s going to take all spring to get those guys to play at the same level the Troy defense played at during its four Sun Belt championship seasons. The toughest players to replace will be defensive ends Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield and linebacker Boris Lee. All three led their respective positions and were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

  • The running back competition should be entertaining with DuJuan Harris and Shawn Southward going at it the same way they did all of last season. Southward led the team with 602 yards and 12 touchdowns, but Harris wasn’t far behind with 582 yards and 10 scores. Harris had 112 yards against Central Michigan in the GMAC Bowl, which could give him a slight advantage heading into the spring.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • After Western Kentucky posted an 0-12 season in 2009, one of just two teams in the FBS to go winless, new head coach Willie Taggart changed both the offensive and defensive philosophies and every position is open. Taggart did go out and get more speed and athleticism from Florida and California to make the Hilltoppers more competitive in the Sun Belt, but most of that talent doesn’t arrive until the fall.

  • Quarterback Kawaun Jakes is the incumbent this spring, but several backups and junior college transfer Matt Pelesasa also will challenge for the starting role. Jakes completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,516 yards, nine touchdowns and nine turnovers.

  • The defense will make the switch to the 4-3 base, which should improve one of the nation’s worst total and scoring defenses. Linebacker Thomas Majors and defensive back Mark Santoro return after leading the team in tackles last year, but they’ll have a lot of work to do this spring to become competitive in a conference that’s good on defense.