I've already previewed Memphis and Louisville, which is seeking its third straight Conference USA crown. Now, here are shorter looks at the other eight schools in Conference USA (listed in alphabetical order).
In his third season at West Point, coach Todd Berry hopes the Cadets improve on last year's 3-8 season with a young squad that will consist of 80 to 85 freshmen or sophomores (out of about 128 players). With all the inexperience, a five-win campaign would be more than satisfactory, with the understanding that this team is being built for 2003.
The Cadets' one-back multiple offense, featuring a variety of looks that will include an empty backfield out of the shotgun formation, will be directed by sophomore QB Reggie Nevels. A quality athlete who was selected in the baseball draft out of the prep ranks, Nevels will look to improve as a passer while taking advantage of his ability to scramble and create yards when plays break down.
|Cincy QB Gino Guidugli will try to get a handle on the Bearcats' potentially dynamic offense.|
Berry also brought in six freshman signal-callers, with the headliners being Laron Bybee and Zac Dahman, both from Texas, and Connor Crehan, who prepped in New Jersey.
Besides Nevels, the players to watch offensively are RB Josh Holden, WRs Aaron Alexander and Aris Comeaux, and veteran OG Aaron Burger.
On defense, everything revolves around senior DE Clarence Holmes, an effective outside pass-rusher who brings with him a non-stop motor. Also worth noting on defense are ILB Jason Frazier, DT Paddy Heiliger, CB Jonathan Lewis and quality senior Maurio Smith, who is shifting from CB to free safety.
The Bearcats have a chance to field one of the most impressive offenses in Conference USA, provided the play of the offensive line is up to par. Sophomore QB Gino Guidugli is a big-time gunslinger who can fire strikes to anyplace on the field. As a freshman, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for more than 2,500 yards and 16 TDs.
Plenty of solid targets return in the impressive senior triumvirate of LaDaris Vann, Jon Olinger and Tye Keith. Last year, this group combined for a whopping 142 receptions and 14 TDs. The running game is keyed by senior DeMarco McCleskey, who becomes the primary option after sharing the workload last year with Ray Jackson (graduation loss).
Defensively, the Bearcats have star power, led by awesome outside senior pass rusher Antwan Peek. Peek has recorded 21 sacks, 39 QB hurries and 35 tackles for loss in the past two seasons. But more consistency is needed on D. The Bearcats allowed 28 or more points in six of their last nine games in '01. The other key headliners are all seniors: DE Derrick Adams (12 tackles for loss last year), MLB Willis Edwards (shifts from OLB), CB Blue Adams (six career interceptions) and FS Ivan Fields (86 tackles in 2001).
In close games, coach Rick Minter is fortunate to have veteran senior PK Jonathan Ruffin. In the past two years, he has connected on 38-of-45 field-goal attempts and 62-of-63 PATs.
The Pirates hope to make up for the graduation loss of QB David Garrard and RB Leonard Henry, both of whom were integral pieces of the puzzle for coach Steve Logan.
Garrard concluded his career in Greenville as ECU's all-time leader in passing yards, completions and TDs. Henry enjoyed a career year in 2001 (1,432 yards rushing, nearly 8.0 yards per carry, 16 TDs). He also caught 26 passes.
Looking to pick up the slack will be sophomore QB Paul Troth (6-5, 235). At RB, junior Art Brown and sophomore Marvin Townes figure to split time. Troth played in three games last year but threw just four passes, competing one. He's viewed as an accurate short-to-intermediate passer with average arm strength. Senior Richard Alston (6-0, 215), a converted QB, is the top wideout (31 receptions, three TDs in 2001).
With so much uncertainty at the skill positions, the Pirates are fortunate to return a quality veteran offensive line, led by standout junior LT Brian Rimpf. Junior Doug White is regarded as ECU's best center in the Steve Logan era.
Defensively, major questions exist in the front seven, where three starting linemen and two linebackers were graduation losses. But senior John Williamson, a combination DE/OLB, does return. A 6-2, 233-pounder, Williamson recorded 65 tackles (14 for loss) and 6½ sacks last year.
A key up front could be the emergence of physically gifted junior Damane Duckett (6-6, 295), who came on strong during the second half of last season, recording three sacks and eight tackles for loss. At linebacker, the Pirates will be faster but inexperience is a concern with three redshirt freshmen -- Chris Moore, Richard Koonce and Josh Chilsom -- playing key roles.
While the secondary has experience, it struggled in 2001 (last in Conference USA in pass defense). While four starters return, the returners have shifted around, with senior Antwane Yelverton moving from LB to SS. The key, though, is the performance of veteran cover men Jerome Steward and Kelly Hardy.
After an 0-11 campaign that saw the Cougars score more than 21 points in just four games while allowing 39 points per game, coach Dana Dimel's squad has nowhere to go but up.
Improvement is needed at QB, where junior Nick Eddy has the potential to do a serviceable job. However, the future at this position figures to belong to physically gifted redshirt freshman Barrick Nealy (6-5, 225), who possesses a strong arm and provides a running threat. Eddy, who pulled a hamstring early in camp, has been practicing recently, but the starting job has yet to be decided. The starting QB will be a game-time decision when the Cougars open against Rice on Saturday.
While Joffrey Reynolds opens at RB, former Texas transfer Chris Robertson is expected to return in early October. Robertson, a talented performer, suffered a major knee injury late in the spring game. The Cougars are hoping he will be back in time for their game against TCU on Oct. 5.
The wide-receiving corps is on a par with any team in Conference USA. Junior Brandon Middleton is an excellent wideout, while versatile, sure-handed juco transfer Jon Clark figures either as a flex TE or big wideout (6-5, 222). While the offensive line has blue-chip junior center Al James and some solid guards, as a unit it has some questions to answer, particularly at OT.
Last year, the overmatched Cougar defense failed to generate pressure on opposing QBs and was unable to slow down the running game. Senior Hanik Milligan is an excellent player, you don't want your free safety to come anywhere close to the 174 tackles he made last year. That's why Dimel brought in 18 recruits on the defensive line and several juco products to help fortify things up front.
In addition to Milligan, who has a future in the NFL, the players to build around are former juco transfer CB Roland Cola, junior MLB Justin Davis, sophomore LB Damien West (a transfer from Texas A&M who sat out last year) and senior SS Jesse Sowells. Sowells really came on strong late last year, recording 16 tackles in the season finale against Georgia.
Coach Jeff Bower's Golden Eagles went 6-5 in 2001 but closed things out with setbacks to Alabama and TCU. They were 3-5 down the stretch after opening the campaign with a 3-0 record.
With Jeff Kelly moving on to the NFL, the big question on offense centers around the QB position. In the mix entering preseason practice were sophomores Mickey D'Angelo and Zac White and redshirt freshman Dustin Almond. Bower said Monday that D'Angelo will start the season opener Saturday against Jackson State but noted that there isn't much separating the three.
Senior RB Derrick Nix figures to provide a huge boost. Nix returns to action after missing the 2001 campaign with a kidney ailment. He's reportedly stronger and quicker than ever, primed for an impressive conclusion to his career in Hattiesburg.
Benefiting Nix and the new QB is a veteran offensive line led by OT Jeremy Bridges and OG Torrin Tucker. There's also plenty of proven depth at RB and WR, with the key target figuring to be senior wideout LeRoy Handy.
The Golden Eagles' defense should be a team strength, along with the offensive line and Nix. The D has plenty of experience, with the front seven figuring to be particularly impressive. The headliners are DE Terrell Paul, DT Rayshun Jones, MLB Rod Davis and OLB Joe Henley. The secondary should be OK, due to the presence of junior CBs Greg Brooks and FS Etric Pruitt.
With Casey Printers opting to transfer to Florida A&M for his final college season, fifth-year senior Sean Stilley takes over as the starting signal-caller for the Horned Frogs. Since the QB doesn't have to carry things offensively in TCU's system, the key for Stilley will be to manage the attack efficiently and avoid costly mistakes.
Texas transfer Kenny Hayter could provide a boost in the running game. He's in the mix along with fellow juniors Ricky Madison and Cory Connally. Last year against Houston, Connally rushed for 199 yards.
While senior wideout Adrian Madise provides star power as the Horned Frogs' MVP last season and LaTarence Dunbar is a proven performer, the graduation loss of TEs Matt Schobel and B.J. Roberts hurts. Senior Quint Ellis will be asked to fill the tight-end void, but the future could be bright for sophomore Cody McCarty (6-4, 256). McCarty initially came to TCU as a QB and DE.
Up front, the Horned Frogs have strength in numbers, with plenty of depth as well as the presence of standouts such as senior OG Jamal Powell and junior OT John Glud.
The defense, which allowed far too many big plays last year, attacks out of a 4-2-5 scheme and figures to be one of the fastest in Conference USA. The key standout is underrated senior OLB LaMarcus McDonald, coming off a 2001 campaign that saw him record 80 stops, including 25 tackles for loss, and six sacks.
Two key difference-makers in the secondary are senior CB Jason Goss and sophomore FS Marvin Godbolt.
J.P. Losman takes over for Patrick Ramsey at QB for the Green Wave, so don't expect a major drop in production from the aerial attack. Once he settles in, Losman, a former transfer from UCLA, has the pure passing skills to put on a show. This is contingent, though, on the performance of a completely restructured offensive line that could run into some troubles.
Losman does have weapons around him, led by underrated blue-chip junior RB Mewelde Moore (1,465 yards rushing and 65 receptions last year), junior wideout Roydell Williams (56 catches and 11 TDs) and sophomore TE Bobby Hoover, who earned freshman All-American honors last year.
The Green Wave defense was in way over its head last year, allowing 50 or more points on four occasions (70 in the season opener vs. BYU).
For strides to be made, head coach Chris Scelfo will need quality efforts from DE Kenan Blackmon, CB Lynaris Elpheage and SS Adrian Mitchell --plus the effective return from the injury list of DE Floyd Dorsey, DT Roxie Shelvin and CB Jeff Sanchez. These three were limited by injuries in a number of games last year.
A major plus is the return of senior PK/P Seth Marler. Last year he connected on 15-of-16 field-goal attempts.
With QB Thomas Cox, RB Theron Dudley, FB Kendal Gibson (six rushing TDs on 32 carries last year) and WR/return man Willie Quinnie, the Blazers appear to have the necessary skill-position talent to sustain drives.
Cox, who has a 6-1 record as a starter, led Conference USA QBs in rushing last year with 445 yards (plus five TDs). Cox needs to work on his passing efficiency. Look for coach Watson Brown to utilize redshirt freshman Darrell Hackney too, providing a change of pace with his 6-2, 230-pound frame and eye-catching arm strength. Up front, senior Kirk Tuck is generally viewed as the elite center in Conference USA.
The defense could be faster, but the secondary has talent, led by blue-chip senior Chris Brown, who moves from CB to free safety. The Blazers lost a ton of ability on D. The major losses were defensive linemen Bryan Thomas and Eddie Freeman, LB Rod Taylor and safety Adrian Singleton. Thomas was a relentless force off the edge, while Freeman provided a big-league presence on the interior. Both Thomas and Freeman were four-year starters.
Of the returnees, DE James Malone, DE Hassan McKeithen, DT Marvin Nickson, CB Dio Hill and Brown must step up big-time.