Kiper: 2002 season preview index

Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

WAC looks like a four-team race

I've already previewed Fresno State. Now, here are shorter looks at the other nine schools in the Western Athletic Conference. I'm picking Boise State to win the WAC, but Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Hawaii must be considered equal favorites (schools listed in order of my predicted finish).

BOISE STATE
Boise State's high-octane offense has just about everything in place to rival last season, when the Broncos scored 35 or more points in seven of their last 10 games.

Ryan Dinwiddie
Boise State QB Ryan Dinwiddie is surrounded by Fresno State defenders. But Mel Kiper expects the Broncos to stand tall in the WAC in '02.
Returning are RBs Brock Forsey and David Mikell and QB Ryan Dinwiddie (29 TD passes, 11 interceptions, 62.4 completion percentage).

Also returning are sure-handed WR Jay Swillie and veteran center Scott Huff, a four-year starter who makes all the line calls for blocking schemes.

In the backfield, Forsey is a versatile, hard-nosed performer who can run, catch and return kicks, while Mikell provides breakaway speed and big-play potential.

There are two concerns offensively. First, the O-line, which has three new starters. Perhaps its biggest loss was bookend OT Matt Hill, who was a key component in an attack that ranked 20th in the nation last season, averaging 275.3 yards passing per game. The second potential problem area could be tight end. Jeb Putzier was a key component with his background as a wide receiver, averaging almost 19 yards per catch last season with 12 TD catches.

Last season the defense allowed 32 points to South Carolina, 41 to Washington State, 30 to Fresno State, 42 to Louisiana Tech and 45 to Rice when it had no answers for the Owls' option attack. But the D showed improvement over the final three weeks of the season, when it allowed just 12 points per game and limited Hawaii to 21 points, its second-lowest output of the season.

In order to capture the WAC championship, the defense must build on that solid finish and make significant strides. For this to happen, the front seven, which returns just two starters and lacks quality depth, must perform above and beyond expectations. The D's strength is without question the deep patrol, where all four starters return, highlighted by blue-chip senior rover Quintin Mikell. Last year, he made 87 tackles, showing the ability once again to blitz, hit and cover.

Senior PK Nick Calaycay sprained the MCL in his right (kicking) knee in mid-August. No surgery was required, but he's expected to be out until late September. Until then, sophomore Tyler Jones will kick field goals. Jones, who served as the kickoff specialist last year, has a stronger leg than Calaycay. But he has never attempted a college field goal. Calaycay had a sub-par 2001 campaign, hitting just 1-of-5 FG attempts over 40 yards and 5-of-10 overall after connecting on 15-of-16 FGs in 2000.

LOUISIANA TECH
The Bulldogs have a brutal nonconference slate that includes the opener at Shreveport against Oklahoma State and road battles against Clemson, Penn State and Texas A&M. But they don't play Hawaii and face both Fresno State and Boise State late in the season.

By the way, the game at Death Valley is a rematch of last year's Humanitarian Bowl, won by Clemson and QB Woodrow Dantzler 49-24.

Leading the Bulldogs' scoring machine (36-plus points in seven games last year) will be super blue-chip junior QB Luke McCown, a sharpshooter who has already thrown for over 6,000 yards and 50 TDs in just 19 career starts.

McCown's primary target, former walk-on D.J. Curry, is back in the fold after catching 55 passes for 776 yards and eight TDs as a sophomore last season. Senior RB Joe Smith is also back, with talented juco transfer Ralph Davis also in the mix after an impressive spring. Up front, the Bulldogs return three starters, led by standout senior OT Damian Lavergne (6-5½, 350), who does a great job keeping his huge frame between the DE and the QB.

Defensively, the Bulldogs will shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in hopes of improving at slowing the run. The strength of the stop troop is the linebacking corps, highlighted by outstanding senior OLB Curtis Randall, who is all over the field with his speed and athleticism. Last year, Randall had three sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Due to the graduation loss of the D's best defensive player over the last two years, safety Bobby Gray, the secondary is a major source of concern. Solid cover man Jason Olford, who led the WAC in interceptions last year, also moved on. Senior safety Michael John Lenard will seek to stabilize the deep patrol. The performance of talented senior CB Willie Sheppard is also critical.

HAWAII
Coach June Jones lost some key offensive personnel, led by productive signal caller Nick Rolovich and superior wideout Ashley Lelie, but returns the components necessary to move the ball. At QB, Timmy Chang, who has game experience and a great deal of ability, is sidelined due to a fractured finger on his right (throwing) hand. His status for Saturday's season opener against Eastern Illinois is questionable and viewed as a game-time decision.

Chang had yet to practice as of Tuesday, so Jason Whieldon, a transfer from Saddleback Community College in California, could start in the opener. Chang had wrist surgery in January and also missed practice time in the spring, so he'll need to shake off the rust when he comes back. Chang's quick return from the injury list is critical, since the Rainbow Warriors face three challenging early road battles: BYU on Sept. 7, UTEP on Sept. 21 and Boise State on Oct. 5.

With capable wideouts Justin Colbert and Chad Owens returning, the Rainbow Warriors should be able to do plenty of damage through the air. In the backfield, Thero Mitchell and John West (5-10, 175), a shifty juco transfer, figure to split time.

There's no question that the top offensive player at Hawaii is super blue-chip senior OG Vince Manuwai, an explosively strong and quick trenchman who can dominate DTs. Senior Lui Fuata, who worked at LT the past two years and did a fine job, has shifted inside to center.

Expectations on the island are that this season's Hawaii defense could be one of the best in school history. The key components are DT Lui Fuga, DE Laanui Correa, DE Travis LaBoy, MLB Chris Brown, OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, CB Kevin Millhouse and SS Hyrum Peters (shifts from CB).

Brown is one of the elite MLBs in the country, combining a nose for the ball with remarkable strength. Another player to watch on the line is juco transfer Isaak Sapoaga (6-2, 310), who shows a great deal of promise. The only concern on D is at safety, necessitating the switch of Peters from the corner.

UTEP
With more big-play capability on offense and a stop troop that returns 10 starters, the Miners figure to improve on their 2-9 campaign of last season. Sophomore Jon Schaper has the skills to develop into a top-flight QB in the WAC, but he'll need some help from a receiving corps that was hurt by the graduation loss of Lee Mays.

Last year, Schaper saw action in three games, showcasing a live arm and good mobility. Against Alabama, he had a 74-yard TD run. In the backfield, senior Sherman Austin (5-8, 175) and sophomore Howard Jackson (two 100-yard games last year) need to show the necessary consistency. The offensive line should be OK, particularly if veteran OTs Trey Darilek and Ariel Famaligi provide solid play.

Defensively, the Miners have a chance to show significant improvement, with the return of 10 starters. Operating out of a 4-2-5 scheme, the primary headliners include LB Robert Rodriguez (led WAC in tackles with 137) and a talented deep patrol paced by senior LCB Weldon Cooks (20 career pass breakups) and senior FS D.J. Walker (knack for the big play as evidenced by his 12 career interceptions).

Also watch sophomore CB Jahmal Fenner, who doubles as a dangerous punt returner (13th in the nation with 13.2-yard average) and kickoff returner (24.5 yard average).

RICE
After a solid 8-4 '01 season that included a 27-24 victory over Hawaii and a 45-14 shellacking of Boise State (plus a hard-fought 41-38 overtime loss at Louisiana Tech), the Owls definitely deserve more respect than they seem to be getting in preseason evaluations.

While the defense was hit hard by graduation, the impossible-to-simulate-in-practice triple option could be even more diversified this time around. You'll see plenty of no huddle and shotgun, with the potential for more passes than usual to be thrown. Junior Kyle Herm, who checks in at just 5-8 and 175 pounds, is as tough and as gritty a competitor as you will ever come across.

Herm has top-notch FB Robbie Beck, make-you-miss RB Clint Hatfield and proven WR Gavin Boothe. The offensive line, led by sophomore OT Greg Wilson, is counting on Stanford transfer G Mike Holman, who sat out last year.

The major question marks can be found on defense. While veteran DE Brandon Green led the WAC with 12 sacks last season and is the best player on the team, there are seven new starters. Of primary concern is CB, since the Owls face Michigan State and incredible wideout Charles Rogers plus the aerial circuses of Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, Boise State and Hawaii.

SMU
There is plenty of enthusiasm building as the Mustangs approach the 2002 campaign with new head coach Phil Bennett, who is viewed as one of the top defensive minds in college football. Last season, the Mustangs were extremely competitive in close defeats to N.C. State and North Carolina, while they allowed a two-TD lead in the fourth quarter to slip away against Hawaii. They also rolled to a 37-20 victory over the 8-4 Rice Owls.

Offensively, redshirt freshman QB Tate Wallis is at the helm, with a toughness that can be traced to his days as a linebacker as a high school junior. Wallis will lean heavily on super sophomore RB ShanDerrick Charles (5-9, 181), a quick, instinctive pounder who broke Craig James' freshman school rushing record last season. Against San Jose State, Charles rushed for 243 yards and three TDs even though he didn't carry the football until the second quarter.

The season-ending broken leg of senior WR Chris Cunningham (eight TD receptions last year) is a major blow. Look for Wallis to go more to senior TE John Hampton in clutch situations. A solid, reliable performer, Hampton shows outstanding hands and can break tackles. Up front, three new starters are being worked into the mix as Bennett looks to restructure the offensive line.

Defensively, Bennett has a strong back seven, but there have to be major concerns about the defensive front over the long haul. The top players on D are productive senior MLB Vic Viloria (100-plus tackles each of the past three years) along with blue-chip cover men Kevin Garrett and Jonas Rutledge. Rutledge, who can flat-out fly, excels as a return man and may also see action on offense.

TULSA
After going 5-7 in Keith Burns' first year as head coach in 2000, the Golden Hurricanes slipped to 1-10 last season, with inexperience and a lack of depth leading to the downfall. In fact, 62 of their 88 players last year were either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. This season, if things fall right, four or five wins may be possible for a team that appears to be building for 2003.

Offensively, the skill-position talent is improving. Sophomore QB Tyler Gooch displays plenty of versatility. An enthusiastic signal caller who can create with his legs, Gooch rushed for over 100 yards against Rice and San Jose State last year. Junior RB Eric Richardson played in all 11 games last year but was not 100 percent due to knee and neck injuries. Even so, he put together a fine showing in several games, with a noteworthy performance against Fresno State (119 yards on 22 carries).

Junior Darrell Wimberly is set at one WR, and on the other side coaches hope freshman Jerome Janet (5-11, 180) provides an immediate impact. Janet is a Parade High School All-American who signed on at Kansas State out of the prep ranks. Up front, junior OG Matt Black must be the leader.

Last season, when injuries hit the defense early, lack of depth proved to be a major problem. This year, there's more strength in numbers, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. But the standout is senior DT Sam Rayburn, a quick, determined 300-pounder who last year tied Tulsa's single-season record for tackles for loss (with 16, including four sacks).

Based on the improvement shown in the spring, aggressive, hard-nosed OLB Michael Dulaney appears to be primed for an outstanding senior campaign. Senior SS Keithan McCorry is the major headliner in the deep patrol, where WR Wimberly might also see action, possibly working some at CB. Wimberly's size (6-0, 195) would be a plus, since the starting CBs lack ideal height.

SAN JOSE STATE
With 13 games in 13 weeks -- including nonconference road games at Washington, Stanford, Illinois and Ohio State -- the Spartans, who return just five starters, definitely have their work cut out. Second-year head coach Fitz Hill has to hope the offense builds on impressive performances last season when they posted 40 points against UTEP, 63 against Tulsa and 64 against Nevada.

Marcus Arroyo, entering his fourth year as the starting QB, needs to be more consistent. While he's thrown 28 career TDs and was on fire against Nevada last year (21-of-26 for 476 yards and five TDs), he's also tossed 26 career interceptions. Arroyo has some capable options at WR, led by highly regarded juco transfer Kendrick Starling and senior Charles Pauley (41 catches last year). Up front, senior RT Tim Provost is a quality veteran, with 33 starts in his college career.

On D, the Spartans were overwhelmed last year, finishing 115th in the nation in total defense. They allowed 500 yards per game, with opponents scoring an average of 38 points per game.

NEVADA
With 17 starters returning, the Wolfpack have the necessary experience plus an offense that features quality sophomore RB Chance Kretschmer and blue-chip senior wideout Nate Burleson. Kretschmer runs with purpose on every carry (157 yards per game in 2001). Burleson makes the difficult catch look routine and should have an NFL future (53 receptions, 13.9-yard average in '01).

With the graduation loss of David Neill, the new QB is Zack Threadgill, who started two games last season while filling in for the injured Neill.

Unless the defense improves significantly, Threadgill will be under pressure on just about every drive to match points. Last year, the D allowed an average of nearly 500 yards per game. Eight starters return, with the leaders figuring to be DE Jorge Cordova (shifts from LB), MLB Daryl Towns and FS Ronnie Hardiman.

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