Kiper: Irish begin Willingham era

Kiper: Tale of draft key for Irish

Kiper: 2002 season preview index

Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Independents preview notebook

I've already previewed Notre Dame. Now, here are shorter looks at the other independents (listed in alphabetical order).

CONNECTICUT
The Huskies went 2-9 in 2001, their second season at the Division I-A level. Next year they are slated to move into a new 40,000-seat stadium and are set to join the Big East Conference in 2005.

This year, a pair of sophomore QBs will lead the attack for coach Randy Edsall. Dan Orlovsky is a drop-back passer and will open as the starter, and Keron Henry provides a potential change of pace with his running skills. At RB, the Huskies will feature dynamic, shifty freshman Terry Caulley (5-foot-7, 178 pounds), who was reportedly the talk of preseason practice. Senior TE Tommy Collins figures as a nice option in the passing game.

Defensively, veteran Greg Smoot is the standout up front, and senior OLB Jamal Lundy is expected to range far and wide to make numerous tackles. The Huskies shut out Eastern Michigan last year and limited Ball State to 10 points. But other teams posted big numbers against them, including Eastern Washington (35), Buffalo (37), South Florida (40), Utah State (38) and Temple (56 in the season finale).

NAVY
Navy endured an 0-10 campaign in 2001, the first season in school history without a win or tie (on top of a one-win season in 2000). So you wouldn't expect much anticipation or excitement surrounding the program in 2002.

But that's what change can do. Especially when Midshipmen faithful realize firsthand the capability of new head coach Paul Johnson's sophisticated triple-option attack. Johnson's knowledge and ability to direct the triple option equals Steve Spurrier's mastery of the Fun 'n' Gun passing attack. Johnson's system works -- just check out Navy's success when it ran the triple option in the past.

Another key is the return to Annapolis of former coordinator Ken Niumatalolo, now the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. The Midshipmen were 9-3 in 1996, capped by a come-from-behind victory over coach Steve Mariucci and California in the Aloha Bowl. They followed that up with a satisfying 7-4 campaign in '97.

Directing this year's attack will be junior QB Craig Candeto (5-11, 200), who won the starting job in the preseason. But sophomore Aaron Polanco could be in the mix on occasion. Physically talented sophomore FB Kyle Eckel (6-1, 235) has displayed exciting potential. Eckel runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.60-second range and figures to be a key component in the triple option. Other pivotal performers on offense include slot-back Eric Roberts, WR Chandler Sims and OT Derek Jaskowiak.

After coordinating the defense for Chuck Amato at N.C. State last season, Buddy Green has moved to Navy, and Johnson has to be thrilled to land such a highly regarded defensive strategist. While seven starters have moved on, the 2001 unit allowed 45 points to Temple, 70 to Georgia Tech, 38 to Boston College, 42 to Tulane and 34 to Notre Dame, proving to be overmatched against both the run and the pass.

Green definitely has some issues to deal with, although junior LB Eddie Carthan and senior SS Lenter Thomas are potential standouts.

SOUTH FLORIDA
Jim Leavitt
Coach Jim Leavitt and USF face a tough schedule.
The Bulls, under the direction of outstanding head coach Jim Leavitt, face a tougher schedule than last season, when they went 8-3. Included was a shocking 35-26 victory over Pittsburgh on the road, plus wins over Sun Belt champ North Texas (28-10), Houston (45-6) and Utah State (34-13).

This year, Leavitt's hustling squad faces a schedule that includes national-championship caliber Oklahoma in Norman and road trips to Arkansas and East Carolina. The Bulls also host Southern Mississippi, Memphis and Bowling Green (the preseason favorite to win the MAC's West Division).

Leavitt has an elite QB -- highly skilled senior Marquel Blackwell. With his multidimensional skills, Blackwell figures to be an intriguing NFL prospect. His favorite target should be big-play performer DeAndrew Rubin, although senior Hugh Smith is another key component in a receiving corps that has some depth. Up front, sophomore LT Derrick Sarosi (6-6, 300) is quietly developing into a blue-chip bookend.

Defensively, everything revolves around feared sack artist Shurron Pierson (6-3, 244). The fast, super-strong junior really gets after the QB from the outside. Last season, Pierson recorded 10 sacks (seven in the final three games). The Bulls also have rugged, top-flight junior MLB Kawika Mitchell (6-1½, 253). Mitchell made more than 100 tackles last season.

In close games, a key will be the ability of sophomore PK Santiago Gramatica (younger brother of Martin and Bill) to bounce back from a shaky 2001 campaign (just 3-of-11 FGs and 44-of-52 PATs). The hope is that offseason knee surgery allows Gramatica to perform to the expected level. Remember, in 2003, the Bulls are set to join Conference USA, although they'll be doing so without the services of Blackwell, who is the straw that stirs the drink at South Florida. Finding a quality heir apparent is the challenge for Leavitt and his staff.

TROY STATE
When the Trojans open at Nebraska on Saturday, they'll be doing so with a new signal-caller and a new tailback due to the huge graduation loss of QB Brock Nutter and RB Demontray Carter. Nutter had started 48 straight games.

Moving into the starting lineup will be sophomore QB Hansell Bearden and senior RB LeBarron Black. Bearden, who saw action in just about every game last year, won the job in the preseason, beating out juco transfer Matt Ray.

The offensive line returns intact, so it will be up to Bearden to get the ball into the hands of talented senior wideout Heyward Skipper as much as possible. The Trojans also have high hopes for WR Drew Amerson, a transfer from Cal-Northridge.

Defensively, the Trojans are led by a veteran group with seven seniors in the starting lineup. The key performers include blue-chip cover man Rayshun Reed, DE Osi Umenyiora and MLB Naazir Yamini.

UTAH STATE
With battle-tested senior Jose Fuentes returning at QB and underrated standout Kevin Curtis at WR, the Aggies should field quite a pass-catch tandem. A quick, hard-nosed and extremely sure-handed wideout, Curtis could end up being a capable No. 2 or No. 3 option at the pro level. He's definitely one of the top wideouts in college football. Junior WR Chris Stallworth is a talented complement to Curtis.

The key offensively is adequately replacing RB Emmett White, whose graduation loss was huge. Junior RBs David Fiefia and sophomore Roger Robinson figure to see a great deal of action. While three starters were lost to graduation up front, the hope is that the line will be OK as the season moves along.

Defensively, to say that the Aggies had problems last season is an understatement. They allowed 30-plus points in eight games (including 43 to Wyoming, 43 to Weber State, 54 to BYU and 70 to Fresno State). They were physically pounded by the opposition, with lack of size a major problem on the line.

While senior MLB Jesse Busta is solid, he needs to be protected more effectively by the DTs and allowed to flow to the ball. In the secondary, senior Ade Jimoh uses his recovery skills and 41-inch vertical jump to rank as a solid cover man. Meanwhile, Steve Mullins figures to make his mark as one of the top punters in the country after averaging almost 45 yards per punt last season.

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