August 15, 2008

C-USA Unit Rankings: UCF in transition

MORE: 2008 Conference USA Preview

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. Tulsa
Yes, there's a new quarterback. But tailback Tarrion Adams and fullback Charles Clay are excellent, running back Courtney Tennial will contribute after getting a sixth season of eligibility and the new quarterback (senior David Johnson?) can be expected to put up good numbers in this high-flying offense.
2. SMU
Quarterback Justin Willis should thrive in new coach June Jones' offense. Tailback DeMyron Martin will be dangerous as opponents worry about the pass.
3. SOUTHERN MISS
Tailback Damion Fletcher is one of the best in the nation, and there is good depth at tailback. But who's the new quarterback?
4. UTEP
Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe should have big numbers, and tailback Terrell Jackson who started his career at Oregon is a talented guy.
5. EAST CAROLINA
Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass likely will share quarterback duties again, but they'll miss the comfort of having first-round pick Chris Johnson in the backfield.
6. HOUSTON
Quarterback Case Keenum became more consistent as last season moved along, but how will he fare in a new offense? And tailback Anthony Alridge will be missed.
7. RICE
Quarterback Chase Clement is a good passer. The Owls' running game, though, isn't strong.
8. MARSHALL
Sophomore tailback Darius Marshall is a future all-league guy, but the Herd needs a new quarterback.
9. MEMPHIS
The Tigers are rebuilding their backfield, but junior college transfer Arkelon Hall could be the answer at quarterback.
10. UCF
Tailback Kevin Smith who put together the second-best yardage total in NCAA history is gone, and there's not a back on campus who has had a carry in a college game. The quarterback situation is in flux, too.
11. UAB
The Blazers need a good season from quarterback Joe Webb, who started eight games last season at wide receiver. UAB also is searching for a feature back.
12. TULANE
Prolific 2,000-yard rusher Matt Forte is gone, and starting quarterback Anthony Scelfo left early to play pro baseball. Other than that

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT END
1. TULSA
The Golden Hurricane had two 1,000-yard wide receivers last season, and both are back Trae Johnson and deep threat Brennan Marion (an incredible 31.9 yards per catch, with 11 TDs).
2. MEMPHIS
The Tigers return their top six wide receivers, all of whom had at least 19 catches last season. Duke Calhoun and 6-8 Carlos Singleton combined for 16 TD receptions.
3. RICE
Jarett Dillard has caught 35 TD passes in the past two seasons. Toren Dixon and tight end James Casey are effective complements.
4. MARSHALL
This is a good group, headed by tight end Cody Slate. But is there a quarterback who can get them the ball?
5. UCF
Rocky Ross is a solid receiver and should lead the team in receptions again. Sophomores Kamar Aiken and A.J. Guyton have speed, and Aiken is a big-time deep threat.
6. SMU
Emmanuel Sanders is the only proven receiver for the Mustangs. In their new offense, he should be a 100-catch guy. The rest of the group is inexperienced, but new coach June Jones will mold them into a competent unit.
7. SOUTHERN MISS
Senior tight end Shawn Nelson has all kinds of talent, but never has quite lived up to billing. Sophomore Torris Magee and true freshman DeAndre Brown a five-star prospect should flourish in new coach Larry Fedora's spread offense.
8. EAST CAROLINA
Junior Jamar Bryant headlines a group that needs a No. 2 receiver to emerge.
9. UTEP
Jeff Moturi is a big-timer who had 65 catches (and 13 TDs) last season. Alas, no other returning receiver had more than 12 catches.
10. UAB
Sophomore Frantrell Forrest showed off some skills last season. Sophomore Mario Wright, who is 6-5, should become a threat in the red zone.
11. TULANE
Junior Jeremy Williams has 70-catch potential. But does the Green Wave have someone who can get him the ball?
12. HOUSTON
Tight end Mark Hafner is the leading returning receiver, with 40 catches. But no returning wide receiver had more than seven receptions last season, so new coach Kevin Sumlin has his work cut out for him here.

OFFENSIVE LINE
1. TULSA
One reason the Golden Hurricane led the nation in total offense last season (543.9 ypg) and scored 77 touchdowns was a good line. That group returns four starters, headed by guard Justin Morsey and center Jody Whaley.
2. HOUSTON
The Cougars return three starters, plus get back tackle SirVincent Rogers from injury. He has a great name and is the Cougars' best lineman.
3. EAST CAROLINA
This is a physical group that returns four starters, headed by guard Doug Palmer.
4. UTEP
Center Robby Felix is an all-league guy and is one of three returning starters.
5. TULANE
These guys are underappreciated. After all, someone had to open all those holes for Matt Forte. Four starters return, with guard Michael Parenton the one to watch.
6. MEMPHIS
Coach Tommy West has high hopes for this line, which returns three starters. Eight of the top 10 linemen are back from last season.
7. MARSHALL
The Herd returns three starters, but both tackles will be new.
8. SOUTHERN MISS
Tackle Ryan McKee is the headliner of a unit that returns three starters. There will be less of an emphasis on the power running game this season, so these guys have to adapt.
9. UCF
The Knights had the league's best line last season, but just two starters return. One is tackle Patrick Brown, who has made 38 career starts. The right side is all new.
10. SMU
There could be a learning curve as the linemen have to adapt to a pass-happy offense. Center Mitch Enright is the best of three returning starters.
11. UAB
The Blazers had a pitiful rushing attack last season, so even though three starters are back, a lot of improvement is needed. Center Jake Seitz is the guy to watch.
12. RICE
As with UAB, the Owls struggled to run the ball. So, having three returning starters doesn't mean that much. Guard David Berken, though, is a good one.

DEFENSIVE LINE
1. EAST CAROLINA
This could be a dominating group. Ends Zack Slate and C.J. Wilson are all-league types, and there should be a nice four-man rotation at tackle.
2. HOUSTON
End Philip Hunt is a big-play guy. The Cougars rely on quickness rather than bulk up front.
3. MARSHALL
The return of end Albert McClellan, who missed last season with an injury after recording 11.5 sacks in 2006, is huge. The Herd needs better play from its tackles.
4. UCF
The Knights had one of the best lines in the league last season, and though two starters are gone, this should be a solid unit. End Bruce Miller and tackle Torrell Troup have all-league talent.
5. MEMPHIS
All four starters return, but the Tigers weren't that good up front last season. Expect a big season from senior tackle Clinton McDonald.
6. TULANE
Ends Reggie Scott and Adam Kwentua are returning starters, and Scott is a good one. The tackles are new, though, and Tulane's run defense which was No. 1 in the league last season may suffer a bit.
7. UTEP
This is a smallish group that too often was overpowered at the point of attack last season. The Miners need a big season from end James Olalekan.
8. TULSA
The Golden Hurricane need to play better defense this season, and end Moton Hopkins is the only returning starter. Tackle Terrel Nemons has a lot of talent, but doesn't always use it.
9. SOUTHERN MISS
The Golden Eagles were known for their tough defense under former coach Jeff Bowers. But this is a new staff and this will be an all-new line. It's vital that some junior college linemen make an impact.
10. SMU
The Mustangs struggled to stop the run last season. Three starters are back on an undersized unit.
11. RICE
Two sophomore ends are the Owls' returning starters up front. Scott Solomon had a nice freshman season. Will the two new tackles get the job done?
12. UAB
All four starters are back, but to put it bluntly the line was a disaster area last season. The Blazers were last in the nation in run defense a year ago. While they will be better this season, they won't be appreciably better.

LINEBACKERS
1. SOUTHERN MISS
Junior Gerald McRath is the best defensive player in the league and he has a chance at All-America honors. Tokumbo Abanikanda is a speedy outside linebacker.
2. UCF
All three starters are back, though the Knights have no one in McRath's class. Chance Henderson is solid in the middle, and there's good depth.
3. EAST CAROLINA
Pierre Bell is the headliner for the Pirates. This is an experienced group, and it's not a stretch to expect the Pirates to lead the league in run defense this season.
4. TULANE
All three starters are back, plus David Skehan has moved from free safety and should start on the weak side. Depth looks good.
5. MEMPHIS
The Tigers had trouble stopping the run last season, and injuries at linebacker were one reason. If he's healthy, Greg Jackson should be the best linebacker for the Tigers.
6. HOUSTON
Middle man Cody Lubojasky is the only returning starter. It helps that the Cougars' line is a good one, lessening the pressure on this rebuilt unit.
7. RICE
Brian Raines had 81 tackles last season and gives the Owls a veteran presence. Rice runs a 4-2-5 set and both starters are back.
8. SMU
Senior Will Bonilla lacks size (5-11/215), but he makes plays. Justin Smart played well as a freshman last season at defensive end and should do OK in the middle.
9. UAB
Joe Henderson made 109 tackles last season, an offshoot of the line in front of him being caved in far too often. Still, Henderson can play.
10. MARSHALL
Maurice Kitchens made 90 tackles last season, but he is the only returning starter at the position.
11. UTEP
Middle man Adam Vincent, who began his career at Arizona State, is the standout. But he's the only returning starter. Other than Vincent, this is an undersized group that relies on quickness.
12. TULSA
All three starters are gone and they also were Tulsa's top three tacklers. Tulsa's front six (it runs a 3-3-5 set) is a huge question and could keep the Golden Hurricane from winning the league title.

SECONDARY
1. UCF
All four starters are back. All four starters are seniors. And cornerback Joe Burnett and strong safety Sha'Reff Rashad are the best players in the league at their positions. Cornerback Johnell Neal and free safety Jason Venson aren't bad, either.
2. SOUTHERN MISS
Two starters are back, and both corner C.J. Bailey and free safety Eddie Hicks should contend for all-league honors. Even with two new starters, this unit will be solid.
3. HOUSTON
Three starters return from a group that played well in '07. The safety tandem of Kenneth Fontenette and Ernest Miller should be stout.
4. UTEP
The Miners use a 4-2-5 set, and two starters return in the secondary. This group played poorly last season, though the return of Josh Ferguson who missed all but three games last season with an injury should help a lot. Ferguson is a safety now after formerly playing cornerback.
5. EAST CAROLINA
The Pirates' pass defense struggled last season, but six guys with starting experience are back, led by free safety Van Eskridge.
6. MEMPHIS
Cornerback LeRico Mathis and strong safety Tony Bell offer hope that this group will play better this season. To be fair, injuries hurt the Tigers in the secondary last season. If nothing else, a lot of guys gained valuable experience.
7. UAB
Free safety Will Dunbar was a tackling machine, finishing with 122 last season and frequently having to clean up the mess left by a bad line. This is an experienced group, with seniors projected to start at three spots.
8. MARSHALL
Free safety C.J. Spillman is an all-league type. He had 131 tackles last season and seemed to be in on every play. But the rest of the unit is questionable. The Herd had just four interceptions last season.
9. RICE
Cornerback Brandon King and free safety Andrew Sendejo (107 tackles, five interceptions) are a solid duo, and are part of a unit that returns three starters. But Rice was last in the league in pass defense last season.
10. SMU
Cornerback Bryan McCann is one of the league's best and is one of three returning starters for the Mustangs, who were awful against the pass last season. Big things are expected from new strong safety Rock Dennis, a junior college transfer who had to sit out last season with an injured knee.
11. TULSA
Three starters return from a nondescript group. A big problem: The front six is a huge mystery, so this group could get torched because there is no one to fear back here.
12. TULANE
The Green Wave had trouble stopping the pass last season, and it will be more of the same this season. Cornerback Josh Lumar is the only returning starter since free safety David Skehan was moved to linebacker. The potential exists for a nice pass rush, so perhaps the corners will get some help.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. SMU
K/P Thomas Morstead is good, especially at punter. The coverage units should be strong, but the return units need to improve.
2. SOUTHERN MISS
Punter Britt Barefoot is a standout, and kicker Justin Estes is adequate. The coverage units were good under former coach Jeff Bower. Will that continue with the new staff?
3. UAB
K/P Swayze Waters is one of the nation's best dual kickers. Cornerback Kevin Sanders is a solid punt returner, but UAB needs to get better on kickoff returns and on covering kicks.
4. UTEP
Kicker Jose Martinez has a strong leg and is accurate (17 of 20 last season, with a long of 57). The Miners are looking for a new punt returner, and the kickoff-return and kickoff-coverage units need work.
5. UCF
The Knights need a new kicker and kick returner, but cornerback Joe Burnett is a big-time punt returner. Punter Blake Clingan did a nice job as a freshman last season and should be better this season.
6. EAST CAROLINA
Chris Johnson did a great job returning kicks last season, but he's gone. ECU's coverage units weren't strong last season. Punter Matt Dodge is a good directional kicker, and kicker Ben Hartman lacks consistency but still has made some big field goals in his career.
7. HOUSTON
The Cougars are looking for a new kicker, and punter Chase Turner needs to improve his hang time. The return units were barely adequate last season.
8. MEMPHIS
Memphis' return units were solid last season, and kicker Matt Reagan was steady - though he lacks range. The coverage units weren't great, and punter Brent Sutherland needs to improve.
9. TULSA
The Golden Hurricane could use an upgrade across the board except for their kick-coverage unit, which was excellent. Kicker Jarod Tracy was 7-for-12, but can he make one when it matters?
10. MARSHALL
The Herd will have a new punter and kicker. Tailback Darius Marshall was superb as a kick returner last season.
11. TULANE
The Green Wave's coverage units and return units weren't very good last season.
12. RICE
Kicker Clark Fangmeier returns after going 7-for-12 on field-goal attempts. But there will be a new punter, and the Owls need a huge upgrade on their return teams.

COACHING STAFF
1. UCF
George O'Leary has had his share of staff turnover, but he has led the Knights to bowls in two of the past three seasons. They were in the C-USA title game in those seasons and are the defending league champs. Because of a rebuilt offense, new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable's unit will be in the spotlight.
2. EAST CAROLINA
Skip Holtz has proved he's more than just a last name. While he made his bones on offense, he has an especially good defensive staff with the Pirates.
3. SMU
New coach June Jones had a ton of success at Hawaii and hopes to resurrect a moribund Mustangs program. You have to figure Jones will get the offense cranked up; it's up to defensive coordinator Tim Hundley who had some success at UTEP under Mike Price to get that side of the ball up to snuff.
4. TULSA
Todd Graham did a nice job last season, his first with the Golden Hurricane. Coordinator Gus Malzahn calls the plays for a unit that led the nation in total offense. Graham's expertise is on the defensive side of the ball, and that's where Tulsa needs improvement.
5. UTEP
Mike Price has made the Miners relevant again, though a repeat of last season's 4-8 debacle wouldn't be welcome. Osia Lewis, who comes from New Mexico, is the new defensive coordinator. Lewis likes to blitz a lot.
6. MEMPHIS
Tommy West has taken the Tigers to bowls in four of the past five seasons. New defensive coordinator Tim Walton, who was fired from the defensive coordinator position at Miami after last season, has some work to do with his unit.
7. MARSHALL
Coach Mark Snyder is squarely on the hot seat. He has had a losing record in each of his three seasons, and a passionate fan base is getting antsy. The new defensive coordinator is veteran Rick Minter.
8. HOUSTON
The new coach is Kevin Sumlin, who had been co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He takes over a program that was rebuilt by Art Briles, thanks to a high-powered offense. John Skladany is the new defensive coordinator. Skladany held the same title at UCF last season.
9. SOUTHERN MISS
The new coach is Larry Fedora, who had been offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. The last time Southern Miss hired a new coach, it hired an offensive coordinator (Jeff Bower) from Oklahoma State. School officials can only hope the Fedora hire turns out to be as good as the Bower hire.
10. TULANE
Bob Toledo, who turned 62 in March, heads into his second season as coach. He has an extensive offensive background, but O'Neill Gilbert's defense likely will have to lead the way this season.
11. UAB
Neil Callaway heads into his second season with the Blazers, who still need a lot more talent to contend in this league. Veteran college and pro assistant Kim Helton is his offensive coordinator.
12. RICE
David Bailiff is yet another second-year coach in the league. Veteran assistant Chuck Driesbach is co-defensive coordinator. Bailiff has a defensive background, but the Owls were awful on that side of the ball last season.

MORE: 2008 Conference USA Preview

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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