Conference USA spring recap

Updated: May 4, 2006, 4:25 PM ET
By Brett Edgerton | Special to

Tulsa rebounded to claim the Conference USA title in 2005. UCF stunned everyone by reaching the C-USA championship game. What surprises are in store for 2006? Spring practice revealed some of the answers, but others questions will have to be answered in the fall.

East Carolina Pirates
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Navy
9/9 at UAB
9/16 Memphis
9/23 West Virginia
10/7 Virginia
10/14 Tulsa
10/21 SMU
10/28 at Southern Mississippi
11/4 at UCF
11/11 Marshall
11/18 at Rice
11/25 at North Carolina State

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Chris Johnson* (684 yds)
Passing: James Pinkney* (2,773 yds)
Receiving: Aundrae Allison* (1,024 yds)
Tackles: Chris Moore (96)
Sacks: Marcus Hands* (6)
Interceptions: Kasey Ross*, Pierre Parker* and Zach Baker (3)

Spring answers: In a strange but welcome development, two players who competed at quarterback last spring suddenly are looking like major contributors at two different positions, neither of which is quarterback. Walk-on Davon Drew bulked up, moved over to tight end and looked impressive enough this spring to take the starting job, while Kort Shankweiler is the team's newest fullback. … Meanwhile, current quarterback James Pinkney quietly put together a heck of a season. And he might be on the verge of taking his game one step further. For the first time in his career, Pinkney has the same head coach and offensive coordinator for consecutive years, and he's shown a real progression in the understanding of Skip Holtz's offense. … One name that kind of came out of nowhere this spring: Quentin Cotton. The junior played sparingly in the past, but has played himself right into the mix in a muddled linebacker competition. … Don't be surprised if safety Jamar Flournoy finds his way to a starting spot in the secondary. He was on track to gain one last season, before violating team rules and being suspended for the fall. He's back and appears intent on starring in what could be a stout secondary.

Fall questions: Can the Pirates run the ball? And perhaps more important, can they stop anyone from running the ball? In its own backfield, ECU wasn't scaring anyone last year. Chris Johnson was OK, but he had neck surgery in the offseason and Dominique Lindsay put together a nice spring. That'll be an interesting battle in August. As for the defense, only five teams in Division I-A gave up more yards on the ground than the Pirates (218 ypg). The entire D-line is back, but needs to be better, especially the interior. … And what about the linebackers? All three starters are gone and all three spots are essentially toss ups at this point. Three junior college players dominated early in the spring, but tapered off as players like redshirt freshman Jeremy Chambliss and the aforementioned Cotton made a charge. … The cornerback spot opposite Kasey Ross also warrants watching. Junior Travis Williams appears to hold a slight lead over sophomore Stacy Walls. … Any life in the return game? The Pirates were bad on both punts (92nd nationally) and kickoffs (100th). Can someone step in to provide an occasional spark?

Houston Cougars
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Rice
9/9 Tulane
9/16 Grambling State
9/23 Oklahoma State
9/30 at Miami
10/7 Louisiana-Lafayette
10/14 at Southern Mississippi
10/21 UTEP
10/28 UCF
11/4 Tulsa
11/11 at SMU
11/18 at Memphis

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 10, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Ryan Gilbert (1,087 yds)
Passing: Kevin Kolb* (3,258 yds)
Receiving: Vincent Marshall* (939 yds)
Tackles: Rocky Schwartz* (114)
Sacks: Wade Koehl* and Cody Pree* (4)
Interceptions: Kenneth Fontenette* (4)

Spring answers: It's finally Jackie Battle's turn -- and it looks like he's ready to take advantage. The misconception is that he's simply a burly goal-line back, but there's little truth to that. He might be 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, but he runs more like 5-11, 210. Remember, this is a guy who ran for 124 yards and three touchdowns in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl as a redshirt freshman. He'll have a solid senior season. … So will WR Biren Ealy, a transfer from Arizona returning to his hometown. With Kendal Briles gone, UH needs to find a dependable No. 2 behind Vincent Marshall and Ealy might be the one. He led the Wildcats in receiving three years ago and is a potential deep threat for Kolb. … Another senior sleeper is Roshawn Pope, a former all-everything quarterback who gave Alabama a verbal, but ended up staying home. For three years, Pope earned his playing time in the secondary. In his final season, he'll spell Battle in the backfield and looks flat-out dangerous out in the flat. Those jitterbug moves are going to find their way onto the field at some point. … Forget the incoming freshmen. New strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson Jr. might have been the biggest offseason addition. The aggressive mentality Jackson brought from Oklahoma has won over the entire team, which already appears stronger and more disciplined. Scoff if you must. But some inside the program felt the Cougs could have won a couple more games last year if they had been better conditioned, both physically and mentally. That won't be an issue in 2006.

Fall questions: Will QB Kevin Kolb end his college career like he began it? Kolb hasn't necessarily gotten worse since his remarkable freshman campaign, but he certainly hasn't gotten any better. That flat line of production needs to show a spike. … Kolb will be helped if the guard situation is cleared up. Houston lost both starters, but Jeff Akeroyd and Byron Alfred are scheduled to return in August. The pair showed promise and gained plenty of experience two years ago, but injuries wrecked their '05 seasons. Both are needed in '06. … The defense returns nine starters. Now it's time to get better, especially against the run. That Kansas offense of last season had no business putting up 538 yards and 42 points against any team, much less in a bowl game. Art Briles brought in some veteran assistants in hopes of a turnaround. … Who exactly is the kicker on this team? Does anyone know? The Cougars had to set some kind of record by bringing six specialists on the road with them last season. One kicker would be used from inside 35 yards. One would be used from longer than 35. Yet another would be used on kickoffs. Decide already. And while you're at it, try to do something about that 28-yard net average on punts, which ranked below all but one team in America.

Marshall Thundering Herd
2006 Schedule
9/2 at West Virginia
9/9 Hofstra
9/16 at Kansas State
9/23 at Tennessee
10/4 UCF
10/14 at SMU
10/21 at UAB
10/28 Memphis
11/4 Tulane
11/11 at East Carolina
11/18 UTEP
11/25 Southern Mississippi

2005 overall record:
Conference record:
Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Ahmad Bradshaw* (997 yds)
Passing: Jimmy Skinner* (1,135 yds)
Receiving: Hiram Moore (630 yds)
Tackles: Dennis Thornton* (104)
Sacks: Dennis Thornton* and Shavar Moore* (4)
Interceptions: Chris Royal (3)

Spring answers: In some ways, this spring was about embracing the past. The campus was in a frenzy with Matthew McConaughey and his Hollywood pals in town to shoot the upcoming movie, "We Are Marshall," which chronicles the program's inspirational return to football after a tragic 1970 airplane crash. In other ways, though, the spring was about embracing the new. Scrapping the traditional one-back offense, head coach Mark Snyder is bringing the I-formation back to his alma mater. The Herd didn't do much on the ground last season, but don't expect a repeat performance. Four starters return up front and the coaches rave about redshirt freshman tackle Zane Bruhin. Plus, Ahmad Bradshaw will have an extra blocker now. And don't sleep on 5-foot-9 Chubb Small. Not only does the sophomore have a great name, but he can play. These guys might not be able to pound it like the Ohio State offenses coordinated by Snyder, but the running game will be just fine. … Marshall returns most of its key parts from a unit that led Conference USA in yards allowed (248 ypg). At linebacker, everyone returns. In fact, senior Matt Couch moved to the weakside because of the sudden emergence of Brandon Souder, who saw limited action last year after arriving from junior college. If there's a name to remember, though, it might be Josh Johnson in the middle. A former must-have recruit, Johnson originally signed with Georgia and then was pursued heavily by Florida when things didn't work out in Athens. All you need to know is that he'll be in Huntington this fall and the staff is ecstatic. … If you want some real answers from the Marshall spring practice, then there's really only one way to go. Simply consult your nearest West Virginia student spy, of course.

Fall questions: People unfamiliar with Marshall's program don't realize how much pressure Thundering Herd fans put on their starting quarterback. The legacy of that position, established well before Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, is something the Marshall family takes seriously. And the play of Bernie Morris and Jimmy Skinner didn't pass the test in 2005. Can one of them take control this year? The quick Morris probably has more upside and a slight edge over Skinner because of his ability to run. However, the junior still appears to be learning how to play the position at times. It's time to accelerate that pace. … Of course, a legitimate deep threat would help. The lack of speed at receiver poisoned the passing game last season and the returnees didn't magically transform themselves into something other than possession guys. Can JC recruit Darius Passmore or a few of the freshmen step in right away? If not, the league's lowest scoring team might not be a whole lot better in Year 2 of the Snyder era. … The secondary helped Marshall finish 12th nationally in pass defense last year, but strong safety Curtis Keyes is really the only sure thing these days. C.J. Spillman and Geremy Rodamer are battling at free safety, and both cornerback spots will be filled by untested underclassmen. Sophomore James Johnson probably has one of the jobs, but there are at least three or four others vying for the other one. … Can the team expect better than 50-50 odds when it lines up to kick a field goal? Ian O'Connor and David DeFatta combined for an 8-for-17 effort in '05. With DeFatta gone, it's all up to O'Connor this time. … This is unquestionably a better team than the one that ended the school's streak of 21 straight winning seasons last fall. But what happens if the team's confidence is shattered by the end of September? A road slate that consists of trips to West Virginia, Kansas State and Tennessee is one hell of a way to prepare for conference season.

Memphis Tigers
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Ole Miss
9/9 Chattanooga
9/16 at East Carolina
9/30 at Tennessee
10/7 at UAB
10/14 Arkansas State
10/21 Tulsa
10/28 at Marshall
11/4 Southern Miss
11/11 UCF
11/18 Houston
11/25 at UTEP

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning) Rushing: DeAngelo Williams (1,964 yds)
Passing: Maurice Avery (894 yds)
Receiving: Ryan Scott* (577 yds)
Tackles: Tim Goodwell (102)
Sacks: Carlton Baker (5)
Interceptions: Brandon McDonald* (3)

Spring answers: Joseph Doss is not DeAngelo Williams. After all Williams did for the program -- with his bubbling personality and record-breaking play -- there's no point in even trying to imitate. But is head coach Tommy West staying up all night wondering how to replace the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yards? Hardly. West loves Doss, a local product who enters his junior season with some experience (440 rush yards in '05). At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Doss doesn't have the bulk of Williams, but he does have the straight speed. … If the Tigers develop a quarterback and a passing game this year, there will be plenty of talent on the receiving end. In addition to Ryan Scott, Memphis returns Mario Pratcher and Carlton Robinzine from injury. Maurice Jones, named to the all-conference freshmen team, will be back in August after tearing his MCL this spring. … The defensive line, wrecked by injury and reduced to just two-man fronts at times last fall, quickly is looking like one of the strengths of the team. Ends Van Houston and Rubio Phillips were two of the eight starters or potential starters on the team who suffered season-ending injuries last year. Both return and will be joined on the line by redshirt freshman Greg Terrell and one-time Ole Miss signees Jada Brown and Corey Mills. Don't underestimate the impact of those three additions. … And for your own safety, don't underestimate FS Wesley Smith if you're anywhere around the field. We can assure you offensive coordinators who have watched him land on the C-USA first-team for three straight years will not. Memphis D-coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, who has coached at a third of the SEC schools, thinks Smith might be the best tackler he's ever seen.

Fall questions: Out of four choices, can the Tigers find at least one quarterback who can give the team a viable passing attack? Unbelievably, the team lost both Will Hudgens and Patrick Byrne to broken legs early last season and Maurice Avery did an admirable job in piloting the team. But the Tigers averaged just 130 yards through the air (111th nationally), which won't cut it without Williams' running to alleviate pressure. Billy Barefield was in the mix this spring, but it was Martin Hankins who was working with the first team with Hudgens and Byrne limited until August. Hankins threw for more than 7,000 yards in two seasons under Hal Mumme at SE Louisiana. … The front four should be fine, but the back seven on defense faces plenty of questions. The Tigers are really thin at linebacker after losing the team's top two tacklers of 2005. And the secondary just plain needs to get better after finishing last in Conference USA in pass defense (280 ypg). The corners, in particular, need to show some consistency. … The graduation of Stephen Gostkowski, the model of consistency for years, leaves a gaping hole at placekicker. In spring, three walk-ons competed to replace the school's all-time leading scorer. In August, true freshman Seth Reagan has his chance.

Rice Owls
2006 Schedule
9/2 Houston
9/9 at UCLA
9/16 at Texas
9/23 at Florida State
9/30 at Army
10/7 at Tulane
10/14 UAB
10/21 UCF
11/4 at UTEP
11/11 at Tulsa
11/18 East Carolina
11/25 SMU

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 10, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Quinton Smith* (902 yds)
Passing: Chase Clement* (582 yds)
Receiving: Jarrett Dillard* (524 yds)
Tackles: John Syptak (72)
Sacks: John Syptak (4)
Interceptions: JaCorey Shephard* (2)

Spring answers: Yes, it's true that the hiring of a new coach brings a sense of optimism to any downtrodden program during the spring. The difference here is that native Texan Todd Graham is getting things done -- already. He not only brought a revved-up new attitude to the team, but also a Jumbotron and brand new field turf to the stadium, which routinely draws less people than many high school stadiums in the Lonestar State. Those upgrades might not seem like a big deal, but they are at this small, private institution, which had no interest in providing such things in the past. In recent years, Rice had become a program almost content with being terrible  even in the technology the football staff used, which was basically non-existent compared to modern staffs. The Owls probably won't win many games this year, but there are signs of hope. And what more could you want out of the spring? … Position changes that turn out rosy are always welcome, too. Joel Armstrong, who started all but one game at quarterback last season, made the switch to receiver and looks like he'll be a major contributor at a position that desperately will be needed this fall. Rice has plenty of runners in the backfield, so senior Marcus Rucker made the move to linebacker, a position he hasn't played since high school. He'll be in the rotation come autumn.

Fall questions: Can Rice's offense make a quick transition from Ken Hatfield's option-based attack run to the up-tempo, shotgun spread attack that's being preached by Graham and new coordinator Major Applewhite? In the spring game, QB Chase Clement passed for 371 yards on 43 attempts. Last season, Armstrong passed for 554 yards on 85 attempts. That's a pretty radical change. Plenty of receivers also need to be identified. … And what about the defense? Even the Houston Texans might have scored at ease on this bunch last season. Only one team in the country gave up more points (41 ppg) than the Owls, who gave up at least 27 points in every game last season. It became a mental crisis -- every little thing that went wrong deflated the team's spirit. Paul Randolph, who helped the nasty defensive line at Alabama the last three seasons, takes over as defensive coordinator and will try to get the unit to attack and not just react. Rice forced just 11 turnovers last season. Plenty of things have to improve with this defense, and that number is chief among them.

SMU Mustangs
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Texas Tech
9/9 at North Texas
9/16 Sam Houston State
9/23 Arkansas State
9/30 at Tulane
10/7 at UTEP
10/14 Marshall
10/21 at East Carolina
10/31 UAB
11/11 Houston
11/18 Tulsa
11/25 at Rice

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 0

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: DeMyron Martin* (854 yds)
Passing: Jerad Romo (1,781 yds)
Receiving: Bobby Chase* (625 yds)
Tackles: Joe Sturdivant* (112)
Sacks: Justin Rogers* (7)
Interceptions: Jamey Harper and Alvin Nnabuife (4)

Spring answers: SMU hasn't seen a tailback like DeMyron Martin in years. That much is certain. When the Mustangs handed TCU its only loss of the season, Martin announced his arrival by scoring all three of the Mustangs' touchdowns. He kept it up throughout the fall and throughout the spring. He's tough to catch, tough to bring down and will team up with the ultra-quick Johnnie Fitzgerald in a Thunder-Lightning combo that will be tough to contain. … SMU faced an extremely muddled situation at quarterback going into the spring, but now appears to have its man. Like the rest of the contenders, redshirt freshman Justin Willis has never taken a college snap, but shows a good grasp of the offense and puts the ball where it needs to be. He doesn't have a cannon, but so far he's shown the best ability to avoid mistakes, which is key for this run-oriented team. As for Chris Phillips, the only quarterback who had taken a snap, he really never recovered from a shoulder injury and was moved to tight end in March. … The Mustangs lost two starters at linebacker, but coach Phil Bennett firmly believes they'll be better at that spot. Reggie Carrington has proven what he can do and the staff is high on the potential of converted receiver Tony Hawkins, who has bulked up but can still fly.

Fall questions: Eight offensive starters return and SMU thinks it can run with any team in the league. Lofty goals for a unit showed some life late in the season, but still finished last in C-USA and 104th nationally in total offense (308 ypg). The Mustangs need to develop some sort of passing game this year, so opponents don't stack eight or nine in the box every down. If this team doesn't develop a deep threat to at least keep the opponents honest, the struggles will continue. SMU actually led the nation in red zone efficiency (30-of-32), but the Ponies settled for three instead of six too often. Chris McMurtray made his final 17 field-goals attempts of 2005, but he is gone now and the kicking situation isn't settled. So it's time to find the end zone. … Which team will show up this fall? The one that beat three bowl teams (TCU, Houston and UTEP) and pushed the conference champion (Tulsa) or the one that scored 13 points against Marshall, lost to Tulane by 21 and got smoked, 66-8, by Texas A&M? SMU posted its most victories in eight years and won three straight to end the season. If this program is to be taken seriously, that momentum must be maintained throughout 2006.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Florida
9/9 Southeast Louisiana
9/16 NC State
9/26 at UCF
10/3 at Tulsa
10/14 Houston
10/21 at Virginia Tech
10/28 East Carolina
11/4 at Memphis
11/11 at Tulane
11/18 UAB
11/25 Marshall

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Larry Thomas* (647 yds)
Passing: Dustin Almond (2,860 yds)
Receiving: Shawn Nelson* (540 yds)
Tackles: Kevis Coley (150)
Sacks: Coley and Robert Henderson* (5)
Interceptions: John Eubanks and Brandon Sumrall* (4)

Spring answers: On what should be a pretty solid offensive line, sophomore Ryan McKee locked down a spot at right tackle with a spectacular spring. The coaching staff loves the potential of this kid. Jeff Bower, for one, thinks McKee will be an all-conference performer before long. … Look for the Golden Eagles to involve the tight end more and more into the offense. Shawn Nelson really came on during the second half of last season and USM now knows what they have. Nelson can be a weapon this fall. … Bower says DE Shadler Manning is a perfect example of why a coach should never completely give up on a kid. His story involves a couple mess-ups, a banishment to junior college and apparently a triumphant and reconciliatory return to the program. Now with a new focus, Manning looks like he might be a nightmare for C-USA tackles this season. … With his name, Tokumbo Abanikanda will be a nightmare for sportswriters. And by all indications, that name will be appearing in newspapers plenty. Now that Kevis Coley has graduated, Abanikanda is in line to become the next great Southern Miss linebacker.

Fall questions: After what seems like a decade in Hattiesburg, longtime QB Dustin Almond is out of eligibility. By the end of spring, it appeared his replacement would be Jeremy Young. The junior certainly doesn't have a sizable lead over Michigan State transfer Stephen Reaves, but his ability to scramble makes Young the leader in the clubhouse. … Finding a quarterback is important, but finding a running game is essential. The Golden Eagles run to set up the pass, and finishing second-to-last in the conference on the ground tends to foil those plans. This program should expect more than 111 rushing yards a game. Although it's not clear who will start yet, it's crucial both Larry Thomas and Cody Hull pick it up in the backfield. That much is clear. … The defense, which improved last year but still tends to give up too many big plays, needs to replace the Coley twins (LB Kevis and FS Trevis), the interior of the D-line and shut-down corner John Eubanks. The competition is hot at nearly every spot and will continue to be in August. The only position that might be sewn up is at middle linebacker, where walk-on Mitch Craft played out of his mind this spring.

Tulane Green Wave
2006 Schedule
9/9 at Houston
9/16 at Mississippi State
9/23 at LSU
9/30 SMU
10/7 Rice
10/14 at UTEP
10/21 at Auburn
10/28 Army
11/4 at Marshall
11/11 Southern Miss
11/18 UCF
11/24 at Tulsa

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Matt Forte* (655 yds)
Passing: Lester Ricard* (1,932 yds)
Receiving: Preston Brown* (720 yds)
Tackles: Anthony Cannon (114)
Sacks: Alvin Johnson* (3)
Interceptions: Tra Boger (3)

Spring answers: Let's start with the most important things. Like Tulane's return to its own practice field. Or the sight of a new locker room and training room after flood waters washed out the old ones. Or the sight of an entirely intact coaching staff that remained loyal to the program despite one hardship after another. Nobody is going to try to pretend life in New Orleans is back to normal again. It's not. But when you're on a football team that played 11 games in 11 different stadiums because the worst natural disaster in U.S. history struck your city, nothing that happens in spring practice could possibly top looking at your schedule and being able to circle five Superdome dates. If you're not rooting for Tulane in its Sept. 30 home opener, you're either associated with SMU or missing a heart. … Now onto the football stuff. On the offensive side, the Green Wave welcomed back RG Donald Madlock, who missed the entire 2005 season after shoulder surgery. He was a starter before the injury and he will be again. His healthy return was essential, considering the loss of three lineman who combined for 128 career starts. … Speaking of returns, all-conference kick returner Fred Smith is also back after missing the season with a knee injury. As is all-conference punter Chris Beckman, who missed the last two games of the season after he was critically injured in a hunting accident. … If the spring is any indication, look for the Green Wave to trot out plenty of two-tight end sets. Jerome Landry and Gabe Ratcliff give the program one of its most talented duos ever at that position.

Fall questions: A stud as a sophomore, QB Lester Ricard took a step back with 12 interceptions and a 51 percent completion rate as a junior. As a Louisiana kid, he was unquestionably affected by the Katrina disaster. In the spring, however, it looked like he regained a bit of his swagger and played well enough to hold off Scott Elliott. Will a stable fall mean a return to the old Ricard? … When it comes down to it, Tulane's path to a turnaround season is very simple: Run the ball better and get better against the run. The Wave ranked among the nation's bottom six on the ground (89 ypg) and ranked 101st against the run, giving up 192.8 yards per game. So can RB Matt Forte translate a really good spring into a really good fall? Can the suddenly experienced defensive line translate the return of 11 players into a solid wall up front? Tulane better hope so, because it loses three linebackers and three more from the secondary -- on a defense that forced only 13 turnovers last fall. The situation at linebacker is especially troubling, where the the potential starters have extremely limited experience.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2006 Schedule
8/31 Stephen F. Austin
9/9 at BYU
9/16 North Texas
9/23 at Navy
10/3 Southern Miss
10/14 at East Carolina
10/21 at Memphis
10/27 UTEP
11/4 at Houston
11/11 Rice
11/18 at SMU
11/24 Tulane

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Uril Parrish (775 yds)
Passing: Paul Smith* (2,847 yds)
Receiving: Garrett Mills (1,235 yds)
Tackles: Nelson Coleman* (117)
Sacks: Nick Bunting* (5)
Interceptions: Nick Graham* (6)

Spring answers: Out goes Uril Parrish, but in comes Courtney Tennial. The 5-9 Oklahoma transfer can go outside or inside and has shown enough in the last two springs to whet the appetite of coach Steve Kragthorpe. Tennial will team up with big Brandon Diles and Tarrion Adams, who came on strong at the end of last season. … Paul Smith is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, but Kragthorpe -- who can flat out coach, by the way -- has plenty of confidence in backup David Johnson. … A defensive end spot is the only opening in the front seven, and sophomore Moton Hopkins looks like he's going to fill in nicely in what could be a scary good defense under new coordinator Keith Patterson. … Laugh all you want, but this secondary has the potential to be one of the best in the country. Interception king Nick Graham returns, along with Kedrick Alexander, who missed all but one game last season and is a huge addition to a group of safeties that goes three deep.

Fall questions: By the end of last season -- when the Golden Hurricane won 6 of their last 7, including the C-USA and Liberty Bowl titles -- Tulsa didn't have very many weaknesses. And if any existed this spring, they sure weren't jumping out at anyone. With that said, passing doesn't become easier by losing a 90-catch weapon like Garrett Mills. The coaching staff was pleased with the leadership development of Idris Moss, the speed and versatility of converted running back Cauvey Jackson and the potential of four junior college prospects arriving in August. But Paul Smith had such a comfort level and connection with Mills last season. Will that comfort level continue with his safety blanket at tight end gone? … Who will replace RG Jesse Stoneham, the only graduate from the O-line? It was a three-way battle going into the spring and it was a three-way battle coming out of the spring. … New kicker Jarrod Tracy doesn't have a wealth of game experience and his range doesn't go much beyond 40 yards. And he's replacing Brad DeVault, who made all but three of his 21 field-goal attempts in 2005.

UAB Blazers
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Oklahoma
9/9 East Carolina
9/16 at Georgia
9/23 Mississippi State
9/30 Troy
10/7 Memphis
10/14 at Rice
10/21 Marshall
10/31 at SMUbr> 11/10 UTEP
11/18 at Southern Miss
11/25 at UCF

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Corey White* (632 yds)
Passing: Darrell Hackney (3,180 yds)
Receiving: Reggie Lindsey (978 yds)
Tackles: Orlandus King* (85)
Sacks: Larry McSwain* (4)
Interceptions: 4 players tied at 2

Spring answers: If the spring was any indication, look for UAB to run the ball this fall -- and then run it some more. It's not like that should come as any shock. Not only did the best quarterback in school history graduate, but the deepest group of tailbacks in school history returns. Coach Watson Brown thinks he has the best group in Conference USA and we're not going to argue. Corey White and Dan Burks have 3,400 yards and 28 TD between them and fellow senior Marculus Elliott showed the team's depth by averaging 97 yards over the last three games of '05. … It's been a hard-luck college career for WR Willie Edwards, who's had serious health issues hold him back in his first two seasons. The speed and potential always have been there, though, and Edwards had a productive and healthy spring. He could very well end up the deep threat this team so desperately needs. … The Blazers also need some help at safety, and it looks like they might have it in the form of junior Will Dunbar. On special teams last year, it seemed like Dunbar was always the one making the tackle. He showed off that aggression this spring and earned the starting job at free safety.

Fall questions: How do you replace 38 career starts, 71 TD passes and nearly 10,000 passing yards? Not quickly apparently. In the spring competition to replace QB Darrell Hackney, his successors' play decided nothing. It's been hinted this race might last right up until the end of preseason camp. Senior Chris Williams has at least limited experience, so he might be a slight favorite at this point. However, MTSU transfer Sam Hunt probably has the best shot to start as the season progresses. The coaches are also high on local kid Joseph Webb, a redshirt freshman. … Forget for a minute who is going to be under center. How about who is going to be the center? That's another unresolved issue after the graduation of three-year starter Matt Mitusie. Redshirt freshman Jake Seitz and converted guard Adam Truitt are both green in the middle. … Even if Edwards emerges as a deep threat, he alone can't make up for the losses of Jhun Cook and Reggie Lindsey, who last year combined for 95 catches, 1,631 yards and 13 TD. Can Norris Drinkard stretch his game out a bit? Will senior Nick Coon ever be as good as he was as a freshman? How much can the coach's son, Steven Brown, contribute? As good as their tailbacks are, the Blazers can't run it every time. … Can UAB start winning close games again? The team was just 1-5 last season in games decided by eight points or less. A big part of the problem was a defense that let opponents convert on an alarming 45 percent of their third downs. When SMU scored a game-winning touchdown by going 80 yards with no timeouts in 23 seconds, it was probably the nail in the coffin for defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt. So will things turn around under Rick Christophel, who once directed UAB's top 5 defensive unit in 2001? The depth and team speed will be better. Will the results be?

UCF Golden Knights
2006 Schedule
9/2 Villanova
9/9 at Florida
9/16 USF
9/26 Southern Miss
10/4 at Marshall
10/13 Pittsburgh
10/21 Rice
10/28 at Houston
11/4 East Carolina
11/11 at Memphis
11/18 at Tulane
11/25 UAB

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Kevin Smith* (1,232 yds)
Passing: Steven Moffett* (2,925 yds)
Receiving: Brandon Marshall (1,195 yds)
Tackles: Jason Venson* (85)
Sacks: Paul Carrington (9)
Interceptions: Joe Burnett* (5)

Spring answers: Just last spring, head coach George O'Leary still was questioning whether QB Steven Moffett really had what it took to lead a Division I-A team. A year later, the answer is clear. Both the staff and the team have complete confidence in Moffett, and Moffett has complete confidence in himself. Unlike in previous years, he's in complete control of the system and of the team. … TB Kevin Smith was a godsend as a freshman, and he'll be even better as a sophomore. Smith bulked up in the offseason and seems to have an extra burst, breaking off several long runs during scrimmages. Don't be surprised if the Knights decide to play Jason Peters more at fullback, so those two can be on the field at the same time. That's a scary thought. … So is starting four freshmen in the secondary -- or so it would seem. UCF was put in that precarious situation in 2005, and the world kept spinning on its axis. The defensive backs took their lumps, but showed considerable promise. In fact, the Golden Knights already might have the best corner duo in C-USA. Joe Burnett is a true playmaker and the physical Johnell Neal was knocking off helmets during spring practice. … While Neal was taking care of the receivers, DT Leger Douzable was wreaking havoc in the backfield. The junior's play was good enough to vault him to No. 1 on the depth chart.

Fall questions: Will all of the experience pay off? Or was the magic of '05 just a mirage? Let's not forget how remarkable that season was. The Knights became only the fourth team to go to a bowl with seven road games on the schedule. This coming from a program that entered the 2005 season with a 15-game losing streak and one that started 25 freshmen or sophomores throughout the season, including seven true freshmen. Still, the team's best win was against a banged-up Memphis squad and the defense gave up 93 points in the two biggest games of the year (losses in the C-USA title game and Hawaii Bowl). The offense should be fine, but can the defense stiffen up? And how will UCF get to the quarterback without Paul Carrington? He had as many sacks (nine) as the next three sack leaders combined. Bottom line: If the Knights are going to take another large step, the defense will have to take it with them. … The offense does have one major concern. With the graduation of 1,000-yard receiver Brandon Marshall and dangerous TE Darcy Johnson, it's essential Mike Walker returns from his knee injury without any hesitation on the field. Even if he does, though, UCF doesn't have any proven hands behind him. This might be the spot where true freshmen contribute the most this season.

UTEP Miners
2006 Schedule
8/31 at San Diego State
9/9 Texas Tech
9/23 at New Mexico
9/30 New Mexico State
10/7 SMU
10/14 Tulane
10/21 at Houston
10/27 at Tulsa
11/4 Rice
11/10 at UAB
11/18 at Marshall
11/25 Memphis

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning) Rushing: Marcus Thomas* (791 yds)
Passing: Jordan Palmer* (3,503 yds)
Receiving: Johnnie Lee Higgins* (837 yds)
Tackles: Jeremy Jones* (130)
Sacks: Alex Obomese* (6.5)
Interceptions: Quintin Demps* and Joe Fleskoski* (3)

Spring answers: Since the Miners were busy trying to find his backup, TB Marcus Thomas didn't get a whole lot of carries this spring. Who cares? When he ran it 61 yards on the first play of the spring game, it sure looked like he was ready to carry over the momentum from what was supposed to be a redshirt year. When Matt Austin and Tyler Ebell went down with various injuries late in the fall, all Thomas did was become the first UTEP running back to ever post four straight 100-yard games. The former Parade All-American is ready for stardom. … The deep receiving corps became a little less deep with the graduation of Chris Francies and Jayson Boyd. That's why it was so important to see Daniel Robinson put up such a strong spring. Crowded out by the wealth of talent at the position, Robinson took a redshirt in 2005. The year off not only helped him, but it'll help his team as well. … A redshirt freshman challenging a two-year starter who tied for the team lead in interceptions? Believe it. Big-hitting Braxton Amy was that good this spring. He'll push fellow defensive back Quintin Demps. … Even without an injured Alex Obomese, the defensive line got plenty of pressure during the scrimmages. Senior end Joe Ward, in particular, seemed to be camping out in the backfield.

Fall questions: Of course, are defensive linemen camping out in the backfield necessarily a good thing? What does that say about the offensive linemen? It says they still have some work to do. The left side needs to be replaced and the returnees need to get better. Until the late surge by Thomas, the UTEP running game wasn't really scaring anyone. … The big guys didn't exactly help QB Jordan Palmer, either. With that said, there is no excuse for 19 interceptions, which tied Palmer for the nation's worst mark. He said he's watched film of every one of the picks and is convinced nearly all of them are correctable -- the result of bad reads or unnecessarily forcing things. The Miners can't afford 19 more INTs from their quarterback. … They could use a few from their cornerbacks, though. Both starters graduated, but they weren't exactly striking fear into C-USA receivers. So who are the replacements? Senior Nate Draughon and 5-7 junior Josh Ferguson are the early favorites, but are they any better? The jury is still out. … What happens if the injury bug strikes the backfield again and Thomas goes out? Sophomore Jon Lane and junior Johan Givens battled for the top backup spot in the spring, but nothing was decided. Nothing will be decided until the coaches see the pair of highly touted freshmen, Donald Buckram and Jason Williams, in preseason camp.

Brett Edgerton is a researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at