Sun Belt spring recap

Originally Published: May 10, 2005
By Brett Edgerton | Special to

Take a look at what questions were answered in the Sun Belt this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Arkansas State Indians
2006 Schedule
9/2 Army
9/9 Oklahoma State*
9/23 at SMU
9/30 at Florida International
10/7 Louisiana-Monroe
10/14 at Memphis
10/21 North Texas
10/28 at Florida Atlantic
11/4 at Auburn
11/11 Middle Tennessee
11/18 at Troy
11/25 Louisiana-Lafayette
* at Little Rock, Ark.

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 0

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Antonio Warren (1,066 yds)
Passing: Nick Noce (2,052 yds)
Receiving: Levi Dejohnette* (554 yds)
Tackles: Tyrell Johnson* (112)
Sacks: Brian Flagg* (5)
Interceptions: James Johnson (4)

Spring Answers: With an inexperienced quarterback taking over, the Indians will take all the receivers they can get. That's why it was so encouraging to see the continued progression of sophomore Kevin Jones, who really started to develop a rapport with former QB Nick Noce late last season. Coach Steve Roberts is a big fan and he played well enough this spring to move ahead of two former starters at the position. … Maybe the best news of the spring came when the NCAA awarded three-year starting FB Oren O'Neal a sixth year of eligibility. With a three-year starter also at center (Tanner Jenkins), it should help aid the transition of a new quarterback. Also, it's apparent from practice that O'Neal will see a significant increase in carries this year, especially in the one-back offense around the goal line. … In 2004, LB Josh Williams had the most tackles of any freshman in America, but he was dismissed from the team in 2005 due to off-field issues. Well, he paid his way through school, walked on to the squad this spring and already looks better than he did in his first year. Williams bulked up, increased his speed and is in a real battle in the middle with sophomore Ben Owens. That should tell you how impressive Owens was this spring. Don't be surprised if Owens slides over to the strong side so both he and Johnson can be on the field at the same time. … Safeties Tyrell Johnson and Khyyam Burns definitely will be prowling around the secondary at the same time, which will make ASU's last line of defense sturdy enough.

Fall Questions: As mentioned before, the Indians will be breaking in a new quarterback. But just who's it going to be? Well, that hasn't been settled. At the end of spring, redshirt sophomore Travis Hewitt was listed as 1A, while redshirt freshman Corey Leonard was listed as 1B. Leonard, who is faster and has a better arm, will probably win the job at some point this season, but Hewitt is in his third year in the system and will be given a fair chance in August. … How will Arkansas State replace the production of Antonio Warren and Shermar Bracey at tailback? Warren put together two straight 1,000-yard seasons and Bracey was always a nice alternative. Chris Easley actually outrushed Warren and Bracey as a freshman in 2003 before injuring his knee the following spring and getting lost in the shuffle after that. He'll battle it out with the speedy Reggie Arnold (5-foot-9, 217), who often looked unstoppable this spring and has vaulted himself to the top of the depth chart for now. … The two worry spots on defense are at tackle and cornerback. For the Indians to develop any kind of push up the middle, Jamarrow Jones and Prince Hickman are going to have to bulk up and get better. The corner jobs are completely up for grabs. Montis Harrison is the best one there, but he's coming off shoulder surgery. … Eric Neihouse was clutch at both kicker and punter, but he's no longer around. Punting this spring was a player who split his time between fullback and linebacker last year. Two walk-ons handled the kicking, with a true freshman set to join the fray this summer. This could get dicey.

Florida Atlantic University Owls
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Clemson
9/9 at Kansas State
9/16 at Oklahoma State
9/23 at South Carolina
9/30 at Louisiana-Monroe
10/18 Louisiana-Lafayette
10/28 Arkansas State
11/4 at Middle Tennessee
11/11 Troy
11/18 at North Texas
11/25 Florida International*
*at Miami

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Charles Pierre* (517 yds)
Passing: Danny Embick (1,531 yds)
Receiving: Thomas Parker (584 yds)
Tackles: Shomari Earls (87)
Sacks: Cerqile Sincere* (2)
Interceptions: Troy Pindell (4)

Spring Answers: At this time last year, Florida Atlantic had to replace 16 starters and more than 30 seniors overall. The Owls' fledgling program was trying to make its I-A debut with a team about as green as green gets. Not surprisingly, the results were dreadful, including a mortifying 46-point loss to nearby FIU to end the season. So you can imagine how nice it was to see 17 returning starters on the practice field this spring. As coach Howard Schnellenberger put it, the Owls are at least getting to where they look like a normal college football team. That might not result in rapid improvement in 2006, but it's at least a step forward. … On offense, FAU also returns two players who would've started last season. RG Brandon Jackson suffered a torn meniscus in preseason camp, while FB Aaron Sanchez was bothered by a sore thigh and an ankle injury. Both are healthy again and have made a return to the top of the depth chart. … So has junior Taheem Acevedo, who returns after a dislocated ankle suffered last spring cost him the '05 season.

Fall Questions: When will there be some separation among the three quarterback candidates? It sure didn't happen this spring. Junior Sean Clayton, who started his career at Michigan State, might be the slightest of favorites. That's only because he gained some experience in place of the injured Danny Embick in the last two games of 2005. Rusty Smith is just a redshirt freshman, but Schnellenberger was happy with the way he handled the offense. And sophomore McKinson Souverain doesn't always make the best decisions, but he can be downright dazzling when he takes off running. It might take most, if not all, of August before this one is decided. … Of course, if the quarterbacks and centers botch exchanges and the receivers drop everything that comes their way like they did this spring, the fall results aren't going to be any prettier than they were last year. In that 2005 campaign, the Owls averaged just 292.3 yards and 13.5 points per game. Only three teams in the country scored less than FAU, which never once reached 30 points in a game. … For this program, any kind of progress hinges on the improvement of the guys up front on both sides of the ball. Giving up 34 sacks is bad enough, but taking down the opposing quarterback a mere six times all season is just downright embarrassing. It simply has to get better. In fact, so does the defense as a whole. Most of the key components are back, and the Owls can't afford to give up 31 points per game again. A good start would be cutting down on that 46 percent third-down conversion rate by opponents. … Then again, have you seen this schedule? Can someone please tell Schnellenberger he's not coaching the Hurricanes anymore? The Owls play their first five games on the road, including trips to Clemson, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Kansas State. Will everyone survive to see that long-awaited, mid-October home opener?

Florida International Golden Panthers
2006 Schedule
8/31 at Middle Tennessee
9/9 at South Florida
9/16 Bowling Green
9/23 at Maryland
9/30 Arkansas State
10/7 at North Texas
10/14 at Miami
10/28 at Alabama
11/11 Louisiana-Monroe
11/18 Louisiana-Lafayette
11/25 at Florida Atlantic
12/2 Troy

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 5, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Ben West (537 yds)
Passing: Josh Padrick* (2,461 yds)
Receiving: Chandler Williams* (870 yds)
Tackles: Keyonvis Bouie* (118)
Sacks: Antwan Barnes* (9.5)
Interceptions: Bouie* (3)

Spring Answers: It's safe to say the Panthers will field the deepest group of tight ends in the league, especially when James Williams returns from shoulder surgery. It's an important position at FIU and these guys can flat-out play. Despite missing the last three games with a sprained MCL, Samuel Smith still made second-team All-Sun Belt. And the injury allowed Moses Hinton, even bigger and with equal hands, to shine in Smith's place. Then there was the emergence of redshirt freshman Andy Anderson this spring. Yes, the two-tight end formation was used quite frequently during scrimmages. … Now that he finally has a set position, junior Roland Clarke is thriving. After bouncing back and forth between the offensive and defensive lines throughout his career, Clarke played well enough this spring to earn a starting spot at defensive tackle. … LB Alexander Bostic III is another guy who was rewarded with a bump up the depth chart. The senior entered the spring as a backup, but came out of it as a starter. The man in the middle, of course, will be Keyonvis Bouie. The reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year looked like his usual dominant self. So did DE Antwan Barnes, who set up shop in the offensive backfield for most of the spring.

Fall Questions: Can the late-season momentum of 2005 carry over into the fall? The Panthers won four of their last five, including a 52-6 beatdown of neighboring rival Florida Atlantic. As a result, there was a newfound swagger in the young program this spring. With that said, depth is a serious issue across the board. The program's first recruiting class graduated, erasing a staggering 27 players from last year's team. How does a thin group like that survive road trips to Maryland, Miami, South Florida and Alabama and a home game against Bowling Green? Will they have anything left for conference season? … The offensive line is of particular concern, especially if new running backs coach Madre Hill wants to revive a mediocre running game. The Panthers lost five seniors who started 43 games up front last year, and it looks as if center Xavier Shannon is the only guy with a starting spot locked up. The tackle spots are completely wide open, while FIU is counting on a player who was injured in the spring (Mike Alvarez) and a player who is coming off a broken leg (Ronny Silva) at guard. JC transfer Jeff Eugene and true freshman Javon Hill can't get here quick enough. … If there's one spot where true freshmen will be expected to contribute the most, it would have to be at receiver. In Don Strock's wide-open offense, eight or nine receivers are filtered in and out during games. Unless they've produced seven or eight Chandler Williams clones somewhere and aren't revealing them until the season begins, the Panthers are going to face major issues here. … A defense that wasn't great in the first place now has to face life without FS Nick Turnbull, a mainstay throughout the first four years of the program. How will Marshall McDuffie handle the position against such a brutal schedule?

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
2006 Schedule
9/2 at LSU
9/9 at Texas A&M
9/16 McNeese State
9/30 Eastern Michigan
10/7 at Houston
10/18 at Florida Atlantic
10/28 Middle Tennessee
11/4 at Troy
11/11 North Texas
11/8 at Florida International
11/25 Arkansas State
12/2 Louisiana Monroe

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

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

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Tyrell Fenroy* (1,053 yds)
Passing: Jerry Babb* (859 yds)
Receiving: Bill Sampy (399 yds)
Tackles: Tyler Norman (66)
Sacks: 4 players with 4
Interceptions: Michael Adams* (2)

Spring Answers: The Ragin' Cajuns can't afford to be thin at tailback -- and they're not. Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Tyrell Fenroy returns after a 1,000-yard season and speedy redshirt freshman Deon Wallace returns after tearing up the practice field last fall. Wallace could be special. And don't forget about Chester Johnson, who led the team in rushing in 2004, but was injured in the season opener last year. Johnson will likely play at a hybrid position that's a mix of tailback and fullback. … ULL recruited JC transfer Korey Raymond with the hopes that he could come in and start right away at defensive tackle. He didn't disappoint this spring. As hoped, Raymond earned a starting spot in the middle, joining a veteran line that helped the team increase its sack total by 12 last year. … Junior Lamar Morgan moved from strong safety to free safety without a hitch. In fact, he was the leader of the defense all spring. The guy is a beast on the field.

Fall Questions: If the Cajuns are going to pass it more with a healthy Jerry Babb at quarterback, who exactly are they going to throw it to? Bill Sampy is gone and Kevin Robbins looks like he might be an academic casualty. Both the projected starters are relatively green sophomores, so four signees are expected to contribute. … The center position is absolutely crucial in this offense and four-year letterman Greg Hodges will no longer be around to ease the worries. The job now falls to JC transfer Junior Ramos, who was able to take part in spring practice but is still considered pretty raw. ULL can't afford any problems in the middle. … Coach Ricky Bustle considers the special teams his baby. So why has that unit failed so miserably lately? And now he has to deal with the graduation of Sean Comiskey, the only kicker he's ever had in Lafayette. … Does momentum carry over after a nine-month break? The Cajuns hope so. They had it rolling last year, stringing together five straight victories to end the season and finishing with the program's first winning record in a decade. In the season finale, ULL prevented rival Louisiana-Monroe from winning the league's bowl berth with a 33-point pummeling. By the end of that game -- and to this day -- the Cajuns felt like they were the best team in the conference. That's fine, but now it's time to start hot from the beginning, guys.

Louisiana-Monroe Indians
2006 Schedule
9/2 Alcorn State
9/9 at Kansas
9/16 at Alabama
9/30 Florida Atlantic
10/7 at Arkansas State
10/14 at Troy
10/21 Middle Tennessee
10/28 at Arkansas*
11/11 at Florida International
11/18 at Kentucky
11/25 North Texas
12/2 at Louisiana-Lafayette
* at Little Rock, Ark.

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 0

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Calvin Dawson* (666 yds)
Passing: Steven Jyles (2,235 yds)
Receiving: Drouzon Quillen (707 yds)
Tackles: Kevin Payne* (87)
Sacks: Brandon Guillory (9.5)
Interceptions: Chaz Williams* (5)

Spring Answers: The replacement for QB Steven Jyles might not be etched in stone, but the chisel is firmly in place. Former slot back Kinsmon Lancaster won the job this spring and will look to fill the very large shoes of the Sun Belt Player of the Year. If the sophomore struggles in August, Army transfer Chance Payne and local product Darrell McNeal will be around. More than likely, though, McNeal will replace Lancaster as the slot. … Starting FS Kevin Payne joked with the ULM SID this spring that he was going to lead the country in interceptions, kick returning and punting. Obviously it won't happen, but it's worth noting that he even has any kind of shot at all. Payne was a standout tailback his first two years, then moved to corner and is now at free safety in a secondary the staff is very high on. He also returns kicks, and with all-conference punter Joel Stelly gone, he's now listed as the No. 1 punter as well. The Indians are hoping a freshman might be able to lighten the load by taking the punting job, but if not, Payne will be ready. … In his first spring practice, CB Greg James made a good impression and will push to get into the rotation. In the spring game, he intercepted two passes and returned one of them 96 yards for a touchdown.

Fall Questions: Can the team use that season-ending 54-21 loss to rival Louisiana-Lafayette as motivation? How could it not? With a win, the Indians would've won the Sun Belt and played in the New Orleans Bowl. Instead, they fell flat on their faces. You would think the sour taste would linger. … The loss of Jyles, one of 17 departing seniors, hurt. The loss of WR Drouzon Quillen, who left early for the NFL, is a real stinger. No one on the current roster caught more than one TD last year and no one totaled more than 275 yards. So will anyone emerge as that No. 1 guy? And will players like LaGregory Sapp and Adam Hogan make a move and contribute this year? It's essential for an offense that also lost its top two tight ends and struggled for much of the spring. … The maturation of the O-line is also crucial. How often can you say all five starters return up front and not one of them is a senior? The line started three sophomores and two freshmen last season. Louisiana-Monroe is hoping a year of seasoning will improve this unit. … The ULM defense lost six starters, including the entire line. Ricky Williams is a nice anchor at nose tackle, but the group up front is a concern heading into August. … Besides the punting situation, the Indians also need to decide between juniors Ragan Walters and Cole Wilson at kicker. Finding help on punt returns wouldn't hurt, either. The team averaged only 3 yards per return, which ranked ULM last in the nation. Yikes.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
2006 Schedule
8/31 Florida International
9/9 at Maryland
9/14 Tennessee Tech
9/23 at Oklahoma
9/30 at North Texas
10/6 vs. Louisville*
10/21 at Louisiana-Monroe
10/28 at Louisiana-Lafayette
11/4 Florida Atlantic
11/11 at Arkansas State
11/18 at South Carolina
11/25 Troy
*at Nashville

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Eugene Gross* (724 yds)
Passing: Clint Marks* (2,083 yds)
Receiving: Cleannord Saintil (884 yds)
Tackles: J.K. Sabb* (71)
Sacks: Erik Walden* and Devarick Scandrett (3)
Interceptions: Bradley Robinson (5)

Spring Answers: All of the answers begin and end with new coach Rick Stockstill. Because he said so, that's why. Because he's cracking the whip at a program that had become too lax when it came to discipline, both on the field and off. Because he has brought organization to a program that has been mired in mediocrity just a few years after looking like it was on the rise. Because he played under Bobby Bowden, coached under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier and brought in a staff that has won three Super Bowls, four national titles and coached in 60 bowl games collectively. Will all of that win any games on the field? Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But it can't hurt, right? … If you're looking for someone who might win some games on the field for the Raiders this fall, look no further than tailback Eugene Gross. Neither he nor the team exactly broke any rushing records in 2005, but offseason conditioning has Gross in the best shape of his career and the new staff can't stop raving about him. He ran for 158 yards in the spring game and looks to be the same receiving threat out of the backfield that he was last season.

Fall Questions: Clint Marks is a proven commodity behind center, but will he have many targets to throw to? The Blue Raiders have had a first-team receiver in four of their five years in the Sun Belt, but it would be a stretch to predict such an honor this season. The group is extremely young and there were drops all over the place this spring. The one player with plenty of experience is fifth-year senior Pierre Ingram. The track star once again looked great this spring, but it seems like he's an all-spring performer every year. It's about time for that to translate to the regular season. … MTSU lost three starting D-linemen off what was a nasty front last season. The Raiders also lose four other starters from a defense that led the Sun Belt and ranked 17th nationally in scoring D (18.7 ppg). One spot to keep an eye on is a place in which they actually have a returning starter. LB J.K. Sabb led the team in tackles in 2005, but is currently listed second on the depth chart. Senior Justin Rainey, in the mix until getting injured early last season, was that good this spring. … Welcome to Murfreesboro, Mr. Stockstill. Here are some of the nice places your new job will be taking you this autumn: College Park, Md.; Columbia, S.C.; even Norman, Okla.! Oh, and you're scheduled to take a short trip north to Nashville to have a face-to-face meeting with Louisville and thousands of its red-clad fans. Having fun yet?

North Texas Mean Green
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Texas
9/9 SMU
9/16 at Tulsa
9/23 at Akron
9/30 Middle Tennessee
10/7 Florida International
10/21 at Arkansas State
10/28 at Troy
11/4 Louisiana Tech
111/11 at Louisiana-Lafayette
11/18 Florida Atlantic
11/25 at Louisiana-Monroe

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

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

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Patrick Cobbs (1,154 yds)
Passing: Daniel Meager* (941 yds)
Receiving: Johnny Quinn* (591 yds)
Tackles: Aaron Weathers* (113)
Sacks: Jeremiah Chapman* (4)
Interceptions: Aaron Weathers* (3)

Spring Answers: Head coach Darrell Dickey is still trying to find a quarterback, but he's positively giddy about his group of receivers, who aren't just blockers anymore in Denton. Johnny Quinn is a proven commodity, but players like Brandon Jackson have the staff whispering about this being the best set of receivers they've ever had. … Desperate after a dismal offensive showing in 2005, the coaching staff tinkered with its game plan a bit, even including some four- and five-wideout sets during practice. They realize the offense has become too predictable and are trying to do something about it. … Dickey is also trying to do something about the complacency he thinks started to creep into the program after all of those years of near-automatic berths to the New Orleans Bowl. He is tightening the reins, both on and off the field. All of the little stuff that players used to get away with is no longer acceptable. Presumably, neither is nine losses. … Both starters at corner graduated, but there doesn't appear to be much reason to fret. Athletically at least, the replacements are as good as UNT has had in years. Dominique Green and the quick Desmond Chatman are the probable starters, but Antoine Bush is right there.

Fall Questions: All questions have to begin on the offensive side of the ball. When you're coming off a year in which you ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in passing, scoring and total offense, that's usually how it goes. It all starts at quarterback for the Mean Green. Opponents figured out early that the team couldn't pass the ball, so they crowded the line and never allowed the vaunted rushing attack to get going. Daniel Meager's struggles continued this spring, but sophomore Matt Phillips showed at least a glimmer of promise. North Texas needs more than a glimmer, though, if the offense is to improve. … Two years ago, TB Jamario Thomas led the nation in rushing after Patrick Cobbs went down. When Cobbs came back, though, the deadly duo never really materialized. Thomas was bothered by a hamstring injury, but it almost seemed as if he conceded the work load to Cobbs. Can he turn that mental switch back on, now that he's The Man again? … Will 350-pound behemoth T.J. Raymond be able to clog up the middle in what is a young and extremely undersized D-line? The defense is moving to a 3-4 formation in part because of the questions surrounding the front line. If Raymond doesn't get his academics in order by the end of the summer, those questions won't go away.

Troy Trojans
2006 Schedule
9/2 Alabama State
9/9 at Florida State
9/16 at Georgia Tech
9/23 at Nebraska
9/30 at UAB
10/14 Louisiana-Monroe
10/28 North Texas
11/4 Louisiana-Lafayette
11/11 at Florida Atlantic
11/18 Arkansas State
11/25 at Middle Tennessee
12/2 at Florida International

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (*returning)
Rushing: Joel Whinghter (531 yds)
Passing: Carl Meadows* (974 yds)
Receiving: Eugene Hampton (582 yds)
Tackles: Bernard Davis (89)
Sacks: Torre Lankford (5.5)
Interceptions: Johnny Faulk and Sherrod Martin* (2)

Spring Answers: Tony Franklin. Anyone who went to a Troy practice this spring and was hit by one of the flying footballs knows who he is. Defensive coaches in the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Sun Belt will know soon enough. Franklin is the new offensive coordinator in town and he's brought his four- and five-receiver sets with him, an offense that he's written books about and run clinics around. He tutored under Hal Mumme at Kentucky and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Do you really need to know any more than that? Just like this spring, the Trojans will be heaving it all over the field in the fall. Will it work? Who knows? But it will be something neither Troy nor the conference has ever seen before. After all, we're talking about a Trojans offense that ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in each of the last four seasons. It's not like it could get any worse. … Running the new offense is a new quarterback, Omar Haugabook. The junior college transfer won a race that started with seven competitors and ended with a clear-cut No. 1. Haugabook has a funky throwing motion, but he's extremely accurate and gets rid of the ball quickly -- two essentials in this type of offense. … Plenty of receivers are also essential, and the staff believes the team will be fine in that category. Eugene "Smokey" Hampton is legit, Gary Banks rarely drops the ball and Franklin loves the potential of Josh Allen. The key might be 6-4 senior Martin Teal, who passes the eye test but never seems to produce when it counts. He looked good this spring.

Fall Questions: With tight end now obsolete and the tailbacks turned more into H-backs, the fullback will be the primary option on the ground for the Trojans. And that race is very much undecided. Sophomore Anthony Jones is the slimmer, quicker back, while senior Sean Dawkins is the bigger, more polished back. Keep an eye on this competition. … With seven starters lost from the Sun Belt's leader in total defense, there's also plenty to watch on that side. Troy has to replace two of the program's all-time great linebackers: Bernard Davis and Leverne Johnson. At Johnson's spot in the middle, Andre Morgan moved over to battle with impressive redshirt freshman Joe Baker. The replacement for Davis on the weak side is unknown, especially with Romanique Lewis' latest injury. The versatile Leodis McKelvin will lock down one of the cornerback jobs, but the other side is iffy at best. … Will Troy get back to the swarming defense that placed it among the national leaders in turnovers forced for three straight years? The Trojans created just 15 last season, including only five interceptions. … With the offense stumbling around for the last few years, there's no question standout punter Thomas Olmsted was one of the most valuable players on the team, and there's no question he will be greatly missed. At the moment, it looks like kicker Greg Whibbs might pull double duty. … Most Sun Belt teams line up brutal nonconference schedules, but this one might top 'em all. At Florida State? At UAB? At Georgia Tech? At Nebraska? Was Texas not available?

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