Breaking down the C-USA

Originally Published: May 10, 2007
By Adam Rittenberg | Special to

After winning the C-USA West, Houston beat East champ Southern Miss to claim the C-USA crown in 2006. Will the Cougars be able repeat in 2007? Will East Carolina and Rice continue to rise? Will Marshall, UCF and UTEP rebound? Take a look at what C-USA questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

East Carolina Pirates
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 at Virginia Tech
Sept. 8 North Carolina
Sept. 15 Southern Miss
Sept. 22 at West Virginia
Sept. 29 at Houston
Oct. 6 UCF
Oct. 13 at UTEP
Oct. 20 NC State
Oct. 27 UAB
Nov. 3 at Memphis
Nov. 24 Tulane

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 5; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
TE Davon Drew, RG Josh Coffman, LB Quentin Cotton, LB Fred Wilson, LB Pierre Bell, FS Van Eskridge
Key losses
QB James Pinkney, WR Aundrae Allison, RB Brandon Fractious, FS Jamar Flournoy, CB Kasey Ross, P Ryan Dougherty
Top newcomer: QB Rodney Cox Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Brandon Fractious (660 yds)
Passing: James Pickney (2,783 yds)
Receiving: Aundrae Allison (708 yds)
Tackles: Jamar Flournoy* (73)
Sacks: C.J. Wilson* (4)
Interceptions: Pierre Parker, Kasey Ross (4)

Spring answers: 1. A potential successor in Rob Kass: Coach Skip Holtz knows he can't immediately produce another James Pinkney, who last fall threw for 2,783 yards and sparked the receiving corps, led by Aundrae Allison. Pinkney's leadership is irreplaceable, but Rob Kass looks ready to take over. Kass played behind Pinkney last year and emerged this spring, throwing for 231 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Kass has excellent size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) and brings big-play capability to the backfield. Holtz didn't award the job to Kass but acknowledged that the sophomore "separated himself" from Brett Clay and Patrick Pinkney (no relation to James).

2. Jamar Bryant's emergence at receiver: The departures of Allison, Bobby Good and Kevin Roach left East Carolina with only two proven full-time receivers in Phillip Henry and Steven Rogers. Bryant showed potential to fill the void after catching a 77-yard touchdown to win the spring game. He finished the game with 122 receiving yards on four receptions.

3. On the run: Chris Johnson left spring ball the same way he entered it -- primed to take over as the Pirates' starting running back. Along with Johnson, Dominique Lindsay adds experience and redshirt freshman Norman Whitley blossomed this spring. Whitley tallied 230 rushing yards in a scrimmage and added 41 yards on only eight carries at the spring game.

Fall questions: 1. Solidifying the offensive line: With four starters back, the line wouldn't figure to be a problem, but ECU is struggling to fill out its two-deep with capable reserves. Holtz admitted after the spring game that a young line continues to make mistakes. "Right now, when you take the offensive line and split them in half and put them on two teams, we don't have two solid units yet," Holtz said.

2. Find more weapons at wide receiver: Bryant's spring game heroics were promising for the fall, but East Carolina must find more depth at receiver after losing three of its top four pass catchers from last season. Athletic sophomore Alex Taylor could be a key playmaker in the passing attack.

3. Shore up the secondary: East Carolina lost three-fourths of a secondary that finished third in Conference USA in pass defense last year (184.2 ypg). Van Eskridge has the playmaking ability to take over for free safety Jamar Flournoy, but the Pirates must find answers at both strong safety and cornerback.

Houston Cougars
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 at Oregon
Sept. 15 at Tulane
Sept. 22 Colorado State
Sept. 29 East Carolina
Oct. 6 at Alabama
Oct. 13 Rice
Oct. 20 at UAB
Oct. 27 at UTEP
Nov. 4 SMU
Nov. 10 at Tulsa
Nov. 17 Marshall
Nov. 24 Texas Southern

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Anthony Alridge, WR Donnie Avery, WR Jeron Harvey, RT Dustin Dickinson, DE Phillip Hunt, LB Trent Allen, LB Cody Lubojasky, CB Kenneth Fontenette
Key losses
QB Kevin Kolb, WR Vincent Marshall, RB Jackie Battle, CB Willie Gaston, FS Will Gulley, LB Wade Koehl
Top newcomer: OT Justin Freeman Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Anthony Alridge* (959 yds)
Passing: Kevin Kolb (3,809 yds)
Receiving: Vincent Marshall (979 yds)
Tackles: Will Gulley (105)
Sacks: Phillip Hunt* (8)
Interceptions: Will Gulley (5)

Spring answers: 1. One-two punch at running back: The Cougars lost one of their two 900-yard backs in Jackie Battle, but freshman Randall Antoine looks ready to step in alongside Anthony Alridge. Antoine had 98 rushing yards and a touchdown in the spring game. He also caught five passes for 27 yards.

2. Built depth at linebacker: With plenty of experience in the front seven, Houston set out to find reinforcements this spring. Freshman inside linebacker C.J. Cavness emerged in the spring game, collecting seven tackles and two sacks. Sophomore Matt Nicholson, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game, adds depth in the all-important middle line of Houston's 3-4 scheme.

3. Castile surfaces at receiver: Houston's biggest void is undoubtedly at quarterback, but Vincent Marshall's departure leaves another major gap at wide receiver. Freshman L.J. Castile transitioned well from quarterback to receiver, giving the Cougars another weapon alongside Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey.

Fall questions: 1. Decide on a starting quarterback: Houston ended the spring without a starting quarterback, as Blake Joseph and Case Keenum competed throughout practice and led the first-team offense in the spring game. One player will need to separate himself this summer to become Kevin Kolb's successor. Joseph completed 16 of 23 passes in the spring game and had two touchdowns dropped, while two of Keenum's four completions went for scores of 44 and 60 yards. He also threw two interceptions. "We need to be patient, but it will all work out," coach Art Briles said.

2. Health of SirVincent Rogers: The standout left tackle missed spring practice as he continued to rehabilitate the knee injury that cut short his 2006 season. Rogers, once an Outland Trophy candidate, could redshirt the 2007 season if the knee does not improve.

3. Find answers at tackle: With Rogers out and Sebastian Vollmer limited by back problems this spring, Houston will need to build depth at tackle in case of more injuries. Dustin Dickinson is solid on the right side and Matt Hart played in seven games last fall, but the Cougars need several reliable stand-ins.

Marshall Thundering Herd
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 at Miami
Sept. 8 West Virginia
Sept. 15 New Hampshire
Sept. 22 at Cincinnati
Oct. 2 at Memphis
Oct. 13 at Tulsa
Oct. 21 Southern Miss
Oct. 27 Rice
Nov. 3 at UCF
Nov. 10 East Carolina
Nov. 17 at Houston
Nov. 24 UAB

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Bernard Morris, TE Cody Slate, WR Emmanuel Spann, C Doug Legursky, DE Albert McClellan, DE Byron Tinker, CB J.J. Johnson, FS C.J. Spillman
Key losses
RB Ahmad Bradshaw, SS Curtis Keyes, LB Matt Couch, LT Seth Cook, QB Jimmy Skinner
Top newcomer: QB Chris Smith Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Ahmad Bradshaw (1,523 yds)
Passing: Bernard Morris* (1,346 yds)
Receiving: Cody Slate* (684 yds)
Tackles: Curtis Keyes (104)
Sacks: Albert McClellan (11.5)
Interceptions: Four players tied (2)

Spring answers: 1. John Inman steps in at left tackle: Marshall's tackle replacement project might be halfway done after Inman performed well at left tackle this spring after moving over from guard. Inman, who stands 6-5 and weighs 302 pounds, still needs to get bigger before the fall, but his play has been solid. The Thundering Herd hopes for similar improvement from Daniel Baldridge on the right side. "I've been really impressed with John Inman," coach Mark Snyder told the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. "Baldridge still has some work to do, but I've been pleased with John Inman."

2. Bernard Morris settling in at starting quarterback: After splitting snaps with Jimmy Skinner last year, Morris could be ready to take over the top spot by himself. His first pass in the spring game was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, but the senior quickly settled down, passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns in one half of play. "He's come miles and miles in the maturity aspect," Inman told the Charleston Daily Mail. "After that, everything was great. We went back out there, got his feet set and threw for completions." Still, Morris will have to beat out redshirt freshman Brian Anderson, who completed 12 of 16 passes in the spring game.

3. Wide receivers as good as advertised: Marshall has produced its share of elite wide receivers, and the current group could add their names to the list. Emmanuel Spann leads the returnees after catching 38 passes last year, and junior college transfer Darius Passmore is a solid slot receiver. Though tight end Cody Slate will be Morris' top target, look out for Courtney Edmonson, who caught six passes for 115 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions: 1. Find a running back: Ahmad Bradshaw's surprising decision to jump to the NFL left a major void in the backfield, and Marshall did little to fill it this spring. Kelvin Turner and Chubb Small were set to compete, but Turner missed most of spring ball with a shoulder injury. Turner, who had five carries in the spring game, rejoins the mix this summer. Three incoming freshman -- Darius Marshall, Terrell Edwards and JoJo Cox -- also will contend for carries. "The one position where a true freshman could come in and play is running back," Snyder said.

2. Shore up the secondary: Marshall finished last in the league in pass defense a year ago (250.8 ypg) and still has plenty of questions in the secondary. The loss of all-conference strong safety Curtis Keyes will sting, and the Herd must find some solutions at cornerback, where several young players (Zearrick Matthews, Ashton Hall) will compete.

3. Locate a starting punter: Junior Marty Biagi is out until mid-October at the earliest after tearing both the MCL and the ACL in his non-kicking leg this spring. Walk-on Jake Fields is Marshall's next option at punter, but the position will be re-examined this summer. Biagi also serves as the holder on field goals and extra points, leaving another hole to fill.

Memphis Tigers
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 Ole Miss
Sept. 8 at Arkansas State
Sept. 15 Jacksonville State
Sept. 22 at UCF
Oct. 2 Marshall
Oct. 13 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 20 at Rice
Oct. 27 at Tulane
Nov. 3 East Carolina
Nov. 10 at Southern Miss
Nov. 17 UAB
Nov. 24 SMU

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Martin Hankins, RB Joseph Doss, WR Duke Calhoun, LT Brandon Pearce, DE Greg Terrell, LB Heath Grant, LB Greg Jackson
Key losses
WR Ryan Scott, DB Brandon McDonald, P Michael Gibson, FS Wesley Smith, C Stephen Schuh
Top newcomer: DE Dasmine Cathey Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Joseph Doss* (910 yds)
Passing: Martin Hankins* (2,550 yds)
Receiving: Duke Calhoun* (681 yds)
Tackles: Brandon McDonald (84)
Sacks: Greg Terrell* (5)
Interceptions: Brandon McDonald (4)

Spring answers: 1. Martin Hankins locks down quarterback job: Hankins cemented himself as the Tigers' starter with an impressive spring, culminating with an efficient performance (14-for-19, 219 yards, two touchdowns) in the spring game. The rising senior didn't figure to be pushed much, though Will Hudgens played decently. "[Hankins] hasn't done anything to lose his spot," Hudgens told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. After throwing for 2,550 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall, Hankins improved his footwork and boosted his completion percentage in spring scrimmages.

2. Emergence of Jada Brown: Coach Tommy West wants a more physical defensive front, and Brown met the challenge this spring. The sophomore defensive end shared the most improved player award for the spring with offensive lineman Dominik Riley. He had eight tackles, including two for losses, in the spring game. Brown could see time opposite standout Greg Terrell this fall.

3. Late show from Carlos Singleton: The potential is obvious with Singleton, who has power-forward size (6-8, 215 pounds) and speed to boot. He waited until the spring game to showcase his skills, catching eight passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. The performance earned him co-MVP honors with Terrell. "I'd been disappointed in him most of the spring because I just didn't think he had played the way I want him to play," West told the Commercial-Appeal. "Today, he did. Maybe he's better when there's people in the stands. He, by far, had the best day he's had all spring."

Fall questions: 1. Determine the top wide receivers: Sophomore Duke Calhoun had a strong spring and Carlos Singleton came on late, but Earnest Williams, Carlton Robinzine, Antonio McCoy and Dave Thomas all missed spring ball because of injuries. The competition for the top four to five wideout spots should be wide open this summer.

2. Running back roulette: Joseph Doss still looks likely as the No. 1 running back despite missing part of spring practice with a knee injury, but several others will push him this summer. T.J. Pitts had the most carries (14) in the spring game, followed by Miguel Barnes (9) and Henry Harris (9). Jamarcus Gaither also will return to the mix after missing the second half of spring ball to focus on academics.

3. Fill out the secondary: Plenty of questions remain for a unit that had 10 different players starting at safety or cornerback last season. Free safety Tony Bell and strong safety Dontae Reed missed part of the spring with injuries, setting up a competition this summer.

Rice Owls
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 Nicholls State
Sept. 8 at Baylor
Sept. 15 Texas Tech
Sept. 22 at Texas
Oct. 3 at Southern Miss
Oct. 13 at Houston
Oct. 20 Memphis
Oct. 27 at Marshall
Nov. 3 UTEP
Nov. 10 at SMU
Nov. 17 Tulane
Nov. 24 Tulsa

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Chase Clement, WR Jarett Dillard, WR Joel Armstrong, C Austin Wilkinson, PK Clark Fangmeier, DE George Chukwu, LB Brian Raines, S/LB Andrew Sendejo
Key losses
RB Quinton Smith, LT Rolf Kruger, DE Courtney Gordon, S Chad Price, S Andray Downs, LB Marcus Rucker
Top newcomer: DE Kramer Lucio Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Quinton Smith (1,096 yds)
Passing: Chase Clement* (1,707 yds)
Receiving: Jarrett Dillard* (1,247 yds)
Tackles: Brian Raines* (118)
Sacks: Courtney Gordon (8)
Interceptions: Four players tied (2)

Spring answers: 1. Knox emerges at running back: The competition is far from over, but sophomore Marcus Knox looks like the man to beat at running back. Knox had 68 rushing yards on five carries in the spring game, capping his performance with a 49-yard scamper on his last carry. Junior Bio Bilaye-Benibo and sophomore C.J. Ugokwe will push Knox for the starting job.

2. Casey at the bat: After spending the last four years playing minor league baseball, James Casey is taking his cuts at defensive end, where Rice underwent personnel losses and a major scheme change. The 22-year-old freshman sparkled in the spring game after looking solid in the preceding practices. He should blend in with the new 4-2-5 alignment.

3. Dietrich Davis emerges at end: Rice's new four-down alignment will increase opportunities on the line, and Davis took advantage late this spring. After missing much of last season with an injury, Davis, a converted linebacker, came on strong late in spring ball. He could line up opposite Casey on the new-look line.

Fall questions: 1. Linebacker competition heats up: All-Conference selection Brian Raines and Jonathan Arceneaux missed part of spring practice with injuries, allowing Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun to emerge. But with linebacker personnel limited in the new 4-2-5 alignment, the competition for playing time should escalate this summer.

2. Lingering concerns on the offensive line: The Owls' front five didn't match their defensive colleagues this spring, leaving several unresolved issues for training camp. The line allowed three consecutive sacks on the deciding possession in the spring game. Guard Robby Heos and center Austin Wilkinson are solid contributors, but the Owls must replace left tackle Rolf Kruger and fill out the rest of the line.

3. Enhance the tight end spot: All-American Jarett Dillard will attract plenty of attention this season, leaving gaps in the middle of the field. Can Taylor Wardlow capitalize? If the spring is an indication, the answer is yes. Wardlow, who averaged 14.2 yards per reception last year, had three catches for 25 yards in the spring game.

SMU Mustangs
2007 Schedule
Sept. 3 Texas Tech
Sept. 8 North Texas
Sept. 15 at Arkansas State
Sept. 22 at TCU
Sept. 29 UTEP
Oct. 13 at Southern Miss
Oct. 20 Tulane
Oct. 27 at Tulsa
Nov. 4 at Houston
Nov. 10 Rice
Nov. 17 UCF
Nov. 24 at Memphis

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Justin Willis, WR Emmanuel Sanders, TE Vincent Chase, DE Corey Muse, LB Reggie Carrington, LB Wilton McCray, PK/P Thomas Morstead
Key losses
WR Bobby Chase, WR Reynaldo Pellerin, DE Justin Rogers, DT Adrian Haywood, SS Joe Sturdivant
Top newcomer: CB Derrius Bell Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: DeMyron Martin* (369 yds)
Passing: Justin Willis* (2,047 yds)
Receiving: Emmanuel Sanders* (605 yds)
Tackles: Joe Sturdivant (109)
Sacks: Justin Rogers (9)
Interceptions: Devin Lowery* (3)

Spring answers: 1. DeMyron Martin returns strong at running back: Slowed by a foot injury for much of last season, Martin showed glimpses of his 2005 form this spring. He rushed for 35 yards on seven carries in the spring game, scoring on an 8-yard dash. "DeMyron had a much better spring," coach Phil Bennett said. Martin earned Conference USA All-Freshman team honors after posting four 100-yard rushing games in 2005.

2. Bryce Hudman emerges at safety: SMU will struggle to replace four-year starter Joe Sturdivant, but Hudman stepped up this spring. He started the final four games of last season at free safety and did nothing to lose the spot this spring. "[Hudman] has all the tools," Bennett said. "His knowledge showed this spring."

3. Line dance pays off: Bennett called Ben Poynter's shift from center to left tackle "a really positive move for us." Poynter, a second-team all-league selection who started all 12 games at center last season, has been SMU's top lineman for years and should be able to protect Justin Willis' blind side. Poynter's move bumped up Mitch Enright to the starting center spot. Enright improved as the spring progressed.

Fall questions: 1. Decision time on the defensive line: After losing three starters, the defensive front is SMU's shakiest area. Cory Muse is a force on the end, but Bennett must find answers at defensive tackle. He has "a lot of possibilities" with Chris Parham, Zac Thomas, Ryan Leonard, Kyle DeGroat and Mickey Dollens competing for playing time. Bennett was impressed by the spring performance of end Justin Smart, a converted linebacker.

2. Jessie Henderson recovers from bad wheel: SMU eagerly awaits the return of Henderson, a dangerous return man who missed the second half of 2006 with a foot injury and sat out spring practice. Henderson, expected to be 100 percent by training camp, led the nation in kickoff return average (36.9 yards) before getting hurt against Marshall. He ranked 13th nationally in kickoff return average in 2005 (27.6).

3. Safety squeeze: Bennett expects junior college transfer Rock Dennis and converted cornerback David Haynes to compete for the starting free safety spot this summer. Dennis transitioned well this spring and brings playmaking skills to the secondary. Haynes played in every contest last season and had an interception in the spring game.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 Tennessee-Martin
Sept. 8 at Tennessee
Sept. 15 at East Carolina
Sept. 27 at Boise State
Oct. 3 Rice
Oct. 13 SMU
Oct. 21 at Marshall
Oct. 28 UCF
Nov. 3 at UAB
Nov. 10 Memphis
Nov. 17 at UTEP
Nov. 24 Arkansas State

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

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

Top returners
QB Jeremy Young, RB Damion Fletcher, TE Shawn Nelson, WR Chris Johnson, LB Gerald McRath, DT Martavius Prince, DE Robert Henderson, FS LeVance Richmond
Key losses
WR Damion Carter, RG George Batiste, LG Travis Cooley, C Robby D'Angelo, CB Caleb Hendrix, CB Jasper Faulk, PK Darren McCaleb
Top newcomer: RB Antwain Easterling Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Damion Fletcher* (1,388 yds)
Passing: Jeremy Young* (1,769 yds)
Receiving: Shawn Nelson* (506 yds)
Tackles: Jolonn Dunbar* (92)
Sacks: Kevin Akins (7.5)
Interceptions: Caleb Hendrix and LeVance Richmond* (4)

Spring answers: 1. Jeremy Young steps up: Young eased any doubts about his ability with a strong performance this spring after passing for 1,769 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions last year. He completed 20 of 30 passes and threw a touchdown in Southern Miss' final scrimmage of the spring (the spring game was canceled). "He took some steps this spring that he needed to take," offensive coordinator Jay Johnson told the Hattiesburg American. "I thought he played really consistent and left fewer plays on the field than we did in the fall. That's what we needed him to do."

2. Picture clearing up at wide receiver: After losing Damion Carter, Anthony Perine and Josh Barnes, the Eagles' receiving corps needed a boost this spring. It got one from redshirt freshman Ralph Turner, who was named the most improved offensive player this spring. "We know more about our receivers now," coach Jeff Bower told The Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

3. Center of attention: Rick Thompson earned the starting center spot with a strong effort in spring practice. Though the spots on either side of Thompson are up for grabs, the junior stepped up after playing eight games as the backup last season.

Fall questions: 1. Unearth starting guards: The starting center spot was settled this spring, but Southern Miss is still searching for its first-string guards. Sophomore Micah Brown missed spring practice with a broken foot and Nick Dean shifted to tackle. Wesley Housley will contend for time at left guard.

2. Cornerback still a concern: The departures of Caleb Hendrix and Jasper Faulk make cornerback a chief issue entering the summer. Defensive coordinator Jay Hopson was pleased with the play of speedsters Eddie Willingham and Ivory Bradshaw. Michael McGee and Justin Wilson also performed well in spring ball.

3. Ready to run: The competition for the starting running back job will spill into the summer, but both Damion Fletcher and Tory Harrison looked impressive this spring. Fletcher rushed for two touchdowns in the Eagles' final spring scrimmage, though Harrison had more yards (82) on 16 carries. "Damion has had a very good spring," Bower told The Sun Herald. "And Tory has, too. They are head-to-head in terms of competition and that's good for the team. The running back position is our strength and I feel good about them both."

Tulane Green Wave
2007 Schedule
Sept. 8 Mississippi State
Sept. 15 Houston
Sept. 22 Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 29 LSU
Oct. 6 at Army
Oct. 13 at UAB
Oct. 20 at SMU
Oct. 27 Memphis
Nov. 3 Tulsa
Nov. 10 UTEP
Nov. 17 at Rice
Nov. 24 at East Carolina

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 5; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Matt Forte, WR Jeremy Williams, C Michael Parenton, LT Tony Kropog, SS David Skehan, PK Ross Thevenot
Key losses
QB Lester Ricard, WR Damarcus Davis, WR Preston Brown, DE Billy Harrison, CB Israel Route, P Chris Beckman
Top newcomer: G Andrew Higgins Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Matt Forte* (859 yds)
Passing: Lester Ricard (2,795 yds)
Receiving: Damarcus Davis (607 yds)
Tackles: David Skehan* (80)
Sacks: Frank Morton (4)
Interceptions: David Skehan* 4

Spring answers: 1. Ade Tuyo makes push at running back: With projected starter Matt Forte slowed by a lingering knee injury this spring, Tuyo took advantage of his increased opportunity. The senior rushed for 66 yards on seven carries in the spring game, breaking free for a 44-yard touchdown. Tuyo had a 12-yard touchdown in Tulane's next-to-last scrimmage of the spring.

2. Defensive line looks solid: Any doubts that the line will be the strength of Tulane's defense were put to rest this spring. Seniors Antonio Harris, Frank Morton and Avery Williams performed well. Morton returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game, and sophomore Cody Sparks had two pass breakups and recovered a fumble. "Our D-line played extremely well this spring because we have three seniors there," defensive coordinator Thom Kaumeyer told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "That's one of our strengths."

3. Hail to the King: Tulane's new starting quarterback will need all the help he can get, and junior Brian King looks ready to lend a hand. King made back-to-back highlight catches in the spring game, helping Scott Elliott lead the offense to the end zone. King led the Green Wave in yards per reception (17) last season, hauling in three touchdowns.

Fall questions: 1. Quarterback competition very much alive: Scott Elliott took most of the snaps this spring, but he has a long way to go to secure the starting job. The sophomore played well in the spring game, completing 8 of 12 pass attempts for 80 yards. Anthony Scelfo and Kevin Moore both attempted seven passes in the game. "Right now, we've got three [quarterbacks] and we tried to give them as much of an equal opportunity as we could," coach Bob Toledo told the Times-Picayune. "Once we get back off of summer and we get into fall camp, I would say within a week to 10 days, we're going to try to make a decision and go with who we've got."

2. Will running game be Tulane's Forte: Toledo is confident that Matt Forte, who averaged 5.3 yards a carry last season, will galvanize the Green Wave offense despite a new starting quarterback. But Forte didn't see much action this spring and will need to show his knee is fine in training camp.

3. Linebacker limbo: With only seven linebackers on scholarship, Tulane must find some durable contributors. James Dillard, Evan Lee and Joe Goosby are solid, and freshman James McMurchy played well in the spring game. The Green Wave still must see continued production this summer to solidify their defensive midsection.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2007 Schedule
Aug. 30 at Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 15 BYU
Sept. 21 Oklahoma
Sept. 29 UAB
Oct. 6 at UTEP
Oct. 13 Marshall
Oct. 20 at UCF
Oct. 27 SMU
Nov. 3 at Tulane
Nov. 10 Houston
Nov. 17 at Army
Nov. 24 at Rice

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Paul Smith, RB Courtney Tennial, RB Tarrion Adams, LB Nelson Coleman, LB Chris Chamberlain, SS Anthony Germany, PK Jarod Tracy
Key losses
WR Ryan Bugg, WR Idris Moss, T Jeff Perrett, C Aaron Danenhauer, LB Nick Bunting, FS Bobby Blackshire, S Kedrick Alexander
Top newcomer: C.B. Chaten Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Courtney Tennial* (845 yds)
Passing: Paul Smith* (2,727 yds)
Receiving: Idris Moss (803 yds)
Tackles: Nelson Coleman* (98)
Sacks: Robert Latu (6)
Interceptions: Bobby Blackshire (4)

Spring answers: 1. Corey Kizer steps in at receiver: Quarterback Paul Smith is looking for help after his top two targets (Ryan Bugg and Idris Moss) departed. Kizer emerged in the spring game, catching five passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. Dion Toliver also stepped up with four catches for 89 yards, and Nick Henderson dazzled for much of the spring.

2. Johnson provides insurance under center: Smith has locked down the starting quarterback job, but in case something goes wrong, David Johnson is a capable backup. Johnson, who attempted only 14 passes last season, went 8 of 9 passing for 134 yards and a touchdown in the spring game and threw a 24-yard touchdown to Kizer.

3. Defensive backs show promise: The spring game was far from a defensive showcase, but the secondary displayed its playmaking skills. Veterans Anthony Germany (sack, tackle for loss) and Roy Roberts (interception) performed well, and freshman Drew Cuffee intercepted Smith's first pass of the game.

Fall questions: 1. Offensive line must jell: Smith's presence under center won't mean much unless the line can protect him. With four starters gone, including tackle Jeff Perrett and center Aaron Danenhauer, Tulsa has plenty of gap-filling to do this summer. Walter Boyd's transition from defense to left tackle should help, but Tulsa needs guards Rodrick Thomas and Curt Puckett to blossom. Justin Morsey's leadership at right guard will be crucial.

2. Build ball-carrying depth: The two-headed tailback of Courtney Tennial and Tarrion Adams returns for 2007, but Tulsa needs more options in the backfield. Freshman Jamad Williams could be the answer after carrying 15 times for 61 yards in the spring game. Williams had 98 rushing yards and two scores in a previous scrimmage.

3. Quell concerns at cornerback: Tulsa had the league's best pass defense last season, but it lost several playmakers in the secondary. The cornerbacks will be in the spotlight this summer after some, like freshman Drew Cuffee, performed well in the spring.

UAB Blazers
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 at Michigan State
Sept. 8 at Florida State
Sept. 15 Alcorn State
Sept. 29 at Tulsa
Oct. 6 at Mississippi State
Oct. 13 Tulane
Oct. 20 Houston
Oct. 27 at East Carolina
Nov. 3 Southern Miss
Nov. 10 UCF
Nov. 17 at Memphis
Nov. 24 at Marshall

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Rashad Slaughter, LG Adam Truitt, C Jake Seitz, FS Will Dunbar, CB Kevin Sanders, LB Joe Henderson, PK Swayze Waters
Key losses
RB Dan Burks, WR Willie Edwards, RB Corey White, DE Larry McSwain, LB Mastaki Smith, DE Jermaine McElveen, SS Chris Felder
Top newcomer: G Caleb Thomas Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Dan Burks (432 yds)
Passing: Chris Williams (1,112 yds)
Receiving: Willie Edwards (719 yds)
Tackles: Will Dunbar* (65)
Sacks: Larry McSwain (6)
Interceptions: Will Dunbar* and Kevin Sanders* (3)

Spring answers: 1. Secondary shines in spring game: The secondary accounted for four of the five interceptions in a "sloppy" end-of-spring scrimmage. Usual suspects Will Dunbar and Durrell Fuqua each picked off a pass, but the star was redshirt freshman cornerback Brandon Carlisle, who had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Carlisle, who had two picks in UAB's previous scrimmage, should contend for a starting spot this summer.

2. Slaughter brothers shore up running attack: After losing top running backs Dan Burks and Corey White, UAB might have found a solution in Rashad Slaughter. The sophomore capped a solid spring by rushing for 97 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, breaking free for a 60-yard scamper. His older brother T.J. added 49 yards on 12 carries.

3. David Sigler fills in the gaps: Sigler's versatility and willingness to play anywhere helped a transitioning offense this spring. The senior fullback-tight end is a capable blocker who could see an increased role in UAB's new pass-first attack. "David is certainly one of our better football players, period," coach Neil Callaway told The Birmingham News. "He's not a speed guy but as far as being physical and being tough, I've been very impressed."

Fall questions: 1. Wide receiver worries: First-year coach Neil Callaway was less than pleased with his wide receivers this spring, especially in the spring game. The receivers dropped nine passes, providing few answers at a position that lost Willie Edwards and several others. "I'm really concerned about our receivers," Callaway told The Birmingham News. "We want to be a balanced offense, being able to run and throw the ball. What I've seen out of the receivers at this point, I don't feel good going into the game saying, 'OK, we can win with these guys.'"

2. Quarterback competition continues: Five interceptions in the spring game didn't help distinguish the Blazers' next starting signal caller. Sam Hunt, who was off limits to defenders following two offseason back surgeries, threw three interceptions in the game, while Joseph Webb twice was picked off. Webb completed only 11 of 26 passes but racked up 199 yards and two touchdowns. Hunt went 7-for-14 for 56 yards. "We'll sit down and evaluate it," Callaway said. "We'll go into camp and let them compete and see who it's going to be."

3. Extreme makeover on defensive line: UAB loses playmaking ends Larry McSwain, a first-team all-conference selection, and Jermaine McElveen. Junior Brandon Jeffries is solid at one spot, but the Blazers are looking for depth up front at both tackle and end. Freshman Joe Happe and sophomore Kelvin Quarles showed promise in the spring game, each recording a sack.

UCF Golden Knights
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 at NC State
Sept. 15 Texas
Sept. 22 Memphis
Sept. 29 Louisiana-Lafayette
Oct. 6 at East Carolina
Oct. 13 at USF
Oct. 20 Tulsa
Oct. 28 at Southern Miss
Nov. 3 Marshall
Nov. 10 at UAB
Nov. 17 at SMU
Nov. 24 UTEP

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Kevin Smith, WR Rocky Ross, LT Patrick Brown, TE Mike Merritt, DE Leger Douzable, CB Johnell Neal, FS Jason Venson, SS Sha'Reef Rashad, LB Cory Hogue, PK Michael Torres
Key losses
QB Steven Moffett, WR Mike Walker, C Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, LB Rocky Dozier, DE Chris Welsh
Top newcomer: WR Kamar Aiken Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kevin Smith* (954 yds)
Passing: Kyle Israel* (1,420 yds)
Receiving: Mike Walker (1,178 yds)
Tackles: Johnell Neal* (66)
Sacks: Leger Douzable* (7)
Interceptions: Sha'Reef Rashad* (4)

Spring answers: 1. Darin Baldwin steps up: There aren't many openings on a defense that returns nine starters, but Baldwin is pushing for a big role after a strong spring. The freshman cornerback made a leaping interception and stopped running back Curtis Francis short of the goal line in the spring game.

2. End game: Central Florida returns star defensive end Leger Douzable, and it might have found an answer on the other side of the line in Antonio Wallace. The junior recorded two of the defense's three sacks in the spring game. Fellow defensive end Emeka Okammor forced a fumble in the game.

3. Getting his kicks: Despite converting 17 of 24 field-goal attempts last year, senior Michael Torres has some competition at kicker. Junior Jake Howard, a soccer player who had not tried football until the spring, connected on field goals of 51, 47 and 46 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions: 1. Is Israel the answer under center: Kyle Israel had his moments this spring, but the senior needs to show continued poise this summer to sew up the starting quarterback job. Hindered by dropped passes, Israel went 17-for-34 for 113 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the spring game. Last season he completed 108 of 166 pass attempts for 1,420 yards.

2. Receivers must step up: Coach George O'Leary counted six dropped passes in the spring game, a number that must decline this summer. Rocky Ross is a solid top option, but the Knights need younger receivers like Jamar Newsome and Jevaughn Reams to become consistent contributors.

3. Linebacker shuffle: UCF returns plenty of experience at linebacker with Jordan Richards, Cory Hogue and Steven Baker. Its next challenge is finding the right mix. Opponents averaged nearly 150 rushing yards a game last year against the Golden Knights. Hogue thinks the necessary improvement took place this spring. "It's the best spring I've seen in my time here," he told the Orlando Sentinel. "We've changed tenfold, done a 180 from where we were."

UTEP Miners
2007 Schedule
Sept. 1 New Mexico
Sept. 8 at Texas Tech
Sept. 15 at New Mexico State
Sept. 22 Texas Southern
Sept. 29 at SMU
Oct. 6 Tulsa
Oct. 13 East Carolina
Oct. 27 Houston
Nov. 3 at Rice
Nov. 10 at Tulane
Nov. 17 Southern Miss
Nov. 24 at UCF

2006 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
RB Marcus Thomas, C Robby Felix, WR Joe West, FS Quintin Demps, CB Josh Ferguson, LB Jeremy Jones
Key losses
QB Jordan Palmer, WR Johnnie Lee Higgins, WR Chris Marrow LB Troy Collavo, SS Joe Fleskoski, PK Reagan Schneider
Top newcomer: RB Jackie Freeman Insider
2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Marcus Thomas* (513 yds)
Passing: Jordan Palmer (3,595 yds)
Receiving: Johnnie Lee Higgins (1319 yds)
Tackles: Troy Collavo (125)
Sacks: Justin Hanel and Joe Ward (3.5)
Interceptions: Quentin Demps* (7)

Spring answers: 1. Offensive line solidified: UTEP's veteran line dominated the spring game, confirming itself as the offense's most reliable asset. The Miners return all five starters, including honorable mention all-conference selections Robby Felix and Tyler Ribitzki, and they developed several reserves this spring. "We're blocking better," coach Mike Price said.

2. Running game looks strong: The Miners' new starting quarterback should have plenty of help in the backfield. The first team averaged 7.8 yards a carry in the spring game, with Marcus Thomas (68 yards, two touchdowns) leading the way. Sophomore Jason Williams gained 62 yards on only six carries, and Terrell Jackson had 54 yards on three carries. "We're going to run the ball a lot," center Robby Felix told the El Paso Times. "It's an offensive lineman's dream, running the ball all day."

3. Transfers contribute right away: UTEP had 11 new arrivals for spring ball, including six junior-college transfers and three transfers from Division I-A programs. The linebacker corps received an immediate boost from Adam Vincent, a transfer from Arizona State, and JaBoy Leomiti, a transfer from Fullerton College. Both Vincent and Leomiti will contend for starting jobs this summer.

Fall questions: 1. Quarterback competition pushes forward: Jordan Palmer's production will be sorely missed, but UTEP hopes it has a successor in freshman Trevor Vittatoe. After making strides throughout the spring, Vittatoe took the first snap in the spring game and played with the first team. Versatile senior Lorne Sam, a wide receiver for most of his college career, will compete with Vittatoe and Kyle Wright throughout preseason camp. Vittatoe completed 10 of 15 passes for 186 yards and two long touchdowns (45 yards, 54 yards) in the spring game, while Sam went 5-for-13 for 135 yards and a score. "We have to develop our offense so we use the strengths of our quarterbacks," Price said. "Vittatoe, for a freshman, showed a lot of composure. There are certain plays that Lorne Sam can run better than others, and we're in the process of determining them."

2. Fill gaps at wide receiver: UTEP's search for the next Johnnie Lee Higgins will continue into the summer, though several young receivers emerged this spring. Redshirt freshman Kris Adams exploded in the second spring scrimmage, catching five passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Jeff Moturi sparkled in the spring game with five receptions for 78 yards. The Miners are hoping for big things from Florida State transfer Fred Rouse, who needs to wipe away a checkered past and showcase his elite skills.

3. Projected starters return from injuries: After missing spring ball, linebacker Jeremy Jones (fractured fibula) and sophomore safety Braxton Amy (shoulder surgery) return to a defense that has few, if any, locked-up starting spots. Several newcomers emerged at linebacker this spring, and safety Anthony Morrow had an interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. The competition should be fierce this summer.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.