Commentary

Breaking down the MWC

Originally Published: May 13, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

Who will emerge as Air Force's running back in 2008? Can New Mexico replace John Sullivan? Will TCU quarterback Andy Dalton take the next step? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Air Force Falcons

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Southern Utah
Sept. 6 @ Wyoming
Sept. 13 @ Houston
Sept. 20 Utah
Oct. 4 Navy
Oct. 11 @ San Diego State
Oct. 18 @ UNLV
Oct. 23 New Mexico
Nov. 1 @ Army
Nov. 8 Colorado State
Nov. 15 Brigham Young
Nov. 22 @ TCU


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 3, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
TE Travis Dekker, G Nick Charles, T Keith Williams, DE Ben Garland, NG Jared Marvin, DE Ryan Kemp, LB Hunter Altman, S Chris Thomas, CB/WR Reggie Rembert, K/P Ryan Harrison.
Key losses
QB Shaun Carney, RB Chad Hall, FB Ryan Williams, RB Jim Ollis, C Blaine Guenther, WR Mark Root, G Caleb Morris, T Chris Monson, LB John Rabold, LB Drew Fowler, CB Carson Bird, LB Aaron Shanor, S Bobby Giannini.
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chad Hall (1,478 yards)
Passing: Shaun Carney (1,491 yards)
Receiving: Chad Hall (524 yards)
Tackles: Drew Fowler (119)
Sacks: John Rabold (5 )
Interceptions: Carson Bird (6)

Spring answers

1. Find an offensive playmaker: Air Force coach Troy Calhoun tried projected starting CB Reggie Rembert at "Z receiver" for three late practices and found strong results. Rembert, the team's most athletic player, will also have a busy fall as the Falcons' top punt and kick return threat. "But if there's ever a moment where I think it's too much, then we will not do it," Calhoun told the Colorado Springs Gazette about the two-way duties.

2. Brenton Byrd: Air Force coaches like the speed and athleticism of Byrd, who started the spring as the Falcons' second-string tailback but was moved to cornerback. Byrd has the size and football instincts to contribute at his new position -- an area of concern for Air Force coaches coming into the spring.

3. Kevin Fogler: The Falcons might have found a playmaking receiver in the 6-foot-6 Fogler, who quickly impressed coaches with his knack for making tough catches in traffic. Calhoun told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he liked Fogler's "length" and his jumping ability. "There are times when guys are 6-foot-4, and they play like they're 5-foot-6," Calhoun said. "This guy's 6-foot-6, and he plays like he's 6-foot-6. You talk about 'upside,' this guy has some."

Fall questions

1. Who plays quarterback? Calhoun came out of the spring with no definitive answer to replace QB Shaun Carney. Shea Smith entered as the No. 1 player coming into the spring, but faced a stiff challenge from rising junior Eric Herbort. "Eric may have moved ahead ever so slightly," Calhoun told the Denver Post. "But there really isn't any separation between the two."

2. Who emerges at running back? Air Force's offense is keyed by its running ability, and the Falcons lose their top three tailbacks from last season, including leading rusher and receiver Chad Hall. Look for multiple players to fill his role, most notably Savier Stephens and converted CB Kyle Lumpkin. Stephens missed the spring with a hernia injury, but should be ready for fall practice.

3. Experience: The Falcons lose 26 seniors and must replace 15 starters from last season's Fort Worth Bowl team. Calhoun will be challenged to fill all those holes with what promises to be the youngest Air Force team in recent memory. "We have a bunch of new guys that really haven't played a whole lot of football at the college level," Calhoun told the Rocky Mountain News. "We had to do everything we possibly could for them to develop experience without them being able to play games."

BYU Cougars

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Iowa
Sept. 6 @ Washington
Sept. 13 UCLA
Sept. 20 Wyoming
Oct. 3 @ Utah State
Oct. 11 New Mexico
Oct. 16 @ TCU
Oct. 25 UNLV
Nov. 1 @ Colorado State
Nov. 8 San Diego State
Nov. 15 @ Air Force
Nov. 22 @ Utah


2007 overall record:
11-2

2007 conference record:
8-0

Returning starters
Offense: 10, defense: 3, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Max Hall, RB Harvey Unga, WR/KR Austin Collie, TE Dennis Pitta, G Ray Feinga, T Dallas Reynolds, T David Oswald, DE Jan Jorgensen, LB David Nixon, S Kellen Fowler
Key losses
C Sete Aulai, WR Matt Allen, LB Bryan Kehl, LB Kelly Poppinga, LB Markell Staffieri, CB Kayle Buchanan, CB Ben Criddle, S Corby Hodgkiss, S Quinn Gooch
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Harvey Unga* (1,227 yards)
Passing: Max Hall* (3,848 yards)
Receiving: Austin Collie* (946 yards)
Tackles: Kelly Poppinga (113)
Sacks: Jan Jorgensen* (14)
Interceptions: Bryan Kehl, Corby Hodgkiss, Quinn Gooch, Kayle Buchanan (3)

Spring answers

1. Legitimate BCS smack: After finishing last season with a nation-best 10-game winning streak, the Cougars return brimming with confidence. It's led coach Bronco Mendenhall to term his team's upcoming season as its "Quest for Perfection." "We're not satisfied with being 11-2," DE Jan Jorgensen said. "There are a lot of teams out there that would love to be 11-2. We've been good the last two seasons, and now, we're looking to be great. Anybody who wants to be great will never be satisfied with being 11-2."

2. Offensive firepower: The Cougars led the MWC in total offense (442.8 yards per game) and scoring (30.1 points per game) last season and could be primed for more with six senior starters returning. QB Max Hall, RB Harvey Unga, TE Dennis Pitta, WR Austin Collie and linemen Ray Feinga and Dallas Reynolds all are All-America candidates. "It's a veteran group and they know what they're doing," BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman said. "These guys know exactly what to do, and they've worked their tails off."

3. Added ground support: Look for RB Fui Vakapuna, who struggled with a broken hand and ankle injuries last season, to provide some support for Unga in the backfield. Vakapuna's tough inside running will provide an important added offensive element for the Cougars. "I'm just coming out trying to prove myself again," Vakapuna told the Salt Lake City Deseret News. "I'm trying to show the coaches that I'm back and ready to roll."

Fall questions

1. Backup QB: Hall is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks, but the Cougars have little proven experience behind him. Sophomore Kurt McEuen, junior Brenden Gaskins and converted defensive back Stephen Covey were in the mix. None emerged during the spring, and the battle will likely play out into fall practice.

2. Linebackers: Most coaches would be concerned after losing three starters, but Mendenhall is confident in his replacements. David Nixon moved to the strong side to replace Kehl and converted TE Vic So'oto has taken over his old position. But a knee injury to Terrance Hooks that will sideline him for the 2008 season aggravates the Cougars' lack of depth at the position.

3. Secondary: The Cougars will be green after losing four starters in the secondary. The departing players accounted for 15 of the team's 16 interceptions last season and were an undervalued element of BYU's recent resurgence. With early tests against UCLA -- even with the Bruins' quarterbacking problems -- and Washington, this group will be challenged before conference play begins.

Colorado State Rams

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Colorado
Sept. 6 Sacramento State
Sept. 20 Houston
Sept. 27 @ California
Oct. 4 UNLV
Oct. 11 TCU
Oct. 18 @ Utah
Oct. 25 @ San Diego State
Nov. 1 BYU
Nov. 8 @ Air Force
Nov. 15 New Mexico
Nov. 22 @ Wyoming


2007 overall record:
3-9

2007 conference record:
2-6

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

Top returners
RB Gartrell Johnson, RB Kyle Bell, FB Zac Pauga, TE Chris Kawulok, T Cole Pemberton, T Adrian Martinez, C Tim Walter, DE Tommie Hill, LB Jeff Horinek, LB Jake Pottorff, LB Ricky Brewer, S Mike Pagnotta, S Jake Galusha, K Jason Smith
Key losses
QB Caleb Hanie, WR Damon Morton, WR Luke Roberts, G Nick Allotta, DE Jesse Nading, NT Erik Sandie, DT Blake Smith, CB Joey Rucks, CB Darryl Williams, S Zac Bryson, P Jimmie Kaylor
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Gartrell Johnson* (957 yards)
Passing: Caleb Hanie (2,455 yards)
Receiving: Damon Morton (774 yards)
Tackles: Jeff Horinek* (94)
Sacks: Tommie Hill* (5)
Interceptions: Darryl Williams, Zac Bryson (2)

Spring answers

1. Enthusiasm from the new coach: Former Colorado State assistant coach Steve Fairchild has infused the program with a fresh attitude. Fairchild spent the last seven years in the NFL after previously serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under former Rams coach Sonny Lubick, so he knows the lay of the land in Fort Collins. "We're still learning to practice at the tempo I would like, but we're getting there," Fairchild told the Rocky Mountain News.

2. Running game: Fairchild might have the MWC's top rushing attack after the strong spring comeback of Kyle Bell, who rushed for 1,288 yards in 2005 but has struggled with recent knee injuries. Bell is ahead of Gartrell Johnson, who led the team in rushing last season. "Offensively, it's always been our moniker here that we're going to line up and try to beat you up running the football," Fairchild said. "You can't hide from the physical part of this game and I guarantee you we'll be a physical team."

3. Safeties first: After missing much of last season with internal bleeding caused by an undetected ulcer, S Klint Kubiak was one of the Rams' biggest spring surprises. He was joined in the spring starting unit by Mike Pagnotta, who missed four games with a badly sprained ankle. "Those two are huge for us now," CSU defensive coordinator Larry Kerr told the Denver Post. "Obviously, it was a major setback last year losing those kids."

Fall questions

1. New QB needed: The departure of three-year starting QB Caleb Hanie has Fairchild considering junior Grant Stucker and senior Billy Farris as his replacement. He also expects incoming freshman Alex Kelly to get a long look at fall practice. Farris got the nod as the starter in the spring game, but none of the Rams quarterbacks were impressive, as they collectively completed only 15 of 32 passes with four interceptions.

2. Playmakers needed: Fairchild didn't mince words after a sluggish collective performance by his receiving corps in the spring game. Don't be surprised if he immediately considers several additions from his incoming freshman class this summer. "We really need to play better, and our receiver play has not helped us develop at quarterback," Fairchild told the Loveland (Colo.) Reporter-Herald. "It is what it is, and we need to work to get better and improve."

3. Defensive front: The Rams return only DE Tommie Hill from last year's starting unit that was gashed for 207.2 yards rushing per game (107th nationally). Fairchild aims for a complete attitude change from his unit. "There's no fanciness to defense," he said. "You've got to want to get to the ball and you've got to want to get the ball carrier on the ground. We'll play that type of defense here."

New Mexico Lobos

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 TCU
Sept. 6 Texas A&M
Sept. 13 Arizona
Sept. 20 @ Tulsa
Sept. 27 @ New Mexico State
Oct. 4 Wyoming
Oct. 11 @ BYU
Oct. 18 San Diego State
Oct. 23 @ Air Force
Nov. 1 Utah
Nov. 8 @ UNLV
Nov. 15 @ Colorado State


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Donovan Porterie, RB Rodney Ferguson, FB Matt Quillen, WR Roland Bruno, TE Chris Mark, C-G Erik Cook, NT Wesley Beck, S Ian Clark, S Blake Ligon, S Clint McPeek, CB Glover Quin, CB-KR DeAndre Wright.
Key losses
K John Sullivan, WR Travis Brown, WR Marcus Smith, T Devin Clark, C Vince Natali, G Bart Miller, DE Tyler Donaldson, DE Michael Tuohy, LB George Carter, LB Cody Kase, LB Major Mosley, S OJ Swift, P Jordan Scott
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rodney Ferguson* (1,177 yards)
Passing: Donovan Porterie* (3,006 yards)
Receiving: Marcus Smith (1,125 yards)
Tackles: Ian Clark* (79)
Sacks: Michael Tuohy (6)
Interceptions: DeAndre Wright* (3)

Spring answers

1. Emerging offensive line: Despite losing four starters from last season, coach Rocky Long has reloaded nicely with three junior college transfers, five returning lettermen and several talented redshirt freshmen. Returning starter Erik Cook is set at either center or guard and redshirt freshman T Bryon Bell also emerged as a strong contributor. The Lobos should be two-deep at most line positions starting the season.

2. Donovan Porterie's growth: Porterie helped lead the Lobos to their first bowl victory in 46 seasons with a solid performance in the New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada. And he built on that showing -- particularly at several late spring practices. "I thought Donovan got better as the season went along and understands the offense a whole lot better now than he did a year ago," Long said.

3. Sensational secondary: The Lobos are loaded with the potent cornerback tandem of DeAndre Wright and Glover Quin back, along with three starting safeties in Clint McPeek, Ian Clark and Blake Ligon in Long's unique 4-2-5 defense. Clark and Ligon missed spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, providing younger players like Frankie Baca and Frankie Solomon an opportunity to expand their roles. "I think our secondary will be really good, [but] we had to take this as an opportunity to develop younger players," Long said.

Fall questions

1. Finding pass-catchers: The Lobos had the two top receivers in the MWC last season in Marcus Smith and Travis Brown, who combined for 167 receptions and 2,156 yards. Jermaine McQueen emerged as Porterie's likely go-to receiver during the spring and Roland Bruno had his moments before he was injured late in spring practice. "We think we have talented athletes at wide receiver, but most of them haven't played very much," Long said.

2. Get a kicker: John Sullivan was an All-American kicker and will be sorely missed. Walk-on James Aho has a slight lead after the spring, but look for Drew Zamora and a couple of incoming players to push him when fall practice begins. "The guys in the spring who proved that they're the best will have a leg up when we start in the fall, but there's still a chance that there's a guy that's not on campus yet that could be the starter," Long said.

3. Wicked early schedule: The Lobos will be tested in a difficult early schedule beginning with a murderous first game against TCU and tough nonconference home games against Texas A&M and Arizona before road games at New Mexico State and Tulsa. Those early challenges will put a premium on preparation in fall practice. "It's obviously the most challenging in the last 11 years, and it might be the most challenging in the history of the program," Long said. "As a coaching staff, we approach it as an opportunity to prove that our program has improved."

San Diego State Aztecs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Cal Poly
Sept. 6 @ Notre Dame
Sept. 13 @ San Jose State
Sept. 27 Idaho
Oct. 4 @ TCU
Oct. 11 Air Force
Oct. 18 @ New Mexico
Oct. 25 Colorado State
Nov. 1 @ Wyoming
Nov. 8 @ BYU
Nov. 15 Utah
Nov. 22 UNLV


2007 overall record:
4-8

2007 conference record:
3-5

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

Top returners
WR Darren Mougey, WR Vincent Brown, G Mike Schmidt, C Trask Iosefa, DE Jonathan Soto, DE B.J. Williams, LB Russell Allen, LB Luke Laolagi, LB Andrew Preston, CB Vonnie Holmes, CB Aaron Moore, S Corey Boudreaux
Key losses
QB Kevin O'Connell, RB Brandon Bornes, WR Brett Swain, WR Chaz Schilens, TE Steve Schmidt, P Michael Hughes, T Will Robinson, T Mike Kravetz, G Brandyn Dombrowski, G Fred Amano, DT Nick Osborn, S Ray Bass
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kevin O'Connell (408 yards)
Passing: Kevin O'Connell (3,063 yards)
Receiving: Brett Swain (973 yards)
Tackles: Russell Allen* (119)
Sacks: Nick Osborn (4)
Interceptions: Aaron Moore*, Vonnie Holmes* (4)br>

Spring answers

1. Defensive growth: The Aztecs can't go anywhere but up along the defensive front after ranking next-to-last nationally in rushing yards allowed and 11th worst in sacks. But defensive coordinator Bob Elliott is convinced that his strength in the trenches is improved with the development of sophomore DT Ernie Lawson and juniors Peter Nelson and Avery Williams. DE Ryan Williams, a transfer from Ohio State, looked like an immediate contributor as a pass-rushing threat.

2. Linebackers: Elliott was pleased with the play of his unit, particularly redshirt freshman Miles Burris, who was the leading tackler at the last two scrimmages, and Russell Allen. Burris' development could reduce some of the pressure on Allen. "Miles is a heck of a player. He has a lot of potential and a bright future ahead of him," Allen said. "He'll go through a big change this summer getting his body ready to play in the fall."

3. Davon Brown: After being injured earlier in the spring, Brown had the best game of any Aztec running back at several late practices. His development will be crucial in balancing the offense. "The one guy who jumped out with some toughness was Davon Brown," coach Chuck Long said. "That was the one guy who we wanted to see in the spring game, and he came through with some big runs."

Fall questions

1. Who plays quarterback? The departure of Kevin O'Connell was a huge blow for the Aztecs. It was especially apparent in San Diego State's spring game as the offense amassed only 110 yards of total offense on 45 plays. All of the quarterbacks struggled as former Tulsa transfer Drew Westling, sophomore Kelsey Sokoloski and redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley combined for 79 yards on 9-of-24 passing. Lindley appears to have won the starting job, but he'll be on a short leash heading into summer practice.

2. Offensive line help: The Aztecs return only one starter -- G Mike Schmidt -- and only three of the players have any real game experience. Three of the projected starters on the final spring depth chart -- C Tommie Draheim, T Kurtis Gunther and T Mike Matamua -- all are redshirt freshmen. "We have some guys who are going to have to grow up real quick," Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

3. Pass-catchers sought: The Aztecs lost nearly 60 percent of their receiving yardage from last season with the departure of seniors Chaz Schilens, Brett Swain and Steve Schmidt. Vincent Brown, Darren Mougey and Mekell Wesley emerged as No. 1 players at wide receiver after spring and several different options are present at tight end. The most intriguing player could be junior DeMarco Sampson, who is returning after missing most of the past two seasons with torn ligaments in his left foot.

TCU Horned Frogs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ New Mexico
Sept. 6 Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 13 Stanford
Sept. 20 @ Southern Methodist
Sept. 27 @ Oklahoma
Oct. 4 San Diego State
Oct. 11 @ Colorado State
Oct. 16 BYU
Oct. 25 Wyoming
Nov. 1 @ UNLV
Nov. 6 @ Utah
Nov. 22 Air Force


2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Andy Dalton, TB Aaron Brown, TB Joseph Turner, G Giles Montgomery, T Marshall Newhouse, T Nic Richmond, C Blake Schlueter, TE Shae Reagan, NT Kelly Griffin, DT Cody Moore, LB Jason Phillips, S Stephen Hodge, S Steven Coleman, CB Rafael Priest, CB Nick Sanders
Key losses
WR Marcus Brock, WR Ervin Dickerson, TE Quinton Cunigan, G Matt Linder, DE Tommy Blake, DE Chase Ortiz, KR-S Brian Bonner, LB David Hawthorne, S David Roach, K Chris Manfredini
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Joseph Turner * (597 yards)
Passing: Andy Dalton* (2,459 yards)
Receiving: Ervin Dickerson (514 yards)
Tackles: Jason Phillips* (87)
Sacks: Chase Ortiz (9)
Interceptions: Steven Coleman*, Rafael Priest * (3)

Spring answers

1. Team chemistry: After unprecedented BCS-buster hype before last season's "disappointing" 8-5 campaign, the Horned Frogs persevered over several calamities and finished with their third straight bowl victory. Going through that has boosted the unity of the current team. The Horned Frogs have previously thrived as an MWC underdog. It might happen again with a familiar recipe of a fierce defense and a solid running attack that coach Gary Patterson has employed before.

2. Aaron Brown: Finally healthy after struggling with knee and ankle injuries much of last season, Brown looks ready to contribute. The return of Brown, the MWC's 2007 preseason offensive player of the year, provides the Horned Frogs a breakaway rushing threat that was missing much of last season. TCU returns its seven top rushers from last season, but Brown clearly is the most explosive -- if he's healthy.

3. Daryl Washington: Here's an indication of how salty the Horned Frogs' defense might be this season. The player who had the best spring was Washington, and he couldn't even crack the starting lineup. With Jason Phillips and Robert Henson in front of him, Washington will have to be patient. But his growth is a reason why Patterson is calling his current linebacking group the best he's had during his TCU tenure.

Fall questions

1. Find a pass rusher: The Horned Frogs must replace Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake -- the MWC's most dominant pair of defensive ends in recent seasons. Jerry Hughes and Matt Panfil will have the first opportunity. Both showed flashes of promise during the spring, although TCU coaches would like to see more pass-rush production. The return of senior NT James Vess, who was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules last year, also will help.

2. Dalton's development: The Horned Frogs will go as far as QB Andy Dalton can take them. He showed flashes as a freshman, but struggled too often with turnovers. With four returning starting offensive linemen, a vast collection of running backs and emerging receivers like Jeremy Kerley and Jimmy Young, TCU will have some weapons. The best sign came in the spring game, when Dalton directed the first-team offense to a touchdown drive against the first-string defense -- the first time that's happened in recent memory. "We had some big plays, and against our defense; that's exciting to see," Dalton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

3. New kicker and punter: Massive 260-pound redshirt freshman Anson Kelton emerged as the likely punter, despite his struggles in the spring game. "He'll have to react better than he did today," Patterson told the Star-Telegram after the game. The bigger loss will be K Chris Manfredini, particularly because no answer emerged during the spring. Patterson shuffled various options, but the likely result will be incoming freshman Ross Evans.

UNLV Rebels

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Utah State
Sept. 6 @ Utah
Sept. 13 @ Arizona State
Sept. 20 Iowa State
Sept. 27 Nevada
Oct. 4 @ Colorado State
Oct. 18 Air Force
Oct. 25 @ BYU
Nov. 1 TCU
Nov. 8 New Mexico
Nov. 13 Wyoming
Nov. 22 @ San Diego State


2007 overall record:
2-10

2007 conference record:
1-7

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Travis Dixon, T Matt Murphy, RB Frank Summers, WR Ryan Wolfe, WR Casey Flair, C Joe Hawley, G Siosifa Moala, T Johan Asiata, DT Jacob Hales, LB Starr Fuimaono, CB Quinton Pointer, S Daryl Forte
Key losses
LB Beau Bell, DB Mil'Von James, G Tim Goins, WR Aaron Straiten, LB Bradley Niles, DE Jeremy Geathers, DE Elton Shackelford, S Tony Cade, K Sergio Aguayo
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Frank Summers* (928 yards)
Passing: Travis Dixon * (1,873 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Wolfe* (784 yards)
Tackles: Beau Bell (126)
Sacks: Jeremy Geathers (5 )
Interceptions: Beau Bell (4)

Spring answers

1. Pass-catchers: In Casey Flair and Ryan Wolfe, coach Mike Sanford has one of the Mountain West's most underrated pair of starting wide receivers. The duo combined for 120 catches and 1,406 yards last season. Rodelin Anthony emerged as another starting receiver during the spring. And Gerold Rodriguez, Tate Knutson, Justin Marvel and Renan Saint Preux all are in the mix for playing time heading into the summer.

2. Improved offensive line: The development of starters like Johan Asiata, Joe Hawley and Matt Murphy will help the Rebels set a more dominant tone in the trenches this season. "The offensive line is more experienced and the most talented group we've had here," Sanford said. "What we have to do is figure out who our best five players are and then get those five on the field in the fall."

3. Frank Summers: The most versatile offensive weapon is bullish 240-pound TB Frank "The Tank" Summers, who led the team with 10 touchdowns last season (six rushing, four receiving). With improved weapons around him, Summers could be poised for big things in 2008. "Obviously, we have big expectations for him," Sanford said. "He's a big, physical, bruising back, but needs to help us be more productive in our running game."

Fall questions

1. Where's the offense? Sanford arrived at UNLV with a reputation as an offensive wizard. That spark has been missing as the Rebels have scored 14 points or less 18 times in the 35 games of his three-season coaching tenure. His group finally includes his recruits this season, a big reason for Sanford's confidence heading into the year. "Other than our depth at tight end, I feel really good about our offense," Sanford told the Las Vegas Sun. "I feel like we're a much-improved offense, but once again, it's got to be proven out on the field."

2. Settle on a starting quarterback: Omar Clayton and Travis Dixon shared playing time last season as freshmen. Neither emerged as the starter during spring practice. "Both quarterbacks did some good things during the spring, and we know we have two guys coming back who can play and have played," Sanford told the Rebel Yell student newspaper. "We'll wait seven to nine days into [summer] camp and pick a starter. We won't play two."

3. Find producers at linebacker: MWC Defensive Player of the Year Beau Bell was the most dominant defensive player in the conference. Defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell can't possibly replace his contributions, but he will rely on several players to pick up the slack. Ronnie Paulo, Jason Beauchamp and Starr Fuimaono all will have an opportunity to contribute. "It's an unproven group, but the good news is that there's a lot of quality players," Sanford said.

Utah Utes

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Michigan
Sept. 6 UNLV
Sept. 13 @ Utah State
Sept. 20 @ Air Force
Sept. 27 Weber State
Oct. 2 Oregon State
Oct. 11 @ Wyoming
Oct. 18 Colorado State
Nov. 1 @ New Mexico
Nov. 6 TCU
Nov. 15 @ San Diego State
Nov. 22 BYU


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

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

Top returners
QB Brian Johnson, RB Darrell Mack, WR Brent Casteel, WR Bradon Godfrey, K-P Louie Sakoda, T Zane Beadles, T Dustin Hensel, G Robert Conley, DE Paul Kruger, LB Stevenson Sylvester, CB Brice McCain, CB R.J. Stanford, S Robert Johnson, S Sean Smith
Key losses
WR Derrek Richards, WR Brian Hernandez, C Kyle Gunther, DE Martail Burnett, NT Gabe Long, LB Joe Jiannoni, LB Malakai Mokofisi, S Steve Tate
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darrell Mack* (1,204 yards)
Passing: Brian Johnson* (1,847 yards)
Receiving: Derrek Richards (635 yards)
Tackles: Steve Tate (103)
Sacks: Martail Burnett (7)
Interceptions: Sean Smith* (4)

Spring answers

1. Freddie Brown: Utah's most pleasant spring surprise was the emergence of playmaking WR Freddie Brown, who earned a starting position alongside Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey. Utah coaches love the athleticism of the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Brown, who has struggled finding his niche with the Utes. "I definitely feel like I have something to prove," Brown told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "I feel like I need to put it on my shoulders and show what I'm capable of."

2. Strong backfield rotation: Coach Kyle Whittingham said his stable of running backs is the best of his coaching tenure. Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata provide a punishing 1-2 punch that will be the backbone of the Utah offense. Asiata missed most of last season after breaking his leg in the opener. Mack emerged and ran for 1,204 yards to rank third in the conference. And the arrival of sophomore Eddie Wide has provided a nice complement for an outside running threat.

3. Offensive line: The backbone of the Utes' offense will be centered on a beefy offensive line that returns four starters and has found a dependable new starter in sophomore C Zane Taylor. Growth of that unit will be critical as Utah hopes to contend for its first MWC title since Urban Meyer left the program in 2004.

Fall questions

1. Brian Johnson's status: Utah's title hopes will hinge on keeping QB Brian Johnson healthy after he was hampered by leg and collarbone injuries the past two seasons. Whittingham said he wasn't completely ready during the spring. "He's not 100 percent," Whittingham told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "Brian is throwing pain free, but the arm strength is what is still lacking. We're hoping, certainly by the fall, that he has 100 percent arm strength."

2. Linebackers: The Utes lost three fifth-year senior starting linebackers from last season -- not the best recipe for a team opening the season at Michigan in 2008. But the emergence of former walk-on Mike Wright, Mo Neal, Nai Fotu and playmaker Stevenson Sylvester should help alleviate some of those fears. One other concern is the lack of depth behind the starters. Only former walk-on Kepa Gaison, a one-time kicker, has seen any significant previous college experience.

3. Defensive front: Along with the linebackers, Whittingham hopes for more progress from returning DT Lei Talamaivao, senior DT Aaron Tonga, junior NT Kenape Eliapo and sophomore Isley Filiaga. "The most inexperienced place on the football team right now is our front seven," Whittingham told the Deseret News. "We've got to see a lot of development from those guys … inexperience is one thing, no talent is another. We've got talented guys, so it's just a matter of getting them reps."

Wyoming Cowboys

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Ohio
Sept. 6 Air Force
Sept. 13 North Dakota State
Sept. 20 @ BYU
Sept. 27 Bowling Green
Oct. 4 @ New Mexico
Oct. 11 Utah
Oct. 25 @ TCU
Nov. 1 San Diego State
Nov. 8 @ Tennessee
Nov. 13 @ UNLV
Nov. 22 Colorado State


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Karsten Sween, RB Devin Moore, TE Jesson Salyards, T Kyle Howard, T Ryan Otterson, G Sam Sterner, C Tim Bond, DE Mitch Unrein, DT John Fletcher, NG Fred Givens, LB Ward Dobbs, LB Mike Juergens, S Michael Ray, S Quincy Rogers
Key losses
TE Wade Betschart, WR Greg Bolling, WR Michael Ford, ILB John Prater, CB Julius Stinson, CB Michael Medina, LB Sean Claffey, P-K Billy Vinnedge
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Devin Moore* (965 yards)
Passing: Karsten Sween* (2,028 yards)
Receiving: Michael Ford (559 yards)
Tackles: Ward Dobbs* (98)
Sacks: John Fletcher* (10 )
Interceptions: Julius Stinson (5)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line: The Cowboys will depend on a talented defensive front that includes three returning starting juniors: Outland nominee DT John Fletcher, DE Mitch Unrein and NG Fred Givens. Coach Joe Glenn said that Unrein had the best spring of any player, leading to confidence that the Cowboys will be able to duplicate last season's big defensive effort. Wyoming ranked No. 22 in total defense and 27th in rushing defense. With the added experience, the defensive front should be better this season.

2. Marcell Gipson: After sitting out the 2007 season to attend to family matters back home, sophomore CB Marcell Gipson wasted little time showing that he would be a producer again as he emerged at Wyoming's biggest defensive need. After losing starters Michael Medina and Julius Stinson, the Cowboys need immediate contributions at the position. "I have a lot of confidence in both our corners," Glenn told the Laramie Boomerang. "And Marcell Gipson is the real deal."

3. Developing power-running strategy: An improving offensive line and a deep running attack, keyed by Wynel Seldon and Devin Moore, should make the Cowboys more balanced this season. "I still say the biggest difference between our football team from a year ago to right now is our offensive line," Glenn said. "We've also changed our offense a little bit and added a fullback, which has made us more effective at running the football and harder to defend."

Fall questions

1. Can the Cowboys rebound? After a 4-1 start last season, Wyoming stumbled by losing six of its last seven games. Included in that skid was the 50-0 loss at Utah that prompted Glenn's infamous one-fingered salute at the Utes. Glenn said he now senses a different attitude around his team from last season's late disappointment. "There's just a great feeling now," he said. "I feel it, our coaches feel it, our kids feel it. I think our whole team believes that something special is going on and that we're ready to take a step forward with our program."

2. Settle on a quarterback: Starting QB Karsten Sween regressed badly in 2007 with turnover problems after a strong freshman season. He will be tested to keep his job from challenges from sophomore transfer Dax Crum, incoming freshman Adam Berry, senior Ian Hetrick and redshirt freshman Chris Stutzriem. "We won't name a starter for awhile," Glenn said. "The battle is still on, and all of our quarterbacks are still doing some pretty good things."

3. Inconsistent kicking: K Jake Scott struggled throughout the spring and will be tested by incoming freshman Austin McCoy at summer camp. Scott's struggles prompted a blast from Glenn after one spring practice. "I'm disappointed in our place-kicking," Glenn said. "I coach the kickers. He [Scott] is letter-perfect in practice. He can make extra points until the cows come home in practice, but you have to be able to do it when the bullets are flying. I hope he gets better, because this isn't acceptable."

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.

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