Commentary

Breaking down the C-USA East

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

How is UCF planning on replacing Kevin Smith? Who will Memphis settle on as its starting QB? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the CUSA East.

East Carolina Pirates

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Virginia Tech
Sept. 6 West Virginia
Sept. 13 @ Tulane
Sept. 20 @ NC State
Sept. 27 Houston
Oct. 11 @ Virginia
Oct. 18 Memphis
Nov. 2 @ UCF
Nov. 8 Marshall
Nov. 15 @ Southern Miss
Nov. 22 @ UAB
Nov. 29 UTEP


2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
WR Jamar Bryant, TE Davon Drew, G Doug Palmer, DE Zach Slate, DE C.J. Wilson, FS Van Eskridge
Key losses
RB Chris Johnson, T Josh Coffman, G Matt Butler, LB Fred Wilson
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chris Johnson (1,423 yds)
Passing: Pat Pinkney* (1,358 yds)
Receiving: Jamar Bryant* (704 yds)
Tackles: Van Eskridge* (104)
Sacks: C.J. Wilson* (7)
Interceptions: J.J. Milbrook (3)

Spring answers

1. Young guns: After finishing 114th nationally in pass defense a year ago, the Pirates looked for an upgrade in the secondary this spring. Emanuel Davis and Darryl Reynolds looked ready to provide one. Both young defensive backs stepped up in the spring game: Davis had a team-high five tackles and Reynolds broke up a pass.

2. Lining up: Spring practice only reconfirmed what many had forecasted: The defensive line will be a major strength for East Carolina this fall. End C.J. Wilson continued to evolve as a leader, collecting 2.5 tackles for loss in the spring game. Senior Brandon Setzer also stepped up with a sack and a quarterback hurry.

3. Welcome return: Barely a year after undergoing a heart procedure, offensive tackle Terence Campbell returned to the practice field this spring. Campbell, who started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, should be a key addition on an offensive line that loses two starters. "I'm excited just to get back out there and play," said Campbell, who was cleared to practice after coming off the blood thinner Plavix. "I can see how good we can be, especially up front."

Fall questions

1. Decision time: They split snaps last season and throughout spring practice, but eventually Pat Pinkney or Rob Kass will have to distinguish himself as the starter. At least that's what coach Skip Holtz hopes. Pinkney's elusiveness in the pocket helped his cause during the spring, and he was named the most improved quarterback. Kass started the final seven regular-season games last season. Holtz is open to using two quarterbacks again, but he would ideally like some separation this summer.

2. Running roulette: Do-it-all running back Chris Johnson is gone to the NFL, and the Pirates didn't find a clear successor in spring ball. Dominique Lindsay, Brandon Simmons, J.R. Rogers and Jonathan Williams all will be in the mix during training camp. Williams, a sophomore, finished the spring with 44 rushing yards on seven carries in a weather-shortened spring game. "We have four guys who are capable of playing, and as coaches, it's our job to find a way to get them the ball," Holtz said.

3. Follow the leader: With uncertainty at quarterback and running back and several key players held out of spring practice with injuries, East Carolina enters the summer lacking a bit of leadership. Holtz admitted that there will be pressure to identify clear-cut team leaders early on in training camp.

Marshall Thundering Herd

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Illinois State
Sept. 6 @ Wisconsin
Sept. 13 Memphis
Sept. 20 @ Southern Miss
Sept. 27 @ West Virginia
Oct. 3 Cincinnati
Oct. 18 @ UAB
Oct. 28 Houston
Nov. 8 @ East Carolina
Nov. 15 UCF
Nov. 22 @ Rice
Nov. 29 Tulsa


2007 overall record:
3-9

2007 conference record:
3-5

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

Top returners
RB Darius Marshall, TE Cody Slate, LG Josh Evans, DE Albert McClellan, FS C.J. Spillman, DE John Jacobs, LB Maurice Kitchens
Key losses
QB Bernard Morris, C Doug Legursky, RT John Inman, DT Byron Tinker, LB Josh Johnson
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darius Marshall* (631 yds)
Passing: Bernard Morris (3,149 yds)
Receiving: Cody Slate* (818 yds)
Tackles: C.J. Spillman* (131)
Sacks: Maurice Kitchens* (4)
Interceptions: Ryland Wilson (2)

Spring answers

1. Yes, he Cann: He hasn't been tabbed the top quarterback, but Mark Cann helped his cause this spring. The redshirt freshman gradually absorbed the new no-huddle, West Coast-style offense installed by coordinator John Shannon. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 181 yards in the spring game, for which he was the first player selected in the "draft." Cann rushed for a touchdown and led his team to six scores in seven possessions. Junior Jonathan Garner and sophomore Brian Anderson are very much in the mix, but Cann looks like the man to beat.

2. Quite a gamble: In an effort to upgrade the speed on defense, Marshall shifted Phillip Gamble from safety to weakside linebacker this spring. The move paid off: Gamble put himself in the mix for significant playing time this fall. Injuries to Maurice Kitchens, Andre Portis and Mario Harvey gave Gamble increased reps with the first-team defense this spring. "He has been a pleasant surprise so far," coach Mark Snyder told reporters.

3. Stable stocked: Marshall's depth at running back provides some relief as coaches try to sort out the situation under center. In addition to all-conference back Darius Marshall, the Thundering Herd saw strides this spring from reserves Chubb Small and Terrell Edwards. The two combined for 260 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the second scrimmage of the spring. Edwards added three rushing touchdowns in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. QB debate: Cann took the lead this spring, but Snyder held off on naming his starting quarterback. Garner and Anderson both threw interceptions in the spring game but remain very much in the running. Anderson has the edge in experience, appearing in five games last season. Garner sat out last season after transferring from Georgia Tech. "He's a little bit further along," Snyder said of Cann. "That doesn't mean those other guys can't come on and go right by him. He has a lot of work to do still."

2. McClellan's health: The defense should get a major boost this summer from defensive end Albert McClellan, who sat out most of the spring after missing last season with a torn ACL. McClellan, the league's defensive player of the year in 2006, did some light work this spring and appears to be on schedule for the summer. His health looms large for a defense that should be much stronger this season.

3. Line dance: The offensive line will be under the microscope this summer as Marshall tries to replace standout center Doug Legursky as well as tackle John Inman. Coaches reshuffled the line after it allowed seven sacks in an April 12 scrimmage. They need a clear-cut starting tackle to emerge from a group that includes Branden Curry, C.J. Wood and Jimmy Rogers.

Memphis Tigers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Mississippi
Sept. 6 Rice
Sept. 13 @ Marshall
Sept. 20 Nicholls State
Sept. 27 Arkansas State
Oct. 2 @ UAB
Oct. 10 Louisville
Oct. 18 @ East Carolina
Oct. 25 Southern Miss
Nov. 8 @ Southern Methodist
Nov. 22 UCF
Nov. 29 Tulane


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
WR Duke Calhoun, WR Steven Black, LG Dominik Riley, DT Clinton McDonald, FS Brandon Patterson, CB LeRico Mathis
Key losses
QB Martin Hankins, RB Joseph Doss, RG Andy Smith, LB Jake Kasser, S Dontae Reed
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Joseph Doss (806 yds)
Passing: Martin Hankins (3,220 yds)
Receiving: Duke Calhoun* (890 yds)
Tackles: Jake Kasser (100)
Sacks: Clinton McDonald* (4)
Interceptions: LeRico Mathis* and Brandon Patterson* (3)

Spring answers

1. Steele city: As the coaches wait for Martin Hankins' successor at quarterback to emerge, junior college transfer Curtis Steele put his stamp on the running back spot. Steele capped a strong spring with 94 rushing yards in the spring game, including a 38-yard touchdown dash. As T.J. Pitts recovered from a broken ankle this spring, Steele surged to the forefront. "The running game last year was basically chain-moving," offensive coordinator Clay Helton told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Curtis can be a guy that can create explosion plays. He brings the capability of having 20-yard runs and changing the field."

2. Getting defensive: The Tigers will work under their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons this fall, but Tim Walton seems to be getting the results his predecessors couldn't. A unit that returns nine starters responded well to Walton this spring, forcing five turnovers in the spring game. Linebacker Terrence Thomas returned a fumble 28 yards for a touchdown, and defensive end Corey Mills and cornerback Michael Grandberry shared defensive MVP honors.

3. Todd emerges: The starting quarterback is unknown, but Brent Todd likely will be protecting his blind side this fall. Todd was one of three players honored for their improvement during spring ball. Though the line struggled at times, Todd brings reliability to the all-important left tackle position.

Fall questions

1. Waiting game: Memphis is crossing its fingers that a capable quarterback will emerge this summer after the candidates took their lumps this spring. Quarterbacks committed four of the team's five turnovers in the spring game. Matt Malouf, who played behind Hankins as a freshman last season, is fighting for the job with junior college transfer Arkelon Hall. Coach Tommy West doesn't expect to name a starter until several weeks into camp.

2. One more weapon: The running game could get another boost this fall if Charlie Jones transfers from Miami. West said Jones, who started three games at Miami as a junior, is expected to graduate from the school with one season of eligibility left. If Jones transfers, he would be eligible this fall. "We are expecting Charlie to be a back here next year," West told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

3. Duke recuperating: The Tigers went through the spring without top wideout Duke Calhoun, who sat out while rehabbing a knee injury. With a new starting quarterback, Memphis needs Calhoun at full strength for preseason camp. Despite being limited by the knee last season, Calhoun made 62 catches for 890 yards.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Louisiana-Lafayette
Sept. 6 @ Auburn
Sept. 13 @ Arkansas State
Sept. 20 Marshall
Oct. 4 UTEP
Oct. 11 Boise State
Oct. 18 @ Rice
Oct. 25 @ Memphis
Nov. 1 UAB
Nov. 8 @ UCF
Nov. 15 East Carolina
Nov. 29 @ Southern Methodist


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 4, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Damion Fletcher, LT Calvin Wilson, TE Shawn Nelson, LB Gerald McRath, CB C.J. Bailey, P Britt Barefoot
Key losses
QB Jeremy Young, LG Chris Clark, RG Nick Dean DE Matthew Chatelain, DT Martavius Prince, CB Brandon Sumrall
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Damion Fletcher* (1,586 yds)
Passing: Jeremy Young (1,464 yds)
Receiving: Torris Magee (632 yds)
Tackles: Gerald McRath* (139)
Sacks: Matthew Chatelain (7.5)
Interceptions: Brandon Sumrall* (6)

Spring answers

1. Quick study: Despite significant personnel losses and a coaching change, Southern Miss can feel better about its prospects this fall after Austin Davis turned in a strong performance in the spring game. The freshman completed 17 of 23 passes for 203 yards, leading the Black Team to a 31-14 win. He added 57 rushing yards and a touchdown. His primary competitor, Martevious Young, threw for more yards (335) but also had three interceptions.

2. Business as usual: New offense, same results for Damion Fletcher. The dynamic Golden Eagles running back transitioned seamlessly to Fedora's system. Fletcher sparkled in the spring game, racking up 108 rushing yards on just 13 carries to go along with six receptions for 78 yards. "We executed and it showed," Fletcher told the Sun Herald. "We wanted to come out and show the fans the offense."

3. Airtight tandem: Southern Miss went into spring ball knowing it had one of the league's best tight ends in Shawn Nelson. The Golden Eagles came out of the spring with a solid second option. Junior tight end Jonathan Massey capped a solid spring with two touchdown receptions in the spring game. Massey, who had seven receptions in the game, complements Nelson and brings another matchup problem to opposing defenses.

Fall questions

1. Who's under center? Davis took the lead in the quarterback competition with his performance this spring, but the starter won't be determined until training camp. Young appeared in two games last season and completed his only pass attempt. He remains very much in the mix. "That will wage through volunteer workouts and fall camp," offensive coordinator Darrell Wyatt told the Hattiesburg American. "Both guys had moments and I'm really impressed with both. They both have the ability to make off-schedule plays, make plays with their legs and throw with accuracy."

2. Defensive decisions: With only four returning starters on defense, the new coaching staff has plenty of key decisions to make this summer. Southern Miss loses its entire defensive line and must build around linebacker Gerald McRath, the league's defensive player of the year last season. The Golden Eagles need a healthy C.J. Bailey after the cornerback missed spring drills. Bailey and safety Eddie Hicks anchor the secondary.

3. Backfield depth:Southern Miss needs some insurance behind Fletcher after losing two promising reserves this spring. Highly regarded recruit Antwain Easterling was suspended from the team in February for violating team rules and will not return. Sophomore Tory Harrison also is not expected back after being arrested March 11 and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Harrison's case is still under investigation. With both backs out of the mix, Southern Miss will turn to junior Bubba Kirksey and others to spell Fletcher.

UAB Blazers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Tulsa
Sept. 6 @ Florida Atlantic
Sept. 13 @ Tennessee
Sept. 20 Alabama State
Sept. 27 @ South Carolina
Oct. 2 Memphis
Oct. 11 @ Houston
Oct. 18 Marshall
Nov. 1 @ Southern Miss
Nov. 15 @ Tulane
Nov. 22 East Carolina
Nov. 29 @ UCF


2007 overall record:
2-10

2007 conference record:
1-7

Returning starters
Offense: 8 defense: 9, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Joe Webb, WR Frantrell Forrest, C Jake Seitz, FS Will Dunbar, LB Joe Henderson, CB Kevin Sanders, PK/P Swayze Waters
Key losses
G Adam Truitt, TE David Sigler, QB Sam Hunt
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rashaud Slaughter* (325 yds)
Passing: Sam Hunt (1,905 yds)
Receiving: Frantrell Forrest* (563 yds)
Tackles: Will Dunbar* (122)
Sacks: Joe Henderson* (5)
Interceptions: Kevin Sanders* (3)

Spring answers

1. Above-average Joe: There's no more double-duty for Joe Webb, who split time at quarterback and wide receiver last season. Webb locked up the starting quarterback job this spring, outdueling Anthony Speight. He finished a strong spring by racking up 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of the spring game. In three scrimmages, Webb went 51-for-83 for 706 yards with six touchdown passes and two interceptions. "We know what Joe can do," coach Neil Callaway said.

2. Target practice: Webb should have plenty of help in the passing game this fall, with several wide receivers turning in strong spring performances. Frantrell Forrest continued to build off a solid freshman season, tallying 14 receptions for 238 yards and four touchdowns in three scrimmages this spring. Senior Sylvester Mencer also had a strong spring game, racking up 102 receiving yards with a 39-yard touchdown, and tight end Zach Lankford had a team-high six receptions.

3. Outside attack: Injuries to two starters allowed Keon Harris and Kyle Roget to sparkle at outside linebacker during spring drills. Harris collected 26 tackles in 10 games last fall, while Roget is a junior college transfer from Texas. Callaway called Harris and Roget the team's most consistent linebackers this spring.

Fall questions

1. Line limbo: UAB settled on its starting quarterback this spring but remains unsure of who will block for him. Matt McCants and Terence Edge have locked up the starting tackle spots, but the interior line remains a mystery heading into the summer. Redshirt freshman Caleb Thomas got most of the reps at center this spring, but Jake Seitz could end up being moved over from left guard. The Blazers also must find a replacement for guard Adam Truitt.

2. Running on empty: The ground game remains a concern after UAB ranked 104th nationally in rushing offense last season. Webb was the leading rusher in the spring game, accentuating the need for a capable ball carrier to emerge this summer. Sophomore Dexter Barnett and junior Justin Brooks will compete for the top job. Barnett had a 39-yard touchdown catch in the spring game to go along with 26 rushing yards.

3. Health watch: The Blazers need their defensive midsection healthy for training camp after standout Joe Henderson missed a chunk of spring ball with a neck injury and Mike Tashman was held out of contact drills. Both are expected to be fine for the summer, but UAB should have plenty of competition at middle linebacker as walk-on Terry Thomas and B.J. Steed vie for a starting spot.

UCF Knights

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 South Carolina State
Sept. 6 South Florida
Sept. 20 @ Boston College
Sept. 27 @ UTEP
Oct. 4 Southern Methodist
Oct. 11 @ Miami
Oct. 26 @ Tulsa
Nov. 2 East Carolina
Nov. 8 Southern Miss
Nov. 15 @ Marshall
Nov. 22 @ Memphis
Nov. 29 UAB


2007 overall record:
10-4

2007 conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
LT Patrick Brown, WR Rocky Ross, DE Bruce Miller, CB Johnell Neal, CB Joe Burnett, SS Sha'reff Rashad, LB Derrick Hallman, LB Cory Hogue
Key losses
RB Kevin Smith, QB Kyle Israel, T/G Josh Sitton, C Kyle Smith, TE Mike Merritt, DE Leger Douzable
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kevin Smith (2,567 yds)
Passing: Kyle Israel (2,173 yds)
Receiving: Rocky Ross* (658 yds)
Tackles: Sha'reff Rashad * (103)
Sacks: Leger Douzable (7.5)
Interceptions: Joe Burnett* and Johnell Neal* (6)

Spring answers

1. Backers booming: The secondary might be UCF's most stable position group, but the linebackers aren't far behind. Led by senior Cory Hogue, the Knights return all three starters from last season and have depth with reserves Jordan Richards, Lawrence Young and Alex Thompson. Hogue turned in a strong spring, and Derrick Hallman had an interception and two sacks in the spring game. "With the first six, there is really not a depth chart," first-year linebackers coach Geoff Collins said. "It is such a close race. If anyone went down, it would be easy. Somebody stepping up would be no problem."

2. Moving on up: There aren't many questions on defense with nine starters back, but David Williams provided an important answer this spring at defensive end. Williams, who moved up from linebacker, recorded two sacks in the spring game. After playing sparingly last season, Williams should see an enhanced role on a line that loses ends Leger Douzable and Emeka Okammor, who combined for 11 sacks last fall.

3. Jah rules: With so much uncertainty at quarterback and running back, the Knights were thrilled to find an answer at right tackle this spring. Junior Jah Reid, who was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team last season, continued his development and likely locked up a starting job opposite Patrick Brown.

Fall questions

1. Replacement plan: The spotlight will be on the quarterbacks in training camp as coach George O'Leary looks to replace Kyle Israel. Junior Mike Greco, who backed up Israel last season, went through spring ball as the front-runner before sustaining a hip pointer in the spring game. Greco will have to hold off redshirt freshman Joe Weatherford, who threw for 148 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the spring game. Incoming freshman Rob Calabrese also will be in contention this summer.

2. Off and running: When UCF reconvenes for training camp, plenty of fresh faces will try to replace Kevin Smith, the nation's leading rusher. Five incoming recruits join the competition at running back, which already features Smith's former backup, Phillip Smith, as well as Ronnie Weaver, James Jamison and Jayson Williams. Phillip Smith injured his leg early in spring practice but is expected to be back for training camp.

3. Chemistry class: Most eyes will be on the offensive backfield this summer, but the development of the line is just as important, and perhaps more. Brown anchors the group at left tackle, but there will be plenty of competition at the guard spots. Mike LaVoie, a special-teams regular last season, moves into the starting center position. The line must jell before the season opener to help the new players lining up behind them.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.

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