Commentary

Breaking down the C-USA West

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

Will June Jones spark an SMU resurgence? Who will replace QB Paul Smith at Tulsa? Will Houston find some receivers?Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the Conference USA West.

Houston Cougars

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Southern
Sept. 6 @ Oklahoma State
Sept. 13 Air Force
Sept. 20 @ Colorado State
Sept. 27 @ East Carolina
Oct. 11 UAB
Oct. 18 @ SMU
Oct. 28 @ Marshall
Nov. 8 Tulane
Nov. 15 Tulsa
Nov. 22 UTEP
Nov. 29 @ Rice


2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
6-2

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

Top returners
QB Case Keenum, RB Terrance Ganaway, TE Mark Hafner, DE Phillip Hunt, FS Kenneth Fontenette, SS Ernest Miller, LB Cody Lubojasky
Key losses
WR Donnie Avery, RB Anthony Alridge, G/T Jeff Akeroyd, WR Jeron Harvey, LB Brendan Pahulu, FS Rocky Schwartz
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Anthony Alridge (1,597 yds)
Passing: Case Keenum* (2,259 yds)
Receiving: Donnie Avery (1,456 yds)
Tackles: Rocky Schwartz (103)
Sacks: Phillip Hunt* (10.5)
Interceptions: Kenneth Fontenette (4)

Spring answers

1. Catching on: New offense? No problem. The Cougars quickly adjusted to the new system installed by coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Dana Holgorsen this spring. They generated nearly 660 yards and seven passing touchdowns in the spring game, as quarterbacks Case Keenum and Blake Joseph sparkled. Joseph turned in a dominating performance, completing 37 of 41 passes for 421 yards and five touchdowns.

2. Line locked: Despite losing two starters from last season, including first-team all-league selection Jeff Akeroyd, the Cougars' line looks solid heading into training camp. Tackle SirVincent Rogers was back on the field after missing most of the past two seasons with a severe knee injury. Rogers is expected to anchor the line along with Sebastian Vollmer.

3. Receiving orders: The wide receivers were in the spotlight this spring after Houston lost its top three pass-catchers, and several players stepped up. Chris Gilbert made a push to become the team's No. 1 target, collecting 11 receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. L.J. Castile, one of six players with a touchdown catch in the spring game, displayed dynamic playmaking skills.

Fall questions

1. Options under center: Keenum won Conference USA freshman of the year honors last fall, but he enters training camp needing to reclaim his starting job. It wasn't that Keenum backslid this spring, but rather that Joseph made a strong push. Joseph's extraordinary performance in the spring game showed he had a strong grasp of the new system. Displaying remarkable accuracy in several spring scrimmages, Joseph will make a push for the top job this summer.

2. Off and running: The competition at running back will continue in preseason camp after several players split carries this spring. Andre Kohn is the frontrunner to become the featured back, but Houston will also use Terrance Ganaway, who backed up Anthony Alridge last season and rushed for 550 yards and six touchdowns. Kohn had six carries for 34 yards in the pass-dominated spring game.

3. Defense spotlighted: The return of eight starters, including standout pass-rusher Phillip Hunt, raises the bar for a defense that allowed nearly 30 points per game last season. Strong spring performances from linebackers Stephen James and Matt Nicholson, who had two tackles for loss in the spring game, increase optimism for training camp. But Houston must shore up a few spots, namely free safety after the loss of leading tackler Rocky Schwartz.

Rice Owls

2008 Schedule

Aug. 29 SMU
Sept. 6 @ Memphis
Sept. 13 @ Vanderbilt
Sept. 20 @ Texas
Sept. 27 North Texas
Oct. 4 @ Tulsa
Oct. 18 Southern Miss
Oct. 25 @ Tulane
Nov. 1 @ UTEP
Nov. 8 Army
Nov. 22 Marshall
Nov. 29 Houston


2007 overall record:
3-9

2007 conference record:
3-5

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

Top returners
QB Chase Clement, WR Jarett Dillard, WR Toren Dixon, TE James Casey, FS Andrew Sendejo, CB Brandon King, LB Brian Raines, DE Scott Solomon
Key losses
WR Joel Armstrong, LG Robby Heos, CB Gary Anderson, NG George Chukwu, S Justin Abt
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chase Clement* (535 yds)
Passing: Chase Clement* (3,377 yds)
Receiving: Jarett Dillard* (1,057 yds)
Tackles: Andrew Sendejo* (107)
Sacks: Scott Solomon* (4.5)
Interceptions: Andrew Sendejo* (5)

Spring answers

1. Great Scott: Most of the buzz at Rice concerns the team's dynamic passing attack, but defensive end Scott Solomon could steal away the spotlight this fall. After earning Conference USA all-freshman honors last season, Solomon continued to surge this spring. He had three sacks and two more tackles for loss in the spring game to lead a strong defensive effort. "At times, I thought the defense showed just how much it has improved," coach David Bailiff said. "You saw some extremely hard, violent tackles."

2. Good move: Jeramy Goodson's shift from wide receiver to running back seemed to pay off this spring. Rice hoped to upgrade its rushing attack and already had plenty of depth in the passing game. Goodson had just two receptions in six games last season, but showed good burst on kick returns. "He's getting more confidence with what he's doing," Bailiff told the Houston Chronicle.

3. Backer blossoms: Junior Terrance Garmon raised hope that Rice will have more than one dominant linebacker this season. As standout Brian Raines sat out spring practice following surgery, Garmon turned heads in the spring game, racking up 10 tackles, including two sacks. Garmon, who recorded 26 tackles last season, provides a reliable second option for a linebacker group that looked iffy for much of the spring.

Fall questions

1. On the run: Given Chase Clement's value as a passer, it's safe to say Rice wants him to have fewer than 144 rushing attempts this season. The Owls need a legitimate rushing threat to emerge and will turn to C.J. Ugokwe, Justin Hill and Marcus Knox this fall. Both Ugokwe and Knox were injured last season, while Hill ranked second on the team behind Clement with 321 rushing yards.

2. Line limbo: There are some lingering concerns up front after spring practice as Rice tries to replace two starting offensive lineman, including standout guard Robby Heos. Right tackle Tyler Parish struggled to contain Solomon in the spring game. Parish and Preston Thompson will compete for the starting job this summer as coaches try to find Lute Barber's successor.

3. Getting defensive: Despite the play of Solomon, Garmon and several others this spring, the defense remains a peak priority heading into preseason camp. Rice finished next-to-last nationally in total defense a year ago, and there are some major concerns in the secondary, which finished last nationally against the pass. Playmaking safety Andrew Sendejo needs some help around him.

SMU Mustangs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 29 @ Rice
Sept. 6 Texas State
Sept. 13 @ Texas Tech
Sept. 20 TCU
Sept. 27 @ Tulane
Oct. 4 @ UCF
Oct. 11 Tulsa
Oct. 18 Houston
Oct. 25 @ Navy
Nov. 8 Memphis
Nov. 15 @ UTEP
Nov. 29 Southern Miss


2007 overall record:
1-11

2007 conference record:
0-8

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Justin Willis, RB DeMyron Martin, WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB/S Bryan McCann, K/P Thomas Morstead
Key losses
WR Zack Sledge, G/T Caleb Peveto, RT Kenard Burley, DE Cory Muse, LB Wilton McCray
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Justin Willis* (699 yds)
Passing: Justin Willis* (2,944 yds)
Receiving: Emmanuel Sanders* (889 yds)
Tackles: Will Bonilla* and Bryce Hudman* (82)
Sacks: Cory Muse (5)
Interceptions: Bryan McCann* (4)

Spring answers

1. Secondary surprises: Depth remains a concern in the secondary, but several players turned in impressive spring performances. Safety Bryan McCann continued his evolution as a premier playmaker, and Derrius Bell played like a starting cornerback. "Because of the schemes the defensive staff is running, we're better than I thought we were," coach June Jones told the Dallas Morning News.

2. Insurance policy: With starting quarterback Justin Willis and reserve Zach Rhodes sitting out the spring for disciplinary reasons, SMU got a long look at Logan Turner and Daniel Miller. Both players finished the spring on a good note, as Turner completed 10 of 14 passes in the final scrimmage, while Miller went 5-for-6. Willis is expected back this summer, but the Mustangs successfully built some depth behind him.

3. Another option: Jones inherits a star receiver in Emmanuel Sanders and might have found another one this spring. Aldrick Robinson stepped up in practice after recording only 10 receptions last season. "Robinson really jumped off the page," Jones told the Dallas Morning News. He also praised the play of Sanders, Josh Bryant and Zach Zimmerman.

Fall questions

1. Just in time: Jones expects Willis to return for training camp, but until it becomes official, SMU fans will hold their breath. Willis, a two-year starter, was suspended for spring ball and removed from the roster for violating team rules. He led the Mustangs in both passing and rushing last season and seems like a natural fit for the run-and-shoot offense. When he returns, he might have to re-establish himself as the starter after Turner received most of the snaps this spring.

2. Line limbo: If and when Willis returns, SMU will focus on protecting him. The Mustangs lost three starting offensive linemen, including both tackles, and they struggled to contain the defense at the end-of-spring scrimmage. Several positions will be in the spotlight when the team reconvenes this summer.

3. What a rush: The Mustangs need to replenish their pass rush after losing sacks leader Cory Muse. Jones was pleasantly surprised with the defensive line play this spring, but the competition up front is far from over. Returnees like Patrick Handy and Youri Yenga will be pushed by younger players and incoming recruits. SMU recorded only 20 sacks last season.

Tulane Green Wave

2008 Schedule

Sept. 6 @ Alabama
Sept. 13 East Carolina
Sept. 20 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 20 SMU
Oct. 4 Army
Oct. 11 @ UTEP
Oct. 25 Rice
Nov. 1 @ LSU
Nov. 8 @ Houston
Nov. 15 UAB
Nov. 22 @ Tulsa
Nov. 29 @ Memphis


2007 overall record:
4-8

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
LT Troy Kropog, LG Michael Parenton, WR Jeremy Williams, DE Reggie Scott, LB Evan Lee, CB Josh Lumar, LB David Skehan
Key losses
RB Matt Forte, C Aryan Barto, DT Antonio Harris, DT Avery Williams, S Joe Goosby
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Matt Forte (2,127 yds)
Passing: Anthony Scelfo* (1,396 yds)
Receiving: Jeremy Williams* (773 yds)
Tackles: Evan Lee* (99)
Sacks: Antonio Harris (6)
Interceptions: David Skehan* (4)

Spring answers

1. Succession plan: Matt Forte was arguably the nation's most productive back last season, consistently gashing defenses despite getting little help from the passing game. Forte's departure hurts, but Tulane is feeling good about the man who replaces him. Andre Anderson had a tremendous spring capped by 136 rushing yards in the spring game. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry and showed the same workhorse-like qualities Forte displayed. "He's got to carry the load as a running back next fall," coach Bob Toledo said.

2. Receiving orders: Jeremy Williams wasted no time showcasing his playmaking skills in the spring game, returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Williams also caught two passes in the scrimmage, including a 34-yard touchdown. After leading Tulane with 773 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season, Williams looks ready to claim an even bigger role in an offense that must perform better through the air.

3. Give me Moore: The competition is far from over, but Kevin Moore enters training camp as the leader for Tulane's starting quarterback spot. Moore competed with talented freshman Joe Kemp throughout spring ball and performed well. "I feel like we've had a good spring," Moore told The Times-Picayune. "Everyone looks for that confirmation day when the coach comes up and tells him that (he's the quarterback). But I just have to go out and handle business."

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Moore and Kemp will resume their competition this summer, while returning starter Anthony Scelfo might or might not be in the mix. Scelfo, who struggled last season, spent the spring playing baseball and is expected to remain on the diamond this summer. "He's missing a lot of football," Toledo said. "Right now, it is down to basically two people -- Moore and Kemp." Kemp had the best ending to the spring, completing 5 of 8 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

2. Uncertainty up front: The defense loses interior linemen Antonio Harris and Avery Williams and must reload this summer. Sophomore Tony Bryant had a strong spring and could step in for Harris, an all-conference selection, but the front seven will be spotlighted in training camp. Harris and Williams combined for 10 of the team's 28 sacks last year. "It's a problem area because we don't have a lot of depth at that position, so I'm really concerned about that," Toledo said of the defensive line.

3. Center stage: Tulane is still looking for a starting center after losing Aryan Barto. Andrew Nierman, an all-league freshman honoree at right guard, likely will shift over. Joey Ray also is in the mix, and the Green Wave could move left guard Michael Parenton to center in an emergency. The line's strong performance in the spring game should ease anxiety heading into training camp.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ UAB
Sept. 6 @ North Texas
Sept. 20 New Mexico
Sept. 27 Central Arkansas
Oct. 4 Rice
Oct. 11 @ SMU
Oct. 18 UTEP
Oct. 26 UCF
Nov. 1 @ Arkansas
Nov. 15 @ Houston
Nov. 22 Tulane
Nov. 29 @ Marshall


2007 overall record:
10-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Tarrion Adams, WR Trae Johnson, FB Charles Clay, WR Brennan Marion, RT Rodrick Thomas, DE Moton Hopkins, FS Charles Davis
Key losses
QB Paul Smith, LB Chris Chamberlain, LB Alain Karatepeyan, LB Nelson Coleman, NG Brandon Jones, S Anthony Germany
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tarrion Adams* (1,113 yds)
Passing: Paul Smith (4,753 yds)
Receiving: Brennan Marion* (1,244 yds)
Tackles: Chris Chamberlain (148)
Sacks: Alain Karatepeyan (6.5)
Interceptions: Chris Chamberlain and Roy Roberts* (3)

Spring answers

1. Healthy competition: Tulsa didn't name a starting quarterback after spring ball, but that might not be a bad thing. David Johnson emerged from the spring as the frontrunner to replace record-setting quarterback Paul Smith, but all of the competitors performed well. Johnson, redshirt freshman Clark Harrell and junior-college transfer Jacob Bower sparkled during the spring game, which featured 795 yards of offense and eight touchdowns. "David is in the lead with his type of consistency this spring, but (Harrell and Bower) had outstanding springs," coach Todd Graham told the Tulsa World.

2. Backers booming: Despite losing their top three tacklers, the Golden Hurricane saw good signs from the linebackers this spring. Graham singled out freshman Curnelius Arnick and sophomore Kenny R. Sims for their performances as the group tries to build depth for the fall. George Clinkscale, who started seven games last season, anchors the unit at strongside linebacker.

3. Getting defensive: The defense accelerated its learning curve this spring, thanks in part to the high-powered offense. Graham said the unit, which must replace six starters, benefited from practicing against the new no-huddle system this spring. "They improved a great deal," Graham told the Tulsa World. "The key is experience."

Fall questions

1. Decision time: All the quarterback candidates made strong cases this spring, but Graham and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn need to select a starter in training camp. Graham expects frontrunner Johnson, Harrell and Bower to compete for several weeks before the decision is finalized. "We've all gotten better during the spring," Harrell told The Oklahoman. "We've all taken steps toward being the starter, but I'm not sure how the coaches feel."

2. Safety squeeze: Charles Davis has locked up the starting free safety spot after moving over from cornerback last season, but Tulsa isn't sure who will line up next to him. Ade' Manga and Ty Page are the primary candidates at strong safety, though three incoming freshmen will also be in the mix this summer. Page appeared in 12 games last season and collected 12 tackles.

3. Special attention: Tulsa will spotlight the kicking game this summer after getting mixed results from Jarod Tracy and Michael Such last season. Tracy converted just 4 of 8 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards, and Such averaged 38.9 yards per punt as he shared duties with Paul Smith. Tulsa's punt-coverage team struggled last season and needs to be upgraded.

UTEP Miners

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 @ Buffalo
Sept. 6 Texas
Sept. 20 New Mexico State
Sept. 27 UCF
Oct. 4 @ Southern Miss
Oct. 11 Tulane
Oct. 18 @ Tulsa
Nov. 1 Rice
Nov. 8 @ Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 15 SMU
Nov. 22 @ Houston
Nov. 29 @ East Carolina


2007 overall record:
4-8

2007 conference record:
2-6

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

Top returners
WR Jeff Moturi, QB Trevor Vittatoe, C Robby Felix, SS Braxton Amy^, CB Cornelius Brown, PK Jose Martinez
Key losses
WR Joe West, RB Marcus Thomas, RT Oniel Cousins, FS Quintin Demps, LB Jeremy Jones
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Marcus Thomas (1,166 yds)
Passing: Trevor Vittatoe* (3,101 yds)
Receiving: Jeff Moturi* (891 yds)
Tackles: Braxton Amy^ (112)
Sacks: Braxton Amy^, Jeremy Jones* and Anthony Morrow* (2)
Interceptions: Quintin Demps (5)
^-Will miss the 2008 season with torn ACL

Spring answers

1. Getting defensive: Coach Mike Price acted swiftly following last season's defensive meltdown, replacing three coaches from that side of the ball. The arrival of new coordinator Osia Lewis and the 3-3-5 alignment seemed to energize the nation's 117th-ranked unit in spring practice. The defense forced four turnovers and held the offense to just 13 points in the spring game. UTEP surrendered just 37 rushing yards, a promising sign after allowing more than 200 per game last fall. "Those are winning numbers," Lewis said.

2. Passing fancy: Despite losing two starting wide receivers (Joe West and Lorne Sam), the Miners' passing attack looks to be in good shape entering the fall. Wideout Tufick Shadrawy sparkled in the spring game with seven receptions for 112 yards and the only touchdown scored. Shadrawy went through spring ball with a cast on his injured thumb but got it removed for the spring game. Just in time, it turned out.

3. Line dance: The offensive line shaped up nicely this spring with emerging performances from tackle Colby Meek and guard Rod Huntley. Meek, projected to replace right tackle Oniel Cousins, was the first player drafted by the Orange team in the spring game. Though the line struggled at times against an improved defense, coaches have a good idea of their starting five heading into the summer.

Fall questions

1. Running on empty: The ground game will be a chief concern after UTEP probably lost Jason Williams for the season with a fractured ankle. Terrell Jackson, the projected starter at tailback, missed the spring game with an ankle injury. UTEP needs Jackson healthy for training camp and must build depth behind him. The backs struggled in the spring game and need a better showing this summer as they try to replace Marcus Thomas.

Replacement plan: Braxton Amy's season-ending ACL injury early in spring practice was a major blow to a rebounding defense. UTEP lacks experience at safety and will have a tough time filling the void left by the team's leading tackler. Anthony Morrow and George Kelly competed this spring to fill Amy's spot. The Miners need continued improvement from Josh Ferguson and Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, who headline a secondary that loses interceptions leader Quintin Demps.

3. Moturi's health: Injuries ravaged the two-deep this spring, and top wide receiver Jeff Moturi wasn't spared. Moturi sat out the spring with an injury but is expected back this fall. Though the Miners received strong production from Tufick Shadrawy, Evan Davis and other wideouts, they need Moturi at full strength for the season.

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

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