Breaking down the Sun Belt
Will Florida Atlantic be able to handle the preseason pressure? Does Louisiana-Monroe have enough talent to catch FAU? Can a change at coordinator help North Texas right its defense? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.
|Arkansas State Indians|
1. Well armed: Starting quarterback Corey Leonard sat out spring practice while recovering from labrum surgery on his throwing arm, so Arkansas State needed to identify a capable backup. It found one in senior Travis Hewitt, the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the squad this spring after Chris Lambeth and T. C. Jennings left the team. Hewitt capped a strong spring by throwing three touchdowns in the spring game. "He showed a lot of poise, a lot of competitiveness and did a great job for us," coach Steve Roberts told reporters. "I'm real proud of him."
2. Promising signs: The defensive backfield had major questions entering the spring after the losses of Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Tyrell Johnson and fellow all-conference safety Khayyam Burns. There's still some uncertainty, but several players stepped up, including safeties M. D. Jennings and Evan Van Dolah, both of whom recorded interceptions in the spring game. Juco transfers Walter Moody and Leroy Trahan will be in the mix at cornerback.
3. Youth served: Arkansas State had to feel good about the future of its linebacking corps after the spring game. Redshirt freshman Michael Adams recorded a team-high seven tackles, and classmate Dorvus Woods had two sacks. Another redshirt freshman, Jeremy Gibson, notched a sack in the defense's victory.
Fall questions1. On the mend: Eighteen players finished spring practice on the injured list, including at least 10 starters, but all except one will be back for the season. In addition to Leonard, starting running back Reggie Arnold missed the spring following minor shoulder surgery. The rash of injuries makes preseason training camp even more critical to re-establish rhythm on both sides of the ball. "It's hard to gauge the progress we made as a football team," Roberts said. "We've got to get well and we've got to have a great fall camp in order to get better as a team."
2. Line dance: The Red Wolves return most of their weapons on offense but must replace four starters up front. All-Sun Belt left tackle Matt Mandich is back, but he's going to need help to block for Arnold. The spotlight will be on players like Zach Eichenberger, Mark Clemons and Brandon Ciaramitaro.
3. Rushing depth: Everyone should be healthy by the summer, but the Indians need to make sure they have some insurance behind Arnold, a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons. Backup Preston Brown was slowed by a strained groin this spring but participated in the spring game. Redshirt freshman Derek Lawson saw time this spring before sustaining a hamstring injury.
|Florida Atlantic Owls|
1. Mac attack: After missing last season because of academic issues, cornerback Erick McIntosh made an impact in the Owls' secondary this spring. McIntosh had a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception in the spring game, sparking the defense to a 38-37 win. He forms a tremendous cornerback tandem with Tavious Polo, who had seven interceptions last season. "McIntosh is probably the most solid of all defensive guys there," coach Howard Schnellenberger said.
2. Lining up: The spring game eased some concern about the defensive front seven, which loses standout linebacker Cergile Sincere. Defensive end Dino Cox had two sacks in the game, and tackle Jervonte Jackson batted down a fourth-down pass to give the defense the win. "We've got a couple of young guys that really can come off the ball and go with reckless abandon," Schnellenberger said.
3. Full tank: Alfred Morris made a good push this spring as he tries to beat out Xavier Stinson for the starting fullback spot. Morris had 29 rushing yards and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the spring game. The 5-11, 222-pound freshman also converted a 2-point conversion and should be a factor in Florida Atlantic's run game this fall.
Fall questions1. Great expectations: The defending league champs enter the fall as overwhelming favorites to repeat. Ten starters return on offense, including star quarterback Rusty Smith, and the defense boasts several playmakers. How the Owls handle the spotlight and the heightened hopes will determine whether or not they make a return trip to the New Orleans Bowl.
2. Safety first: Florida Atlantic is stocked at cornerback but must find replacements for starting safeties Taheem Acevedo and Kris Bartels. Acevedo had five interceptions last season and ranked fourth on the team with 80 tackles, while Bartels recovered two fumbles. Both safety spots will be up for grabs in training camp.
3. Give it away: Ball security became a concern in the spring game, which featured two interceptions and two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Florida Atlantic finished tied for seventh nationally in fewest turnovers with 15 last season but needs a more disciplined performance in training camp.
|Florida International Golden Panthers|
1. Bouncing back: After struggling to contain the new spread offense for the first two scrimmages, the Florida International defense finished the spring on a high note. The defense held on nine consecutive possessions to win the spring game. Linebacker Jarvis Wilson set up a defensive touchdown by stripping quarterback Darold Hughes, and linebacker Quentin Newman had two sacks in the fourth quarter. "The defense came out in the second part of the scrimmage and really put it on the offense in a big-time way," coach Mario Cristobal said.
2. Silver Spoon: Safety Jeremiah Weatherspoon was FIU's top playmaker this spring after sitting out last season because of academic issues. Weatherspoon capped the spring with two interceptions in the spring game. He also had an interception and a kickoff return for a touchdown in an earlier scrimmage. The 6-foot-1 senior ranked fifth on the team in tackles two years ago before spending last fall on the scout team. "It seems like I'm getting back on track," Weatherspoon told the Miami Herald. "I'm getting better and I'm getting back to where I was, but there's more to come. I got a lot more."
3. Keeping up: Defensive end Reggie Jones looks ready for a strong senior season after recording three sacks in consecutive scrimmages this spring. Jones had just three sacks all last season but generated pressure along with classmates Daniel Chacreton, Jarvis Penerton and Jonathan Betancourt.
Fall questions1. Follow the leader: Cristobal expects the quarterback competition to continue through preseason camp and might not name a starter until the week before the season. Paul McCall, who helped FIU break its 23-game losing streak last fall against North Texas, took snaps with the first-team offense all spring as Wayne Younger recovered from a broken collarbone. Younger needs a strong return to overtake McCall, who has the momentum right now.
2. Line limbo: The run game should be solid with senior A'mod Ned and Julian Reams, but FIU must solidify the offensive line this summer. Gone are starting center Xavier Shannon, who transferred to Miami to play for his father, Randy, and guard Roland Clarke. Andy Leavine anchors the line at left tackle, but the other spots will be contested in training camp.
3. Time to shine: As the offense absorbs a new system under coordinator Bill Legg, it's time for the defense to take the lead this summer. The front seven returns virtually intact, and safeties Weatherspoon and Marshall McDuffie both are back to spark the secondary. Though the unit returns fewer starters than the offense, there are more than enough players with starting experience to spark a surge this fall.
|Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns|
1. Taking flight: Coach Rickey Bustle joined the aerial era this spring and placed a greater emphasis on the passing game. The Ragin' Cajuns seemed to adjust well to their modified offense. Led by starter Michael Desormeaux, three quarterbacks combined to pass for 287 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. Louisiana-Lafayette ranked 115th nationally in passing last season (155.5 ypg) and hopes to have greater balance to complement Desormeaux and running back Tyrell Fenroy, both of whom rushed for more than 1,000 yards last fall.
2. Front fillers: Louisiana-Lafayette entered the spring needing to replace three starters on the defensive line, including end Rodney Hardeway, who tied for the league lead in sacks last season. Coaches saw promising play from defensive end Hall Davis and defensive tackle Seth Adams, fostering hope that the transition won't be too severe. "The most encouraging thing is we're winning our one-on-one blocks," line coach Kevin Fouquier told The Lafayette Advertiser.
3. Chery on top: The new offense will have increase roles for several players, notably wide receiver Jason Chery. Desormeaux found Chery for a 60-yard touchdown in the spring game, and the senior wideout performed well throughout the spring. Chery led the Ragin' Cajuns last season with 36 receptions, a number that likely will increase this fall. "Chery can be real explosive," wide receivers coach Daryl Mason said. "He's getting better as a route runner and we are moving him around more. He is picking it up."
Fall questions1. Health watch: Louisiana-Lafayette finished the spring with only seven healthy offensive linemen. The injured list included center Chris Fisher (hand) and guard Brad Bustle (knee), both returning starters. Getting healthy before training camp is imperative for a group that returns four starters but loses first-team all-conference tackle Jesse Newman.
2. Backup bonanza: Redshirt freshmen Chris Masson and Brad McGuire paced each other throughout the spring and finished about even in their quest to back up Desormeaux. Masson threw the go-ahead touchdown pass in the spring game but completed just 7 of 19 pass attempts, while McGuire completed 6 of 10 passes but was sacked four times. "It's key for someone to separate himself as the clear backup in fall camp. I'd like to see them keep battling," new quarterbacks coach Jorge Munoz told The Lafayette Advertiser.
3. Line limbo: With only one returning starter (tackle LaQuincy Williams) on the defensive line, there will be plenty of competition in preseason camp. Adams will battle at tackle with Lanier Coleman, Jermaine Rogers and Sharrick Moore. Terrell Richardson, who showed flashes as a freshman, is in the mix at end alongside Davis and converted linebacker Jonathon Vance.
1. Staking his claim: The loss of Calvin Dawson will sting, but Louisiana-Monroe's offense is in good hands with quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster. Entering his final season as the starter, Lancaster capped a strong spring by rallying his team in the spring game. He tossed two touchdown passes, including the game-winner with 25 seconds left. "I don't know if I've ever been around a guy who's any better at that than Kinsmon Lancaster," coach Charlie Weatherbie told The News Star.
2. Price is right: Wide receiver Jonathan Price impressed the coaches this spring after moving over from cornerback. The redshirt freshman, who played both cornerback and wideout in high school, had four receptions for 31 yards in the spring game. He adds depth to a receiving corps that returns Darrell McNeal and Zeek Zacharie.
3. Backing it up: A broken leg injury cut short what has been an outstaying spring for Robert Williams, who is expected to provide some protection for Frank Goodin at running back. The Warhawks needed a backup running back to emerge as Goodin moves into the starting role vacated by Dawson, the school's career rushing leader. Coaches originally slotted Williams at wide receiver but moved him back to running back this spring. Weatherbie is hopeful Williams will be recovered by training camp.
Fall questions1. Shuffling the deck: The Warhawks lost several coaches during the offseason, including co-offensive coordinator Nate Kaczor. Adjusting to the new faces will be critical in training camp, as Louisiana-Monroe tries to build off last year's 6-6 record in Lancaster's final season as the starter. With 15 starters back, the Warhawks face increased pressure to challenge Florida Atlantic for the league title.
2. Heir apparent: There's no quarterback debate this season, but it's important for sophomore Trey Revell to affirm himself as both Lancaster's successor and his insurance policy. Revell threw three touchdowns and an interception in place of Lancaster against North Texas last season but has been inconsistent in limited work. ULM's incoming recruiting class includes two quarterbacks who are expected to compete with Revell. "You've got to step up," Revell told The News Star. "Kin's going to be leaving next year, so there's going to be an open spot. It's open competition. It's open season."
3. Front and center: The Warhawks have a tough task replacing center Adam Hill, a four-year starter. They hope junior-college transfer Keating Helms can fill the void, but Helms began spring practice on crutches because of a foot injury. Helms will compete with junior Brett Thompson for the starting job this summer.
|Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders|
1. End game: Pass-rushing became a premium for the Blue Raiders this spring after they lost standout defensive ends Erik Walden and Tavares Jones, who rank first and third on the school's career sacks list. They found some help this spring in Jamari Lattimore, a junior college transfer who can play linebacker or defensive end. The coaches would like Lattimore to add to his 6-3, 225-pound frame so he could be a better fit at defensive end.
2. Tightening up: Middle Tennessee suffered personnel losses at both wide receiver and tight end, but finding replacements at the latter looks promising. Alvin Ingle caught 26 passes last year playing behind Clinton Corder and Stephen Chicola. He's joined by freshman Byron McLeod and converted quarterback Gene Delle Donne. "They're going to be more involved in the passing game because of our lack of receivers," coach Rick Stockstill told The Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn. "Right now, [our tight ends] are better in the passing game than the running game."
3. Receiver roulette: Wide receiver remains a concern after Middle Tennessee lost five of its top eight receivers from last season, but several players stepped up this spring. The most notable was Patrick Honeycutt, who had 11 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, earning the award for most improved wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Caleb Dugger added a 34-yard touchdown reception for the White team. "We needed somebody to step up and be a leader with Taron [Henry] and Jonathan Grigsby leaving," Stockstill said.
Fall questions1. Decision time: The spring didn't create much separation between quarterbacks Joe Craddock and Dwight Dasher, who split snaps last season. Dasher, as his surname suggests, is the better runner of the two, whereas Craddock brings more experience and a strong passing repertoire. One of them needs to distinguish himself before the season kicks off so the offense has a clear-cut leader. "Combined, they have every skill set that you would want to have in a quarterback," offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus told The Daily News Journal. "We would like somebody to step to the forefront."
2. Tackle tandem: Middle Tennessee must fortify the edges of its offensive line after losing left tackle Franklin Dunbar to the NFL draft and right tackle Mark Fisher to a season-ending shoulder injury. Guard Jamal Lewis also is out with a season-ending injury, meaning the Blue Raiders must replace their three best linemen. Mark Thompson seems to be a lock at one tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition this summer.
3. Receiving orders: Stockstill was looking for help at wide receiver long after national signing day. The Blue Raiders brought in Eldred King, a junior college transfer, and want to add another wideout with one of their three remaining scholarships. Middle Tennessee loses leading receiver Henry (31 receptions, 427 yards) and returns just three of its top eight pass-catchers from last fall.
|North Texas Mean Green|
1. Welcome back: Gary DeLoach returned to North Texas as defensive coordinator to fix a unit that ranked last nationally in scoring allowed last fall (45.1 ppg). DeLoach's impact began to show this spring as the Mean Green defense made strides, though it was shorthanded up front. The defense scored a touchdown off a forced fumble in the spring game and showed improvement in the back half. DeLoach, who held the same position at North Texas from 2000 to 2002, used a three-man front at times and got good results.
2. Target practice: Coach Todd Dodge wants his young wide receivers to start stepping up. Redshirt freshmen Sam Roberson and Marcus King answered the charge this spring. Roberson and King impressed the coaches early in practice and will provide depth alongside top wideout Casey Fitzgerald this fall. "It's time for the six receivers we recruited in our first class to step up and compete," Dodge told the Denton Record-Chronicle.
3. Need for speed: After ranking 113th nationally in kickoff returns last season, North Texas appeared to find a solution this spring in Jamel Jackson. A transfer from Northwestern State, Jackson showcased his blazing speed in the first spring scrimmage, returning a kickoff for a touchdown. The 5-9, 165-pound Jackson likely will return both kickoffs and punts this fall, and could get a look at wide receiver. "I believe I'll get a real shot," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I'm getting used to the plays and routes, but I really have a chance."
Fall questions1. Line limbo: The defensive line remains iffy entering training camp after tackles Isaac Thomas and Jonathan Stewart missed spring ball with injuries. Both are expected back this summer, but the Mean Green must replenish their pass rush after losing standout end Jeremiah Chapman, who led the team in both tackles and sacks last fall.
2. Line limbo, Part II: North Texas has similar concerns on the offensive line despite the return of four starters. Starting center Kelvin Drake and reserve center/guard Chad Rose both missed spring ball following surgeries, and tackle Matt Menard also sat out a chunk of practice. Promising reserve Matt Tomlinson underwent shoulder surgery in early April. The Mean Green need more healthy bodies this summer and for junior college transfers Nate Jenkins and Gabe Hollivay to contribute right away.
3. More from Micah: After sharing carries with Jamario Thomas as a true freshman last fall, Micah Mosley steps into a featured role this season. Mosley's ability to handle a greater burden for a team that historically has produced standout running backs will be vital. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry last fall and reached the end zone five times.
1. Receiver rotation: Several wideouts stepped up this spring as Troy tried to replace top pass-catcher Gary Banks. Willie McDowell performed like a No. 1 receiver in the spring game, hauling in seven passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his scores stretched 25 yards or more. Kennard Burton and Patrick Cherry also played well in the final two scrimmages.
2. Backup plan: As he holds off on naming a starting quarterback, coach Larry Blakeney had to be pleased with the running game at the end of spring ball. Xavier Moreland racked up 117 rushing yards on 22 carries in the spring game, including a 55-yard burst. DuJuan Harris added 112 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. "When those guys are doing good, that means your line must be doing something right," Blakeney said.
3. Settling in: The transition from offensive coordinator Tony Franklin to his longtime protégé Neal Brown wasn't supposed to rock the boat this spring. It didn't. Brown continued to keep a successful system intact, one that led the Sun Belt in both scoring (34 ppg) and yards (452.8 ypg) last season. His biggest decision won't involve schemes, but rather personnel, as he must choose a starting quarterback this summer.
Fall questions1. Decision time: The race to replace star quarterback Omar Haugabook continues in preseason camp after junior Levi Brown and sophomores Jamie Hampton and Tanner Jones competed throughout the spring. Hampton, the best runner of the three, will definitely be in the mix for an offense that requires a mobile quarterback. Hampton and Brown both threw touchdown passes in the final spring scrimmage. "The decision may boil down to the minute things like who takes care of the ball and doesn't turn it over or who has the better completion percentage," Blakeney told The Troy Messenger. "We have a good healthy competition going and I am confident no matter who we put out there, the team will follow him."
2. Ready to run: Lost in the buzz about the quarterbacks is the fact Troy also must replace leading rusher Kenny Cattouse. Harris will assume a much larger load after carrying 82 times for 372 yards last season. Moreland and several others are also in the mix, as the Trojans lost four of their top five rushers from last season.
3. Special attention: Special teams will be a focal point for Blakeney in preseason practice as he tries settle on starters at both kickoff returner and punt returner. Star cornerback Leodis McKelvin handled both duties last season, averaging 23.2 yards on kick returns and 17.4 yards on punt returns. Blakeney also wants to see improvement at long snapper, particularly improving the speed of the snaps.
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
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