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UTSA Roadrunners 2016 Season Preview

UTSA is looking to do more than just improve from last year’s record, but how exactly will the birds fare during Frank Wilson’s debut season?

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Texas-San Antonio
JaBryce Taylor should become a respected name in CUSA following his upcoming senior season.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a new era in UTSA football.

After a combined seven wins over the past two seasons, UTSA decided to part ways with the original architect of the program. Larry Coker provided UTSA with the steady, experienced hand needed to guide the ship during the start-up campaign, but as the new program luster rubbed off and fans started demanding wins it became time for some new energy in the program.

In comes new head coach Frank Wilson, who has brought that energy in bundles. A captivating speaker and universally respected coach — from his time as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU — Wilson has made a sudden impact at UTSA in many ways off the field.

Aside from a jaw-dropping recruiting prowess, Wilson has seemingly turned the entire athletics department upside down. The marketing has improved. Fan enthusiasm has improved. Player buy-in has improved.

A small yet telling example of Wilson’s experience in a major program was the decision to hold media day in the Alamodome instead of UTSA’s repulsive basketball gym. It’s something no one really questioned before, but after seeing team pictures and interviews on an actual football field instead of under a basketball net it really illustrates how small-time the program was operating under Coker.

On the field, Wilson has revamped the pace. He’s created new drills, cranked a playlist on the sub-woofers, and moved the bar of expectation up a few feet. No more are practices simply going through the motions; the new staff is hands-on during drills and in players’ faces when they’re not giving 110%. Wilson even gets out there and runs the drills himself sometimes.

So no big deal, but all that’s left is to turn UTSA’s boundless potential into a winning football program, one season, one game, one snap at a time.

And believe it or not, the birds are poised to turn that corner this season. With a slew of returning players and a few stud transfers, the experience level is a few notches better than last year. Add that to a schedule that’s nearly identical to last season’s — where half of the losses were decided by one score — the gap is much smaller than it appears to be.

Offense Preview - Adrian

The voice of the Roadrunners, Andy Everett, said it best last week: it’s going to take an offense that can consistently score around 30 points a game to compete in this league.

UTSA averaged about a touchdown less than that last season, but with Frank Scelfo’s pro-style offensive approach and a slew of returning contributors, they should have no problem breaking that threshold. Scelfo’s been coaching offenses since 1982, and he’s been through the entire pipeline: high school, group of 5, power 5, and most recently, the big leagues.

In addition to coordinating offenses, Scelfo’s specialty is quarterbacks. He’s had a hand in coaching up four to make it pro, the most recent of which being Nick Foles. At his last stop with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he coached Blake Bortles and served as senior offensive assistant. That’s great news for a team who’s been plagued at the position for two years.

The biggest difference in UTSA’s offense is going to be formation. A majority of snaps are going be taken from directly under center rather than out of the shotgun. Throws will come out quick and runs are going up the gut. Expect to see plenty of blocking backs and tight ends, even on passing downs.

Head Coach Frank Wilson said the offensive will be working north and south, not east and west. That’s a huge sigh of relief for fans that have grown tired of sideline sweeps and screens. Expect UTSA to attack the middle of the field like they never have before.

The offense will primarily be run-first with Jarveon Williams at the helm, but also expect some unorthodox draw-ups. The Spring Game saw the offense line up with a four-receiver stack. Scelfo’s going to throw some different looks out, so don’t be too surprised when you see them.

One thing about the offense this year is a matter of fact: there’s depth at all of the major ball positions.

Regardless of who wins the quarterback battle, the same kind of monster is going to be leading the huddle. Jared Johnson and Dalton Sturm are very similar in regards to skill-set : big arms and speedy feet with a knack for fixing broken plays. The starting role will be determined by decision making, accuracy, and command. No matter who wins the job, the quarterback woes of the previous two seasons won’t be a trend this year. There’s going to be guy on the bench with just as much ability, and the offense won’t have to adjust to a different style in the event the starter goes down.

Latest news out of practice has Sturm taking first-team reps.

The Roadrunners are also stacked at running back. Too many people are under the impression that Williams is the only threat in UTSA’s backfield. Not at all the case. Though the offense will run through Williams, there’s a speedster behind him in Jalen Rhodes.

Rhodes got carries in all 12 games last season for a total of 242 yards on 60 attempts (4.0 avg). The sophomore's going to take the baton from Williams after this season, so expect the ground game to get a lot of distribution between the two. Wilson calls the duo a “1-1 punch” and said that “both runners have become three-down backs.” There should be a lot of consistency in the backfield with those two running, catching, and blocking.

There’s also a specialty back in Brett Winnegan, who can cut like some scissors. Winnegan gets most of his action on special teams as a kick returner, but I would gamble on seeing him work out of the backfield a little bit more this season.

The receiving core returns a few sure-handed veterans in JaBryce Taylor, Kerry Thomas, and Aron Taylor. JaBryce should be the go-to target; the Lufkin product really emerged last season with a team-best 16.3 yards per catch, including some big catches in big moments to earn a starting slot for the whole second half of the season. Thomas hauled in 52 receptions and received honorable mention All-Conference USA last year — he’ll be able to go up and get it among the best defensive backs in the league. Aron is San Antonio product that had a few breakout moments last year as well. He actually played his best games against some of the toughest opponents: Arizona and Colorado State.

Now there’s two receivers that Roadrunner fans need to put on notice: Danon Cavil and Marquez McNair. Cavil transferred from Oklahoma last year and will finally be eligible to suit up for UTSA. Itching to see game action, the junior is a San Antonio native and 4A state champion with big potential. He hasn’t seen a college snap yet, so slate him as a potential breakout. McNair is a junior JUCO transfer from Hinds Community College in Mississippi. He caught four touchdowns in his first two games last year but suffered a knee injury that prematurely ended his season. He originally signed with Southern Miss, West Division favorite, before changing over to UTSA.

Now of course, everyone wants to know who’s going to replace David Morgan II, UTSA’s tight end dream child. I say set your eyes on Shaq Williams, the 6’4”, 235-pound junior. He comes from JUCO Southwest Mississippi and redshirted with UTSA last season. He’ll be a force to reckon with. Senior Trevor Stevens will be the unit’s blocking tight end, as he was last year.

Last year’s biggest offensive fault, as we all know, was the offensive line. UTSA’s backfield won’t be under nearly as much fire this year. With addition of LSU transfer Jevonte Domond alongside Kyle McKinney, Austin Pratt, and Reed Darragh, the Roadrunners should be much tougher up front. Pratt had a huge sophomore season last year, and Darragh was crucial in Jarveon Williams’ 1,000-yard season. There’s also some nice depth with the likes Stefan Beard and Cody Cole.

This year’s offensive team will aim to fix last year’s main flaw: finishing games. There’s enough talent and experience on this roster to closeout close contests.

Preseason Offensive MVP - Jarveon Williams (duh). But whoever’s under center could certainly be the guy.

Breakout Candidate - Danon Cavil

Defense Preview - Jared

UTSA’s defense this season will likely bare very little resemblance to its previous iterations. While the Roadrunners will return the majority of their talent on the defensive side of the ball, an infusion of transfer talent, incoming freshmen, and a new defensive coordinator will leave UTSA fans with a lot to learn.

Defensive coordinator Pete Golding comes to UTSA from divisional rival Southern Miss where he coached safeties. Golding is a fast riser, previously holding defensive coordinator positions at Southeastern Louisiana, Delta State, and Tusculum. The Hammond, Louisiana native favors multiple, attacking defenses that uses odd-man fronts to create chaos on the field in the hopes of generating turnovers.

In the spring game and limited open practices, it was common to see linebackers moving between the line of scrimmage and the secondary as UTSA drifted between three and five man fronts. Golding has also stressed that the defense will employ typical four man fronts when appropriate.

The multiplicity of the defense will place a bright spotlight over the defensive line. In odd man fronts UTSA will need senior Vontrell King-Williams and vaunted redshirt freshman Baylen Baker to dominate the A gap as nose tackles. Both have shown great promise but Baker certainly seems to be the future anchor of the defensive line. The 6’4”, 285 pound freshman is explosive and incredibly sound in his technique.

Marcus Davenport will lead the defensive ends into another season but the depth behind him might be precarious. Kevin Strong will anchor one of the interior, five-technique defensive end spots while junior college transfers Franklin Uesi and Jonathan Tuiolosega will battle it out for starting rights on the other side of the line. True freshmen Solomon Wise and Jarrod McLin will be counted on to contribute immediately as edge-rushers at nine technique which might be the scariest facet of UTSA’s defense.

Competition at the linebacker slots is fierce. So fierce that Marcos Curry may be bumped out of a starting role after starting all 12 games in the 2015 season as a sophomore.

The Roadrunners have bolstered their depth at linebacker in a serious way. LSU transfer Ronnie Feist has impressed this spring despite seeing very little playing time in Baton Rogue. 2015 JUCO transfer La’Kel Bass is finally healthy and joined by fellow JUCO transfers Les Mauro and Anthony Hickey.

The name to watch, and my bold pick to start as a freshman, is Josiah Tauaefa. I’ve raved about him before but reports out of fall camp have my hype rising to even higher levels. Tauaefa mostly played defensive end in high school but he has the physical and mental skills to excel at middle linebacker.

UTSA’s cornerbacks have promise but haven’t had many opportunities to show it at the FBS level yet. Returning corners Aneas Henricks and N’Keal Bailey have both shown flashes in limited playing time last season but they will be sharply contested by JUCO transfer Devon Davis and true freshman Teddrick McGhee. Both newcomers were highly recruited, with 56 combined scholarship offers between the two talented athletes. While Henricks and Bailey bring speed and experience, Davis and McGhee bring great size as both measure in at 6’0”.

Lastly, the Roadrunners’ safeties should make a strong impact on the defense. Junior free safety Nate Gaines might be the most complete player on the roster and he’ll be flanked by some terrific athletes. Michael Egwuagu is a dynamic playmaker that most Conference USA fans should be familiar with. He’ll play closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker/safety hybrid similar to the “Dawg” safety staff the the previous staff utilized.

Sophomore safety C.J. Levine excels in pass coverage and will likely see plenty of snaps on third and long. On regular downs Golding will likely look to redshirt freshman Andrew Martel, sophomore Darryl Godfrey, or LSU transfer Jordan Moore for additional muscle to protect against the run.

Jordan Moore might be the biggest X-factor in Conference USA. The 6’3”, 225 graduate transfer signed with TCU out of high school but never found a niche on Gary Patterson’s roster. Moore transferred to LSU where he excelled in track and field. Desperate for a chance to prove himself on the gridiron, Moore transferred to UTSA for his last year of NCAA edibility.

Moore’s athleticism is self-evident but he hasn’t touched a football field in several years. Head coach Frank Wilson has expressed interest in moving Moore around the field to find where he can make the biggest impact but it looks like his main focus will be at safety. If Moore is able to turn his track speed into football speed then the Roadrunners’ secondary could be stifling.

Preseason Defensive MVP - Michael Egwuagu

Breakout Candidate - TIE: Baylen Baker/Josiah Tauaefa

Schedule Breakdown & Predictions

September 3rd: vs. Alabama State

Adrian: W - easy win in Wilson’s coming out party, expect some high-flying plays.

Jared: W - UTSA works out some early rust and pours it on in the second half.

September 10th: @ Colorado State

Adrian: W - UTSA lost this game by 2 points last season, but it was at home. I see Wilson having them prepared for their first road battle and winning in clutch time.

Jared: L - CSU wins a slugfest in the crisp mountain air with a heart breaking drive on the last possession.

September 16th: vs. Arizona State

Adrian: L - A great chance to win this one, but I’m not ready to say UTSA is over the Power-5 hump. ASU by a field goal.

Jared: L - Runners hang tough but can’t match ASU in an entertaining game.

September 24th: @ Old Dominion

Adrian: W - UTSA is juiced after the ASU loss and Wilson has them disciplined on the road. UTSA lost by 3 last year; this is another close call but UTSA pulls it out in the 2-minute drill.

Jared: L - Old Dominion plays a really strong game in a match that closely resembles last year's clash.

October 8th: vs. Southern Miss

Adrian: L - A much better showing than last year, but Southern Miss still wins handily by two scores.

Jared: L - This one will be closer than expected but no dice. Watch out for those 11 am road games, USM.

October 15th: @ Rice

Adrian: W - Roadrunner fans pack the house to watch UTSA win their second consecutive Battle of the Birds in convincing fashion.

Jared: W - UTSA controls the tempo on the ground in a nice shoot out.

October 22nd: vs. UTEP

Adrian: W - No weather delays this year, but the homecoming crowd will surge UTSA to victory in a back-and-forth battle. Defense stops UTEP late in the game.

Jared: L - Aaron Jones pounds his way to a Miners’ victory.

October 29th: vs. UNT

Adrian: W - Can you say revenge game? North Texas gets smoked, multiple forced turnovers.

Jared: W - UTSA dominates in the trenches in a blow out.

November 5th: @ MTSU

Adrian: L - MTSU’s offense dominates the Roadrunners. UTSA gets checked.

Jared: L - Blue Raiders get the best of UTSA as Brent Stockstill starts to turn heads around the country.

November 12th: @ LA Tech

Adrian: L - UTSA can’t pull this one out in the end, LA Tech wins in a close game.

Jared: W - UTSA takes advantage of some Bulldog turnovers in a surprise win.

November 19th: @ Texas A&M

Adrian: L - Kyle Field cracks all confidence, OSU flashback.

Jared: L - Daylon Mack and Myles Garrett decimate UTSA’s backfield. It gets ugly.

November 26th: vs. Charlotte

Adrian: W - UTSA wins handily after road skid, not toying around with Charlotte like last year.

Jared: W - Closer game than expected but UTSA closes out the season with a strong performance from Jarveon Williams in his last game as a Roadrunner.

Record Prediction

Adrian: 7-5

Jared: 5-7