With the offseason in full swing it's time for us to introduce our preseason position reviews for Conference USA. We will use three grade categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”*
To elaborate on the grades, "We'll See" means exactly what it means. We don’t know if that position is going to turn out to be a positive due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for improvement. Depth is probably decent at the position but an injury could be catastrophic.
“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth. You definitely want your team to be here.
Lets get to the rankings shall we.
1. Western Kentucky: The Tops have the best quarterback in the conference in senior Mike White. Last year he passed for 4,363 yards with 37 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. SEVEN. A lot of his favorite targets from last season will be gone though.
2. Middle Tennessee: You know who else threw for over 3,000 yards and 30 plus touchdowns with just seven picks last year? Brent Stockstill. Stockstill’s gruesome broken collarbone injury suffered against UTSA last year worries me a bit as he didn’t look great in his return against Hawaii. Did he come back too soon? Will the injury have long term effects? Should anything happen to Stockstill backup John Urzua gained some solid experience last year and should look much better as a sophomore.
3. Louisiana Tech: There’s a big drop off between the top two and La Tech right now but after the season that may not be the case. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding J’Mar Smith and he looked pretty good in his first career start on the road against Arkansas. Depth is ultra thin right now behind Smith though. An injury would probably be devastating.
4. FIU: Having FIU here may seem a bit overzealous but if you break down Alex McGough’s numbers minus Ron Turner, he was actually solid (12 touchdowns, seven interceptions, four rushing touchdowns). I always thought he was an odd fit in Turner’s pseudo-pro-style offense. Now he’ll be playing in a true spread offense. As a three-year starter he has 48 touchdowns, 29 interceptions and 11 rushing touchdowns in his career. Butch Davis inherits one of the more experienced starters in the conference and should he not be satisfied with McGough’s decision making, Maurice Alexander and Christian Alexander both have experience.
5. UTSA: The UTSA fan base has had their frustrations with Dalton Sturm but I think the senior takes too much flack. He’s a playmaker. Last year he passed for 2,170 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions while adding 543 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He does take too many sacks and at times can be careless with the ball though. The backup is true freshman Bryce Rivers, who looked good in spring practice as an early-enrollee.
6. Marshall: Chase Litton was superb as a freshman but regressed a bit last season. I’d attribute some of that to the injuries he suffered behind one of the worst offensive lines in the conference. Marshall’s receivers weren’t really great last season but with new targets to choose from this year - and better injury luck - maybe Litton will revert back to his 2015 form. Backup Garet Morrell didn’t wow anyone last year but at least he has experience.
7. FAU: Jason Driskel was at times woeful as a passer last year. Entering spring practice I expected Driskel to no longer be the starter as incoming three-star JUCO prospect De’Andre Johnson was seen as a lock to win the job. After Driskel capped off a good spring practice with an excellent spring game Johnson and Driskel will enter fall camp in a dead heat for the job. Both junior quarterbacks still have a lot to be desired but at worst they provide quality experience and still have an all-conference wide receiver to pass to in Kalib Woods.
8. Charlotte: Hasaan Klugh emerged as the face of the program last year after his first career start as a 49er against FAU resulted in Charlotte’s first-ever conference win. If Klugh can become a more accurate passer this season he’ll be a problem for C-USA defenses as he’s already an explosive runner. With Kevin Olsen no longer an option, the depth behind Klugh is dangerously thin as redshirt freshman Joe Thompson is the only other quarterback listed on the roster per Charlotte’s website.
9. North Texas: As a true freshman last year Mason Fine looked to be in over his head as he passed for 1,572 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. He completed 59 percent of his passes with a sack rate of 12 percent. Those are some pretty bad numbers in an air raid offense. Listed at 5’11 and 173 pounds, Fine’s size is no doubt a concern as he suffered a shoulder injury late last season which caused him to miss the bowl game. Seth Littrell said junior Quinn Shanbour is competing with Fine in fall camp to be the starter. Shanbour has attempted just one pass in his college career.
10. UTEP: Quarterback has been a huge question mark throughout Sean Kugler’s tenure in El Paso and this season is no different. Ryan Metz has had issues with durability and Zach Greenlee has had issues with consistency. Metz is the better quarterback but with a majority of his weapons from last year gone he has to elevate his game and stay healthy in order for UTEP to succeed. Can he?
11. Southern Miss: There’s some big shoes to fill with Nick Mullens now with the San Francisco 49es. Keon Howard was forced into action unexpectedly last season as a true freshman and in his two starts he did not look ready. Junior Kwadra Griggs redshirted last year after being academically ineligible and appeared to exit spring practice slightly ahead of Howard. Whoever’s the starter will have some veteran playmakers to lean on in Ito Smith and Allenzae Staggers.
12. Old Dominion: Former walk-on, redshirt sophomore Blake LaRussa had a solid spring practice and will enter fall camp as QB1. But incoming JUCO Jordan Hoy will arrive in the summer. The quarterback competition is far from settled. Whoever’s the starter will have some experienced receivers to pass to in Jonathan Duhart and Melvin Vaughn.
13. Rice: Former three-star recruits Jackson Tyner, Sam Glaesmann and J.T. Granato will still compete to be the starter in fall camp. Neither created separation so it’s anyone's guess as to who’ll win the job at the moment. David Bailiff has stated that incoming three-star athlete Miklo Smalls will also compete for the job.
14. UAB: Former Middle Tennessee quarterback A.J. Erdely looked good in the spring game and so did Tyler Johnston. Both look capable should either be tabbed the starter this fall. Of course, there’s a lot of unknowns at the moment. That tends to happen when a program is shut down for a few years.
*If the format looks similar to you, it’s because I got it from former ESPN and writer-extraordinaire Ted Miller, who used to annually break out these reviews during this time of the year.