Ladies and gentlemen welcome back to another installment of Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. Last year I introduced this series as a way to compare rosters and see how C-USA football might shake out. With the draft season officially over, it’s time for us to reconvene yet again and get ready for what C-USA football has in store for us in 2018.
For those who are new around here the format is quite simple. We use three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus 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 this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You obviously want your team to be here.
I’lll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.
Just like last year, there will be a finally tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title. Let’s get to it.
1. North Texas: After an up-and-down freshman year that was cut short due to injury, Mason Fine emerged as not only one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, but one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country. Fine passed for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns last year, both school records. The reigning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year will have his top three receivers back so we could see Fine surpass his own single-season records in 2018.
2. Middle Tennessee: You could make the case that Brent Stockstill has been the most important player in C-USA over the past few years. When healthy, MTSU has had one of the most explosive passing offenses in the country. Unfortunately, Stockstill hasn’t been able to play a full season since he was a freshman in 2015. When he has missed time MTSU has struggled mightily. With Stockstill upright, the Blue Raiders have a shot against any team in C-USA.
3. Louisiana Tech: Many expected J’Mar Smith to pick up right where Ryan Higgins left off and guide Tech to another great season on offense. At times Smith delivered and at other times he came woefully short. J’Mar Smith passed for 2,974 yards and 16 touchdowns with five interceptions. While turnovers weren’t an issue, accuracy was a problem all season as he completed just 56 percent of his passes. He has the skills to be the best QB in C-USA. With a full season under his belt we may see him take that step this season.
4. UAB: Former MTSU QB AJ Erdely had a solid season last year as he passed for 16 touchdowns and 2,331 yards. His best attribute was staying away from turnovers as he threw just four picks all season. Well, that and rushing for a team-high 13 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
5. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles return two quarterbacks with experience in Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard. Griggs started the majority of 2017 and played well when healthy. But Griggs missed spring practice due to an injury. With an opportunity to seize control of the job Howard played well and closed spring camp with an impressive spring game. Howard has had flashes of greatness when subbing in for Griggs (at UTSA he passed for 212 yards and three touchdowns) and ineptitude (vs UAB he passed for 84 yards). I assume USM head coach Jay Hopson would be fine with either Griggs or Howard as the starter in 2018.
6. FAU: For the third straight season FAU has a quarterback competition. Jason Driskel’s surprise decision to retire has opened the door for former P5 quarterbacks De’Andre Johnson (Florida State) and Chris Robison (Oklahoma) to win the job. They exited spring camp in a dead heat to be named the starter. While both lack the amount of game experience compared to the QBs ranked above them, I feel confident that whoever earns the starting role will be effective.
7. Old Dominion: After entering last season with a huge question mark at quarterback, the Monarchs have found their QB in sophomore Steven Williams. As a 17-year-old (!) true freshman, Williams performed exactly how you’d think a 17-year-old would. Although Williams finished the season with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions for 1,528 yards, he closed the season strong. In his last three starts Williams passed for 511 yards and two touchdowns with zero turnovers, while adding two touchdowns on the ground.
8. Marshall: Former three-star recruits Garet Morell and Isaiah Green had the opportunity to show Doc Holliday what they’re capable of as a starter due to Chase Litton’s surprise departure in the spring. Morell has game experience as he was thrusted into action as a true freshman in 2016 when Litton was injured and didn’t play too well. Both Green and Morell have the potential to be solid due to their supporting cast. Marshall will wait for the arrival of a grad transfer before determining who the starter is as former Wagner QB Alex Thompson will get a shot at winning the job in fall. Thompson has passed for 3,826 yards and 25 touchdowns in his career.
9. FIU: Junior Christian Alexander and redshirt freshman Kaylan Wiggins each took reps at QB1 without earning the nod as the starter this spring. Similar to Marshall, the Panthers will look to a grad transfer to bolster the depth. James Morgan should be considered the favorite to replace Alex McGough once he enters fall camp. Morgan started 13 games at Bowling Green and has passed for 3,342 yards, with 25 touchdowns in his career.
10. UTSA: UTSA’s quarterback depth took a serious hit when Frank Harris suffered an ACL injury this spring. As a result, former three-star QB and San Antonio native Bryce Rivers saw an increase in reps. Rivers looked solid during the spring game. Rivers, a redshirt-freshman, will enter fall camp as QB1 but with depth so thin, head coach Frank Wilson has added former SMU QB DJ Gillins to the mix.
11. WKU: Steven Duncan, Drew Eckels and Davis Shanley all battled during spring to see who would replace Mike White. Neither created much separation. Mike Sanford Jr. would like for a dual-threat QB to start this year and Duncan, Eckels and Shanley each have the mobility to keep defenses honest. With the news of Duncan being suspended for the opener, career backup Drew Eckels or redshirt-freshman Davis Shanley will have a great opportunity to seize the role during fall camp.
12. Charlotte: Despite returning Hasaan Klugh, head coach Brad Lambert decided to have the position up for grabs this spring. Klugh has possessed great playmaking skills in his career (4.2 yards per carry with 17 career rushing touchdowns), but struggles to pass the ball with accuracy (50 percent career passer). Redshirt-freshman Chris Reynolds pushed him during the spring and with new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery’s change of philosophy from a spread option offense to a more pro-style/multiple look, we could see Reynolds win the job.
13. UTEP: Incumbent starter Ryan Metz will have to hold off former star-recruit Kai Locksley in order to win the job. Given how bad the QBs performed under Sean Kugler, I’d consider it a good sign that just about every UTEP QB had a pretty good spring game under new head coach Dana Dimel.
14. Rice: Jackson Tyner left spring camp as QB1 but the competition is far from over as new head coach Mike Bloomgren will let Miklo Smalls among others, fight for the job until opening week. Considering Tyner and Smalls looked lost at times in 2017, this group has a long ways to go.