Conference USA lost its share of talented playmakers to graduation or the NFL in 2018.
But as non-conference teams are realizing, C-USA is a talented league, with no shortage of players ready to step into starring roles.
Here’s my look at ten up and comers, who may not be widely known outside of their program, but will be, come this time next year.
Asher O’Hara-MTSU: With the Brent Stockstill era officially in the rearview, the offense will be in the hands of a new signal-caller.
O’Hara should get the first shot at filling Stockstill’s shoes. He showed flashes of ability in a three-point loss to FIU last season.
However, he will have to make strides as a passer and compete with JUCO transfer Randall Johnson.
Garrett Marino-UAB: The 6-2, 290-pound defensive tackle was overshadowed by stars like Jamell Garcia-Williams, Chris Woolbright and others.
Marino’s play in Bill Clark’s 3-4 defense has been pivotal to the team’s success. He’s a solid run-stopping defensive lineman, tallying 14.5 TFL’s in two seasons.
Davis Shanley-WKU: Shanley had a rollercoaster season in 2018.
The redshirt sophomore was very efficient with the football, completing over 66 percent of his passes in four of his five starts.
His year came to an abrupt end, after sustaining a concussion in against FIU. He’ll have to compete for the starting job in 2019,
The former Alabama running back is reunited with his old offensive coordinator in Owls’ head coach Lane Kiffin.
He’ll get a chance to fill the massive hole left behind by the departures of Devin Singletary and Kerrith Whyte Jr.
Emmons is a former four-star recruit, who spent 2016 with the Crimson Tide before spending a year at the JUCO level and then taking 2018 off from football.
Now, in Boca Raton, he’ll look keep FAU atop the conference in rushing for the second consecutive season.
Willie Baker-La Tech
Yes, the FBS all-time leader in sacks in Jaylon Ferguson has departed from the program.
However, Tech still has a sensational pass-rusher in Willie Baker.
The former four-star recruit backed up Ferguson on the depth chart, but had a solid season with 32 tackles and six sacks, including four in the Hawaii Bowl victory. Now, he’ll face the burden of being the top defensive lineman in Ruston.
While C-USA’s top tight end in Harrison Bryant resides in Boca, the league’s second-best at the position may very well be an hour south in Miami.
Palmer burst onto the scene as a freshman at FIU, hauling in 26 catches for 279 yards and two scores.
The 6-6, 235-pounder was considered a raw prospect heading into last season, but he responded by winning a starting position out of fall camp and never looked back.
With James Morgan at quarterback and FIU possessing a litany of offensive weapons, Palmer’s numbers are certain to increase in his sophomore season.
I was torn about putting Blankenship on this list.
Fact of the matter is, the sophomore safety is arguably the best defensive back in the conference.
Yet, it seems as if he’s still somewhat overshadowed. The “other” number 12 in Murfreesboro has been a ball-hawk since the time he stepped on campus.
In 24 games, he’s been a tackling machine, racking up 175 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, six interceptions and two sacks.
With the graduation of Stockstill, Blankenship’s play on the defensive side of the ball will be key for the Blue Raiders to compete for a conference title again in 2019.
Ky’el Hemby-Southern Miss
The JUCO transfer burst onto the scene in 2018.
He recorded 51 tackles and a conference-leading six interceptions, in his first season with the Golden Eagles.
Along with another JUCO transfer in Ty Williams, Hemby will be looked to man the secondary for a Southern Miss team that has aspirations of competing for a title, after missing a bowl game last season.
Mike Bloomgren has his work cut out for him in rebuilding the Owl program.
The positive is, his team never stopped playing hard, despite their record.
A great building block is Prudy Calderon. The 5-11, 210-pound safety had a phenomenal true freshman season.
He worked his way into the starting lineup for the final eight contests and delivered 39 tackles, with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
I had a chance to see Calderon up close at FIU, where he recorded eight stops and a tackle for loss.
Stewart is a bit of a wildcard.
He’ll have to compete with two other quarterbacks in Wiley Green and Evan Marshman.
The latter kept the Rice in a close contest with FIU for two quarters last season, while Green saw sporadic action. However, Stewart does have more experience than either player.
The Dallas, Texas native threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions in 2018, including a 312-yard, three touchdown performance in his final game for the Crimson, in a win over Yale.
He appears to be fully-recovered after leaving the Yale game on a stretcher with a hip injury.
Issac Weaver-Old Dominion
Bobby Wilder’s team undoubtedly underachieved last season.
Outside of a massive upset against Virginia Tech, the Monarchs’ 2018 season was one to forget. A positive heading into 2019, is having Weaver upfront on the offensive line.
The 6-7, 310-pound aspiring doctor, is one of the more underrated lineman in C-USA.
He’s started 24 straight games at left tackle and will be depended on to protect whoever wins the quarterback competition in Norfolk.
It’s not everyday that a defensive back is mentioned in the same breath as an NFL hall-of-famer.
However, FIU head coach Butch Davis has cautiously said that Dames reminds him of Ed Reed, when Reed played for Davis at Miami.
After starting four contests as a true freshman, he saw extended time for the Panthers in 2019.
He recorded 46 tackles and three interceptions.
What you don’t see on the statsheet is Dames’ versatility. He’s capable of playing nickle corner, safety and in the box against the run.
The South Florida native earned all-conference honorable mention last season, and may certainly be on the first or second team at the end of next season.
The 49ers quarterback situation was a carousel last season.
In addition to the fluidity of the position, it was pedestrian, at best. Between Chris Reynolds, Evan Shirreffs and Hasaan Klugh, they accounted for 2,166 yards passing, with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
All of the above makes Tucker’s season even more eye-popping.
The 5-11, 182-pound Miami native hauled in 54 catches for 712 yards in his redshirt freshman season.
With the graduations of some of C-USA’s top receiving targets, it’s not a stretch to think that Tucker may be a top-five wide receiver in the league next season.
If Reynolds or incoming transfer Brett Kean are able to stabilize the quarterback spot, I expect to see Tucker as an all-conference player in 2019.