Spring football is finally here and with that come more than a few players to watch in Conference USA.
Some are in the midst of position battles, while others are recovering from injury or looking to have a breakout season.
Here a few names to keep an eye on during the spring.
UAB: Tyler Johnston III-QB
A.J. Erdly was steady as UAB’s starting quarterback. Not too high, but not too low.
However, there’s no denying that when Tyler Johnston III had his chances in place of an injured Erdly, he gave the Blazers a more potent threat as a passer in 2018.
In 22 career games with 10 or more passing attempts, Erdly threw for over 200 yards six times. Given the same amount of passing attempts, Johnston III has thrown for over 200 yards four times, in just five career games.
UAB lost a litany of playmakers on both sides of the ball from their C-USA championship winning team.
Now, with the graduation of Erdly, Johnston is firmly entrenched as the starter and his development as a player will be crucial to Bill Clark’s club contending for a bowl in 2019.
UNT: Ladarius Hamilton-DL
The C-USA All-Conference first-team selection will look to take his game to another level in 2019.
North Texas enters next season among the favorites to win the enter league.
Two-time Offensive Player of the Year Mason Fine returns at quarterback, along with a bevy of offensive weapons.
The only possible question mark is on defense, with the graduations of all-conference performers Nate Brooks, E.J. Eijya and Nate Brooks.
That’s where Hamilton comes in.
He recorded 33 tackles, with 11 stops for a loss and 7.5 sacks last season and will undoubtedly have a bulls-eye on his chest with the graduation of other defensive playmakers.
La Tech: Willie Baker-DE
I wrote about Baker in my look at under the radar C-USA players earlier in the off-season. However, my reasoning for him as a player to watch is for different reasons.
I’m extremely confident in Tech’s ability on offense, specifically their trio of quarterback J’Mar Smith, running back Jaqwis Dancy and star wide receiver Adrian Hardy.
The defense returns three of the better defensive backs in the conference in James Jackson, L’Jarius Sneed and Amik Robertson, along with its second-leading tackler in Collin Scott.
Baker’s ability to be the number-one pass rusher, may be the difference between the Bulldogs being a legit threat for a conference title, or just a bowl contender.
The former four-star recruit doesn’t have to be Jaylon Ferguson, but if he can become the best version of Willie Baker, that will be more than good enough for Skip Holtz’ team.
UTEP: Kai Locksley-QB
It’s been a roller-coaster of a collegiate career for Kai Locksley.
One that’s taken him from Texas, to the JUCO ranks, seen him endure personal tragedy (the killing of his older brother) and now as part of Dana Dimel’s rebuilding task in El Paso.
Entering last season, he was part of quarterback competition, now, he’s the presumed starter with Brandon Jones as the backup.
What has to progress is his development as a passer.
The Miners’ receivers had more success with Ryan Metz and Jones last season. But, there’s no denying that Locksley’s dual-threat ability gives him extra value for the offense.
The best version of Locksley for himself, and UTEP, may come as a player, who has 15-plus rushing attempts and between 20-25 attempts passing.
UTSA: Brenden Brady-RB
UTSA’s offense, well, left a lot to be desired in 2018.
The quarterback spot was a carousel, that never seemed to stop spinning. As a result, the receivers couldn’t develop any sense of consistency or continuity with one signal-caller.
The rushing attack was collateral damage from the inefficiency of the passing game.
B.J. Daniels and Jalen Rhodes combined for 590 yards on 159 carries, for an average of 3.7 yards per attempt.
Brady, a native of suburban San Antonio, was the most effective rusher last season, averaging 4.5 yards a carry. Heading into 2019, he’s line to be the starter, or at worst, splitting the carries 50-50 with Daniels.
Rice: Jordan Myers-TE
Slowly, but surely, things are shaping up for Mike Bloomgren at Rice.
The quarterback situation is a little less murky, with Jackson Tyner off to play baseball and Shawn Stankavage’s graduation.
Emmanuel Esukpa has taken his talents to Provo, Utah, choosing to join BYU as a graduate transfer. That moves leaves Aston Walter, Juma Otoviano and the returning Nahshon Ellerbe to lead the rushing attack.
With Aaron Cephus and Austin Trammell being legit receiving threats on the outside, this brings me to Jordan Myers at tight end.
Myers is an excellent athlete, having played both tight end and running back during his time at Rice.
At 6’2, 225-pounds, he looks to be better suited for the tight end position, giving whoever emerges from this year’s quarterback race, a safety blanket.
If the redshirt junior, who was forth on the team with 15 catches for 241 yards last season, can develop into the tight end position, Bloomgren may be able to better implement the offensive principles he brings from his time at Stanford.
Southern Miss: Racheem Boothe-LB
In his two seasons in Hattiesburg, Boothe has lived behind the line of scrimmage, racking up 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks from his linebacker position.
The C-USA All-Freshman team performer in 2017, had another solid season in 2018.
With the Golden Eagles having excellent defensive backs in Ky’El Hemby and Ty Williams, Boothe will be in excellent position to put further pressure on the passer and rack up the tackles in 2019.
Head coach Jay Hopson and Souther Miss are hoping for not only a return to a bowl game, but, with the development of Jack Abraham and one of the conference’s most dangerous wideouts in Quez Watkins, to have a chance to challenge for a C-USA crown next season.