It’s long been considered that recruiting is the lifeblood of a successful college football program.
That theory holds true in large part because each year multiple programs will lose standout players to graduation (or the professional ranks) after successful collegiate careers.
With that being said, let’s take a look across the Conference USA landscape and assess which players will be the toughest for each program to replace.
It should be noted that the toughest player may not necessarily be the team’s top talent, as the remaining depth at a certain position could make for a relatively smooth transition, in some cases.
Charlotte - Alex Highsmith
With standouts like running back Benny Lemay and left tackle Cameron Clark also leaving the 49er program, it was a toss-up as to who would be the toughest player to replace.
However, hybrid LB/DE Alex Highsmith is my choice.
Former two-time 1,000-yard rusher Tre Harbison transferred from Northern Illinois to Charlotte and is more than capable of picking up where Lemay leaves off.
Yes, Clark played the most important position across the offensive line, but the Niners do return veteran center Jaelin Fisher, a versatile lineman in Dejan Rasuo who is capable of playing multiple spots on the line, and a former three-star recruit in D’Mitri Emmanuel.
Arguably, Highsmith has been a top-three defensive player in C-USA for the past two seasons and his level of production allowed for players such as Henry Segura and Markees Watts to flourish.
Florida Atlantic - Rashad Smith
Like Charlotte, there were plenty of choices to pick from among the Owls’ losses from their conference championship team last season.
Seemingly, tight end Harrison Bryant would be the choice here - but with backup tight end John Raine coming back for another year - FAU has an adequate replacement.
Similarly to his personality, Rashad Smith has quietly had one of the most productive careers for a linebacker in Florida Atlantic and Conference USA history.
Smith ends his time in Boca Raton with 302 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, six interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
While Akileis “Keke” Leroy may have had the more talked about season, Smith’s role in the FAU defense is one that won’t be easily filled.
It should also be noted that Leroy’s status with the program is currently unclear, as he missed the Boca Raton Bowl due to academic issues.
FIU - James Morgan
Following the Alex McGough era at FIU, Panthers’ fans were left to wonder about the state of the quarterback position when James Morgan arrived in Miami during the summer of 2018.
In the two seasons following, Morgan set the program-record for touchdown passes in a season (26) and places or second or third all-time in most major statistical categories for the Panthers.
Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins did start for an injured Morgan against New Hampshire but is still a relatively inexperienced player.
It can be argued that FIU returns enough players at the skill positions and with the additions of a few transfers could be a sleeper for a bowl berth - if the quarterback position is stable.
Another major loss of the Panthers is middle linebacker Sage Lewis, who has been the heart and soul of the defense for the past two years.
However, Boise State transfer Tyson Maeva at least provides FIU with an experienced player at the position.
Louisiana Tech - J’Mar Smith
Time will tell how J’Mar Smith’s tenure as Louisiana Tech’s starting quarterback will be viewed.
He had the unenviable task of following Jeff Driskel and Ryan Higgins who were top-tier signal-callers during their time in Ruston.
While Smith never put up a gaudy, eye-popping season like his predecessors, his senior year saw him become one of the best quarterbacks in C-USA.
The best player on the Bulldogs’ roster over the past three seasons has been Amik Robertson. However, Smith’s absence down the stretch of the 2019 season showed the value in a veteran under center.
For what it’s worth, Smith’s career 9,523 passing yards and 51 touchdowns aren’t anything to summarily dismiss.
Marshall - Obi Obialo
Entering 2019, Obi Obialo was supposed to assume the starring role at receiver left behind by Tyre Brady’s graduation.
Unfortunately for Obialo and Thundering Herd fans alike, the Oklahoma State transfer was snake-bitten by injuries for most of last year.
However, he made a late-season return and tantalized Marshall fans with a brief showcase of his skills, hauling in 18 receptions for 244 yards in the final four contests of 2019.
Obialo was expected to return and fulfill his promise as the top target in Huntington for the 2020 season, but instead, he’s chosen return to the Sooner State and play his final collegiate football season at Oklahoma.
The reason his loss tops my list of Marshall players is because of the dearth of returning production at the receiver position - in conjunction with the seesaw play of quarterback Isaiah Green.
MTSU - Ty Lee
For Rick Stockstill and the Blue Raiders, their 2020 outlook is promising, especially given the fact that they return starting quarterback Asher O’Hara and two of the top three receivers in Jarrin Pierce and Jimmy Marshall.
However, the loss of Ty Lee doesn’t need any more validation outside of looking at his place among Conference USA’s all-time receiving ranks.
The diminutive receiver played well above his 5-9, 185-pound frame during his four seasons in Murfreesboro.
He ranks 11th all-time in career receptions (260) and is among the top-25 in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
While O’Hara does have an established rapport with Marshall and Pierce, opposing C-USA defensive coordinators will be able to rest a little easier with the comfort that Lee won’t be a Blue Raider in 2020.
Old Dominion - Calvin Brewton
It may sound odd that it was hard to choose a player from last year’s 1-11 ODU team that would be the toughest to replace.
Fact is, they return a majority of the roster from the 2019 season and there’s legitimate hope that many of those players will grow.
In the end, my choice was defensive back Calvin Brewton, because the former Florida State Seminole was able to step in immediately and provide solid play at the safety position.
The Miami native started 10 games for the Monarchs and was fifth on the team in tackles (59) along with a career-high 13 coming against UTSA.
Rice - Aston Walter
The argument can be made that the 2019 Rice Owls were simply a quarterback away from being a bowl team.
While that position is still in need of solidifying this offseason, the loss of Aston Walter will also be a void that Mike Bloomgren will have to fill.
The fifth-year senior made the most of his final campaign in Houston, rushing for a career-high 771 yards and eight touchdowns - including five 100-yard performances in the final seven games - three of which were victories for the Owls.
Rice’s rushing attack will look completely different in 2020, as Walter, Charlie Booker and Nahshon Ellerbe are all lost to graduation.
Juma Otoviano, who holds a 224-yard rushing day to his name, should assume the role as the starter, while former three-star prospect Jawan King is also in-tow.
Southern Miss - Quez Watkins
The choice of Watkins was a tough call, as defensive stalwart D.Q. Thomas is just as worthy in his own right of earning the selection here.
I went with the electrifying 6-1, 190-pound speedster because, at his best, Watkins is easily the most dynamic playmaker in Conference USA. He opened the 2018 season by hauling three touchdowns and adding a punt return score, en route to a 72-catch season.
In 2019, he led C-USA in receiving yards and was fourth in yards per reception, while solidifying his status among the league’s elite talents.
Junior receiver Tim Jones had an excellent season in his own right, catching 72 passes for 902 yards, but he’ll have big shoes to fill as the number one target in Hattiesburg.
UAB - Garrett Marino
For two seasons, UAB defensive tackle Garrett Marino was one of the most unheralded players in Conference USA.
In 2019, he was no longer a secret to the masses, racking up 43 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks from the DT spot.
Leading a Blazer defense that lost multiple starters from their conference championship team in 2018, Marino excelled while being the primary target for opposing offensive line units.
Given Marino’s role in a defense that features a 3-4 look as a major part of their defensive scheme, he lands the choice as the toughest Blazer to replace.
North Texas - Mason Fine
There’s not much about Mason Fine to say that hasn’t been already said.
He leaves North Texas after throwing for over 12,000 yards and 90 touchdown passes while leading the Mean Green to consecutive nine-win seasons.
The gargantuan shoes left behind by the Oklahoma native would be difficult enough to fill on their own, but North Texas fans got an early look at the future while Fine missed time due to a concussion, and it wasn’t promising.
While the returning signal-callers now have an entire offseason to compete for the starting spot, the void left behind by Mason Fine won’t be filled in one season.
UTEP - Michael Lewis & Justin Rogers
There’s no doubt about it - it’s been a tough task trying to rebuild the football program for Dana Dimel and company at UTEP.
As the case with many teams who are in the midst of a rebuild, depth is a major issue for the Miners.
This makes the loss of two veteran defensive backs especially tough for Dimel. Safeties Michael Lewis and Justin Rogers have been a constant presence in the UTEP defensive backfield over the past four seasons.
The duo accounted for 409 tackles, 27 passes defensed and seven interceptions in their careers as Miners.
UTSA - Carl Austin III
UTSA safety Carl Austin III was one of the better defensive backs in Conference USA that many hadn’t heard of last season.
The 6-1, 200-pound native of Austin, Texas earned the respect of the coaching staff and his teammates alike by being a vocal leader on the sidelines, after missing all of 2018 due to injury.
He was a veteran not only in tenure, but also in age, as he played his final game at UTSA a few months shy of his 25th birthday.
On the field, Austin III had an excellent senior season, totaling 67 tackles and 7.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage from the secondary.
Western Kentucky - Ty Storey
Tyson Helton’s return to Western Kentucky has resulted in the Hilltoppers once again being among the top programs in Conference USA. It’s no coincidence that last year’s success coincided with the stabilization of the quarterback position.
After a 1-2 start to the season that included a loss to FCS Central Arkansas, Ty Storey took over for WKU’s week four contest against the defending C-USA champion UAB Blazers.
Storey, who came to the Hilltoppers in the offseason after spending four years at Arkansas, would go on to win eight of his next 10 starts, leading the way for the WKU’s first bowl victory since 2016.
He completed 69.9 % of his passes and was efficient in guiding the offense - something that had been missing since the graduation of Mike White in 2017.
Entering 2020, Western returns the majority of a defensive unit that was one of the best in the conference, along with a 1,200-yard rusher in Gaej Walker. It’s imperative that Helton get solid play from either Steven Duncan, Davis Shanley or Kevaris Thomas.