We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the offensive line in the conference. The 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 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 want your team to be here.
1. UAB: Defensive coordinator David Reeves’ 3-4 defense has been nothing short of outstanding over the past four seasons. The Blazers’ linebacking corps will play a massive part in that success. They return three starters in Kristopher Moll, Noah Wilder, and Jordan Smith, who combined for 44 tackles-for-loss and 22 sacks last year. Moll is arguably the top linebacker in C-USA, Smith is an excellent pass-rusher from his SAM-end spot, and Wilder was second on the team in tackles (85) last year. Junior linebacker Thomas Johnston should be the leading candidate to replace Fitzgerald Mofor at the Jack end linebacker.
2. Rice: Blaze Alldredge parlayed a strong finish to the 2018 season into a monster 2019 campaign. The Orlando, Florida native led C-USA in tackles-for-loss with 22 and added four sacks. Expect him to be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. The rest of the linebacking group is talented in their own right. Treshawn Chamberlain is one of the more versatile defenders in the conference; Garrett Grammer can stand-up or rush off the edge in the Owls’ hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense, and Antonio Montero gets overshadowed by Alldredge.
3. Old Dominion: It will be worth watching to see what defense is employed by first-year head coach Ricky Rahne. Last year’s 4-2-5 scheme run by former defensive coordinator David Blackwell produced solid results - especially against the run. While ODU had their struggles last season, the defense as a whole played much better than the team’s record shows, and the linebackers were a significant part of that. Lawrence Garner finished second in the conference in tackles (111) and solo stops (67) while Jordan Young was stout as well.
4. Marshall: Pound-for-pound, Marshall’s Tavante Beckett can argue that he’s best defensive player in Conference USA. The former Virginia Tech Hokie led C-USA in tackles with 121 and despite his 5-10, 208-pound frame, he plays well above his size. Behind Beckett is where there are some question marks. Jaquan Yulee is a former four-star prospect that’s played mostly on special teams during his time at Marshall while Eli Neal and J’Coryan Anderson were the backup MIKE and SAM lb’s respectively. They’ll be tasked with replacing last year’s starters, Omari Cobb and Tyler Brown.
5. Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles return three of four primary linebackers from last year’s team. Swayze Bozeman and Santrell Latham provided 13.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, while Racheem Boothe is more than capable of having double-digit sacks. The base defense is a 3-3-5 with jack-of-all-trades Ky’el Hemby serving as the rover.
6. Western Kentucky: The primary starters at linebacker in defensive coordinator Clayton White’s 4-2-5 scheme return for the 2020 season. Kyle Bailey led the Tops with 110 tackles and is excellent in pass coverage, leading the team with three interceptions. Tennessee Tech transfer Clay Davis performed well during his first season at the FBS level, racking up 61 stops from the other linebacker spot. Look for Malik Staples and former four-star prospect Jaden Hunter to fill in behind the starters.
7. Louisiana Tech: Bob Diaco’s one season in Ruston as Tech’s defensive coordinator yield solid results, but now with his departure, expect the Bulldogs to return to a 4-3 defense opposed to the 3-4 run by Diaco in 2019. Willie Baker played as an edge rusher last season, and it’ll be worth watching to see if he continues as an LB or returns to defensive end. Ezekiel Barnett and Trey Baldwin are the leading tacklers from the position (outside of Baker) returning, while Alex Zayed provides depth.
8. North Texas: The Mean Green are also welcoming a new defensive coordinator in Clint Bowen after the unit was headed by Troy Reffett and his 3-3-5 look in 2019. The positive is Tyreke Davis and KD Davis return at the MIKE and Weak-Side linebacker spots, respectively. The two combined for 167 tackles and eight sacks last year.
9. Charlotte: The Niners will be in a base 4-2-5 defense, but they’re still tasked with replacing one of the most consistent linebackers in C-USA in Jeff Gemmell. Luke Martin started against Clemson last season and had an eight-tackle outing, while Brelin Faison-Walden is a Penn State transfer who started twice in 2020. Whoever fills Gemmell’s role will be helped by returning linebacker Henry Segura. The former safety gives Charlotte a reliable tackler who’s also comfortable playing against the pass.
10. Florida Atlantic: New defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is a veteran coach that’s more than capable of picking up where Glenn Spencer left off. His first task is to replace Akileis Leroy, who, as of now, is no longer with the program. Hosea Barnwell and Leighton McCarthy saw significant playing time last season, but Leroy was a bonafide DPOY candidate.
The Owls have both Quran Hafiz and Ahman Ross returning at the Star LB spot, which is a hybrid Nickel/LB role. Keep an eye on Caliph Brice, who had 11 tackles against Marshall last year. This unit has the potential to be higher on this list come the end of the year, as McCarthy as a rush-end and Barnwell on the inside are very capable players.
11. FIU: The Panthers’ base defense is a 4-3, but they spend a significant amount of time in a 4-2-5 look. Boise State transfer Tyson Maeva will be tasked with replacing standout MIKE linebacker Sage Lewis. Jamal Gates was a pleasant surprise and should take another step forward in 2020. When the strong-side linebacker is called upon, Daniel Jackson fills that role as a versatile and fundamentally sound player. Behind them, look for Josh Powell to play a hybrid LB/Nickel, Tevin Jones can play inside, and Rocky Jacques-Louis will serve as a rush end. Like FAU, the Panthers have the potential to move up on this list.
12. Middle Tennessee: Scott Shafer’s defense graduated two versatile and talented linebackers in Tyshun Render and Khalil Brooks. Cody Smith has been a fringe starter for the past two seasons and should get a full-time role in 2020. Wayne Parks is a converted defensive back, who led the Blue Raiders in special teams tackles. The positive is they have DQ Thomas coming back. The 6-2, 217-pound senior has 25 starts in his career and led MTSU with 12 tackles-for-loss and is a solid pass-rusher with 12 sacks over three seasons.
13. UTEP: The Miners’ defense hasn’t been fairly represented over the past two seasons. Defensive coordinator Mike Cox employs a 3-3-5 scheme and has two of his top three leading tacklers from the linebacker spot returning. Jayson Van Hook has battled back from injuries throughout his career to be a solid player. JUCO transfer Joe Jay Smith provides excellent size at 6-3, 230-pounds. Look for Dylan Parsee to replace Sione Tupou, who entered the transfer portal in February.
14. UTSA: UTSA ran a 4-2-5 base last season and could see that continue under new defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who’s run both a 4-3 and 4-2-5 during his two decades as a DC. Trevor Harmanson was the leading tackler from the linebacker spot last season, while Tyler Mahnke has significant experience on special teams. DeQuarius Henry played defensive end over the past two seasons but is listed as a linebacker entering 2020. JUCO transfer Clarence Hicks recorded 25 stops last season and will also be in the mix to start.