With the 2020 season in the rearview and spring practices set to start in less than a month, each Conference USA program will be looking for new playmakers to emerge in 2021. Whether it’s via the transfer portal, graduation of a former starter, or competition at a specific position, expect new faces to break out of the pack. Here’s a look at a player or position from each team that we see having a standout season.
Charlotte: Tackle - D’Mitri Emmanuel
To be honest, this was a bit of a tough choice. With running backs Tre Harbison and Aaron McCallister departing, there was some consideration given senior Calvin Camp or former three-star recruit Elijah Turner. Tight end Taylor Thompson emerged as a capable receiving threat. However, tackle D’Mitri Emmanuel has a chance to be the next Niners’ offensive lineman to play on Sundays. He’s started the previous two seasons, earning a third-team spot on the all-conference team in 2020. Look for Emmanuel to take the next step and challenge as one of the top offensive linemen in Conference USA.
FIU: Tight End - Rivaldo Fairweather
Butch Davis’ club had a 2020 season that they would like to leave in the past. However, a bright spot was the play of true freshman tight end Rivaldo Fairweather. A raw prospect who played basketball and ran track until trying football as a high-school junior, he’s yet to tap into his vast potential on the gridiron. The 6-5, 233-pound Fairweather led the Panthers in receiving yards and set an FIU freshman record with his 116-yard performance against rival Florida Atlantic. Davis, who has a track record of producing excellent tight ends, will look to pair Fairweather with veteran tight end Sterling Palmer.
Florida Atlantic: Wide Receiver - LaJohntay Wester
True freshman LaJohntay Wester was a swiss-army-knife for Willie Taggart’s Owls’ in 2020. Wester averaged over 10.5 yards each time he touched the ball on a combined 47 touches as a receiver, rusher and returner. The Tampa-area native was named to C-USA’s All-Freshman team as a receiver and returner. Look for Wester to have an increased role in the FAU offense in 2021.
Marshall: Defensive Back - Micah Abraham
After starting seven games and appearing in all 13 at the safety spot for Marshall in 2019, Abraham switched to corner in 2020 but his number dipped as a sophomore. The son of former nine-year NFL defensive back Donnie Abraham, the younger Abraham should see an expanded role with the graduation of standout defensive back Nazeeh Johnson.
Middle Tennessee: Running Back
It’s been four seasons since the Blue Raiders have had a running back rush for more than 620 yards. With the tumultuous departure — to say the least — of former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, head coach Rick Stockstill has chosen to change the entire philosophy of Middle Tennessee’s offense. Veteran Chaton Mobley rushed for 617 yards as a freshman but has combined for 574 in the previous two seasons. Transfers Amir Rasul and Martell Pettaway chose to opt-out prior to last season, but are listed as returners in ‘21. Talented, three-star recruit Frank Peasant also returns after seeing action as a true freshman. Expect a resurgence in the run game from MTSU’s backs.
Old Dominion: Quarterback - TBD
We’re expecting a good old-fashioned quarterback competition in Norfolk. Redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff started three of the final four games for the Monarchs in their one-win 2019 season and was the team’s most effective passer despite the small sample size. However, new head coach Ricky Rahne’s system is better suited for a mobile signal-caller. Insert UCF transfer Darriel Mack Jr., who showed flashes of star potential during his brief tenure in Orlando. The Norfolk native will look to make a push for the starting job in what could be a three-way race when senior Stone Smartt is factored in. Either way, if Wolff or Mack Jr. takes the reigns, expect either to excel in Rahne’s system.
Western Kentucky: Quarterback - Bailey Zappe
Yes, I’m taking a flier on another transfer quarterback with this choice for the Hilltoppers. However, there aren’t many college quarterbacks as accomplished as Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe. The Houston Baptist transfer threw for over 10,000 yards and almost 80 touchdowns in 36 starts at the FCS level. He makes the jump to FBS along with his former offensive coordinator, Zach Kittley. Joining him in Bowling Green is his top target from HBU, receiver Jerreth Sterns. If everything comes to fruition, Zappe may be one of the top C-USA signal-callers by season’s end.
Louisiana Tech: Running Back - Marcus Williams Jr.
A steady performer in an eternally crowded Appalachian State backfield, graduate transfer Marcus Williams Jr. will look to show that he can be the feature back for the Bulldogs in 2021. The 5-10, 215-pound back rushed for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in four seasons as the RB2/RB3 for the Mountaineers. Four consecutive seasons with over 500 yards rushing and a career 5.5 yards per carry show that Williams Jr. is capable of producing.
Rice: Linebacker - Treshawn Chamberlain
Of all the players on this list, Chamberlain is the most proven commodity. Pound-for-pound, the 5-10, 201-pound hybrid LB/Rover is one of the most dynamic defensive players in Conference USA. Chamberlain has tallied 141 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions and eight passes defensed in his three seasons as an Owl. With standout linebacker Blaze Alldredge taking his talents to Missouri, Chamberlain will have more play-making opportunities for Mike Bloomgren.
Southern Miss: Defensive Back - Natrone Brooks
The three-star JUCO transfer made a seamless transition to FBS football in his first season in Hattiesburg. Brooks earned a starting role at cornerback and 39 tackles and a team-high seven pass breakups as a junior. Expect the Mississippi native to again be one of the top corners in C-USA and challenge for an all-conference selection.
UAB: Running Back - DeWayne McBride
The bad news for Blazers’ fans — Spencer Brown’s incredible career in Birmingham has come to an end. The good news — running back DeWayne McBride appears poised to pick up where Brown leaves off. In six games, McBride had 47 carries for 439 yards and four scores. Had McBride been eligible, his 9.3 yards per carry would have easily led C-USA in that category. The Ocala, Florida native might not make an all-conference team — much to the consternation of vocal UAB fans — but McBride is definitely poised for a breakout 2021 campaign.
UNT: Defensive End - Kameron Hill
Seth Littrell’s club are going on their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. What’s clear is that the Mean Green’s defensive output has been trending in the wrong direction for some time. FCS transfer Kameron Hill found the quarterback 14 times in three seasons at Abilene Christian, including a two-sack performance against North Texas in the 2019 season opener. With the return of stout defensive tackle Dion Novil, Hill may have his share of chances to rush the passer in 2021.
UTSA: Cornerback - Ken Robinson
Amid a loaded UTSA secondary, Ken Robinson had an excellent redshirt freshman season in San Antonio. He notched 28 tackles and two pass breakups while earning a starting role opposite veteran Corey Mayfield Jr. With the return of senior Antonio Parks for an additional season, along with standout safety Rashad Wisdom — expect Robinson to round out what could be the top secondary in C-USA.
UTEP: Guard - Bobby DeHaro
The rebuilding efforts in El Paso took a step forward for Dana Dimel’s Miners in 2020. While running back Deion Hankins may garner the majority of the headlines, guard Bobby DeHaro is making a name for himself as one of the most reliable offensive linemen in the league. The El Paso native has started every game over the previous two seasons for UTEP and was named to the C-USA Honorable Mention list in back-to-back seasons. Look for DeHaro to push for an all-conference spot in 2021.