Following a 2020 season that was anything but normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Conference USA fans, coaches, and players alike are hoping for a return to normalcy in 2021. With less than a month till the start of spring practices across the league, let’s take a look at some of the major storylines as teams hit the field.
Entering last offseason, over half of the league’s teams began spring practice without a clear-cut answer as to who would be their starting quarterback. Fast forward to 2021 and not much has changed. Outside of Marshall’s Grant Wells and UTSA’s Frank Harris, an argument can be made that the other 12 conference teams have unanswered questions. Here’s a list of C-USA quarterback rooms to keep an eye on as they look to solidify their hold on the signal-caller position.
Note: Players’ class year reflects COVID-19 eligibility rules for the 2020-21 season.
FIU: Max Bortenschlager (R-Sr.), Kaylan Wiggins (R-Jr.), Hayden Carlson (Fr.), Grayson James (Fr.)
Florida Atlantic: Nick Tronti (R-Jr.), Willie Taggart Jr. (Fr.), Javion Posey (R-Fr.), Michael Johnson Jr. (R-Fr.)
Middle Tennessee: Chase Cunningham (R-Jr.), Mike DiLiello (R-Soph.), Bailey Hockman (R-Jr.)
Western Kentucky: Bailey Zappe (Grad.), Tyrrell Pigrome (Grad.)
Charlotte: Chris Reynolds (R-Sr.), James Foster (R-Soph.)
UAB: Tyler Johnston III (R-Jr.), Bryson Lucero (R-Fr.)
La Tech: Aaron Allen (R-Soph.), Luke Anthony (Grad.)
North Texas: Austin Aune (R-Soph.), Jace Ruder (R-Soph.)
Rice: Jake Constantine (Grad.), Wiley Green (R-Soph.), TJ McMahon (Soph.), Jovoni Johnson (R-Fr.)
Southern Miss: Tee Webb (Fr.), Trey Lowe (R-Soph.)
New Head Coaches
Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy coaching change took place in the Mountaineer State when longtime Marshall head coach Doc Holliday’s contract was not renewed. 37-year-old Charles Huff is will look to take the program back to the type of success it saw during a three-year stretch of 2013-2015 that produced consecutive 10-win seasons.
Southern Miss saw three head coaches lead the Golden Eagles during a tumultuous 2020 campaign. Now, Mississippi native Will Hall takes over in Hattiesburg and is seeking to return the program back to competing for C-USA West division titles. The return of seniors Racheem Boothe and defensive lineman Jacques Turner, who both chose to opt-out of last season will help a defense that allowed 32.3 points last season.
While Old Dominion's Ricky Rahne has a one-year “head start” on the two other new head coaches, the former Penn State offensive coordinator has arguably the toughest task on his hands. Rahne will attempt to turn around a program that has a combined 5-19 record in their last two seasons of play. He’ll need to replace two of C-USA’s top defensive players, as cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement and defensive end Keion White entered the transfer portal.
Entering his 16th season in Murfreesboro, MTSU’s Rick Stockstill is far and away the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to being the longest-tenured head coach in Conference USA. Following four consecutive bowl appearances led by Stockstill, and his son Brent at quarterback, the Blue Raiders are coming off of back-to-back losing seasons. The elder Stockstill is bringing in a change in offensive philosophy, one that saw dynamic signal-caller Asher O’Hara depart from the program and NC State transfer Bailey Hockman join. How quickly Stockstill can settle his team’s quarterback situation will be a storyline to keep an eye on throughout the offseason.
Willie Taggart enters his second season in Boca Raton with a team that’s very much in win-now mode. Last year’s relative inexperience on defense outperformed expectations and will be bolstered by the return of one of the league’s top players, linebacker Akileis Leroy, who missed the entirety of last season. The last time Leroy saw the field, he racked up 101 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions in 2019. Taggart will need to stabilize the quarterback position for his team to reach their potential in 2021. New offensive coordinator Michael Johnson is joined at FAU by his son, former four-star quarterback recruit Michael Jr. The quarterback room still has last year’s primary signal-caller Nick Tronti and intriguing redshirt freshman Javion Posey.
In the 15 seasons prior to Butch Davis’ arrival at FIU, the Panthers had an abysmal 56-178 record — good enough for a win percentage of .314. That makes Davis’ three consecutive bowl appearances prior to 2020 all the more noteworthy. However, the fact still remains that his team is 6-12 in their last 18 games, including a winless 2020 season. When their 2021 season opens on September 2nd, Davis’ team will have been without a win for 649 days. Now, entering the final year of his contract, he’s looking to again turnaround the Panthers’ fortunes — quickly. Shutting last year’s revolving door at quarterback will be crucial and Davis has noted that the lack of a spring practice hurt his efforts to replace two-year starter, James Morgan. If he can establish a QB early, there are enough pieces in place for FIU to not only win — but potentially make a push in the East division.
Tyson Helton may need to invest in “Hello, my name is” nametags the 2021 Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky saw a tremendous amount of roster turnover in the offseason and Helton’s pushed all his chips forward in betting on his investment in the transfer portal will pay immediate dividends. WKU currently has signed 13 players via transfer, none more important than former Houston Baptist quarterback Bailey Zappe. If the highly-prolific Zappe can replicate his FCS success at the FBS level, Helton’s gamble could pay off in a division title.
COVID-19 delayed the start of Rice’s 2020 season till the final week in October. However, the Owls’ pandemic-shortened, five-game season still produced evidence that Mike Bloomgren’s rebuild is heading in the right direction. Entering the spring, he’ll again be looking to find out who his quarterback will be following the departure of Mike Collins and the team lost stalwart linebacker Blaze Alldredge to Missouri. Filling those voids quickly will help the Owls start the season with a realistic chance at making a bowl game.
Seth Litrell’s tenure has produced high-powered offenses on a yearly basis in Denton. His biggest concern entering 2021 is keeping the opposition from lighting up the Apogee Stadium scoreboard as well. The Mean Green are on their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons with the arrival of former SMU head coach, Phil Bennett. Bennett’s last coaching stop came at Arizona State in 2017 and he’s tasked with fixing a defense that allowed 42.8 points per game last season. If the defense can improve, Littrell has shown that he can get enough out of the quarterback position, even after the departure of Mason Fine.
The defending Conference USA champions have all of the pieces to make another run at the crown in 2021. Standout linebacker Kristopher Moll along with defensive backs TD Marshall and Dy’Jonn Turner have decided to return for an additional season, giving UAB one of the top defenses among the Group of Five ranks. Running back Spencer Brown has graduated, but there are high hopes for freshman running back DeWayne McBride, who rushed for 439 yards on 43 carries last season. The biggest questions will be who can replace last year’s leading receiver in Austin Watkins and can the team find steady quarterback play. Blazer QB’s have thrown for 52 touchdown passes and 45 interceptions over the previous three seasons, yet, Bill Clark has managed a 26-11 record over the time span.