Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the fifth installment of the series in which we try to determine who has the best roster in C-USA on paper.
For those who are new around here, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.” If you don’t know what those categories mean, then I suggest you go back and check out the other posts in this season’s series so far.
We’ll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.
At the end of the series, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title.
North Texas: Here’s the thing about North Texas’ passing game: even with the losses of Jaylon Darden, Austin Ogunmakin, and Greg White, this aspect of Seth Littrell’s team is far from a concern. Georgia transfer Tommy Bush will be a huge piece of the puzzle alongside returning target Deonte Simpson, who absolutely proved his worth as a freshman in 2020. Add to the mix highly anticipated newcomers like freshman Var’Keyes Gumms plus JUCO signee and former TCU player Bryson Jackson, and whoever ends up as QB1 will have some solid options.
UTEP: Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett will offer some downfield relief to likely starting quarterback Gavin Hardison as the Miners look to continue their upswing after three wins (which is a lot for this program, in recent years) in 2020. Cowing in particular will pose a deep threat to opposing defenses after averaging more than 17 yards per catch in 2020 with 801 total yards. If UTEP does regress in 2021, it seems unlikely that it would be because of this position.
Charlotte: Victor Tucker...oh, you need more than that? Sure.
If Tucker had been able to actually play a full schedule last season instead of only six games, it’s reasonable to think that he would have been the league’s leading receiver. Tucker ended up with 30 catches for 400 yards last season. He returns alongside tight end Taylor Thompson, who showed promise as a true freshman and a handful of younger faces that could make for a dangerous deep game.
UTSA: As evidenced by last season, the success of UTSA’s passing game really depends on their quarterbacks being able to stay out of the training room. An already decent receiver unit does get some added help with the additions of Houston transfer Tre’von Bradley and Texas transfer Kennedy Lewis. Also look for returners Joshua Cephus and Zakhari Franklin to make a splash, if they get their targets.
Marshall: Tight end Xavier Gaines will once again be one of the leaders of this team as the former QB enters his last year of college eligibility. Gaines was a first team All-Conference USA selection last season with 28 catches, four touchdowns, and over 400 yards. Corey Gammage, the team’s leading receiver from last season, also returns. What keeps this team out of the ‘Great Shape’ category? Go watch the Herd’s last three games of last season to see what this passing attack can look like at their worst.
Louisiana Tech: Smoke Harris, Griffin Hebert and Isaiah Graham are all back for the Bulldogs. Harris was the only one of that trio to crack the league’s top 25 in receiving yards or yards per catch, however. Expect Tech to rely more on their run game, but only because they’ve got a head turner in Marcus Williams coming in from Appalachian State and there are some questions about the QB position after Luke Anthony’s injury late last season.
FAU: TJ Chase, who was a former five-star signee with Clemson and former Duke wideout Aaron Young, who's entering his seventh college football season are the veterans of the group. Last year’s second leading receiver in Jordan Merrill is back alongside redshirt junior Brandon Robinson and redshirt senior John Mitchell. Keep an eye on versatile freshman LaJohntay Wester, who saw early playing time last year.
UAB: Austin Watkins and Myron Mitchell were a big part of the recent championship teams at UAB, but now the program has to find an alternative after they both moved on. The tight end duo of Hayden Pittman and Gerrit Prince is back after combining for five touchdown catches in the nine game season the Blazers got from 2020. Receiver Trea Shropshire also returns after averaging over 22 yards per play on 14 catches last season.
Western Kentucky: For better or worse, the story of this offseason for Western Kentucky has been transfers. Terez Traynor, Xavier Lane, Jacquez Sloan, and Jahcour Pearson are all out along with several others. On the flip side, the Tops get three incoming transfer receivers from Houston Baptist along with likely starting quarterback Bailey Zappe, so having that pre-existing chemistry could be interesting. Add Daewood Davis from Oregon, Kendall Abdur-Rahman from Notre Dame, and Dane Saltarelli from Oklahoma to the equation, and the Tops could have something brewing despite all the losses.
Southern Miss: No more Tim Jones, so Jason Brownlee will have to pick up the slack alongside Demarcus Jones and Antoine Robinson. Last season, the tight ends were big pieces with Cole Cavallo and Narcissus Driver returning this year alongside grad transfer Grayson Gunter. With running Frank Gore Jr. the likely star of the offense once again, maybe there’s some opportunities there for big play action gains.
Middle Tennessee: MTSU returns a lot of experience on offense. Senior Jarrin Pierce and redshirt junior Yusuf Ali are the top-two leading receivers from last year and return to lead the group that will have to quickly build chemistry with a new quarterback. In fact, the Blue Raiders’ top-five leading pass catchers are back in 2021. That being said, this group is three years removed from their last winning season, so what does that experience really amount to?
Old Dominion: 2019 feels like a thousand years ago, but that’s the last time we saw Old Dominion take the field in football. This year, a trio of transfers in Ali Jennings from West Virginia, Trey Blount from Georgia, and TE Zack Kuntz from Penn State will likely be the stars of the passing game alongside Aaron Moore. How quickly the entire team can shake the rust off remains to be seen.
Rice: Rice is not a team that will live or die by its passing attack. Still, the loss of Austin Trammell is substantial. Tight end Jordan Myers, last year’s leading pass catcher, does return alongside Jack Bradley, Jake Bailey, and 2020 opt-out Bradley Rozner. When one of your best receivers hasn’t played a game in over a year and the others barely saw the field themselves in 2020, it’s hard to see the immediate future here.
FIU: FIU has loads of pass-catchers coming back, which is good. The bad news is those returners were part of a passing attack that makes you think they might have had better luck just running the old T formation. For their sake, hopefully getting 2019’s leading receiver in Shemar Thornton back, along with South Florida transfer Randall St. Felix will make a world of difference. The Panthers also signed FCS All-American Tyrese Chambers, who will look to have success on the FBS level. They also have a pair of athletic tight ends in Sterling Palmer and Rivaldo Fairweather.