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, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means we have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors, questionable depth entering the season or the projected starter is coming in from another school.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an appearance on the all-conference team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board.
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.
1. Marshall: Quite frankly, had Grant Wells performed at even an average level in the latter stages of last season, it would be fair to put The Herd’s quarterback situation in the “Great Shape” category. However, Wells had an abysmal final three games of 2020 and will need to prove himself in 2021. The positive is the 6-2, 210-pound signal-caller is only a redshirt freshman and will continue to develop. His play through the majority of last season earns him the top spot in our rankings. Behind Wells is redshirt sophomore Luke Zban, who appeared in a handful of games last season.
2. UAB: The Blazers may have the deepest quarterback room in all of Conference USA. Tyler Johnston III has started 18 games over the past three seasons in Birmingham and is already one of the most decorated quarterbacks in program history. He managed to cut down on the interceptions last year, but his completion percentage must improve in order to see the entirety of his potential come to fruition. Backups Dylan Hopkins and Bryson Lucero both have starting experience and are capable of keeping UAB on track, should Johnston be unavailable.
3. UTSA: Frank Harris is one of the most dynamic players in Conference USA — the issue is he’s spent more time in street clothes than eluding defenders. If the 6-1, 200-pound Harris can spend an entire season in the starting lineup, he has the ability to be one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Behind Harris is former New Mexico State two-year starter Josh Adkins and LSU quarterback Lowell Narcisse, who both saw time last year when Harris was unavailable.
4. Charlotte: Chris Reynolds is one of the gutsiest players that this league has to offer. The former walk-on clawed his way from a seventh-string quarterback to a starter for the Niners. His play took a step back last season from a 2019 season that saw him throw for over 2,500 yards and rush for almost 800. However, he played the bulk of last season with an upper-body injury. If he’s fully healthy, he gives Charlotte steady QB play. With that said, Texas A&M transfer James Foster will have an opportunity during fall camps to push for playing time.
5. Middle Tennessee: After two seasons of borderline kamikaze-like quarterback play from the dynamic Asher O’Hara, head coach Rick Stockstill will look to a more pocket style of passer in former NC State starter Bailey Hockman. The former ACC signal-caller threw for 2,088 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2020 and is the assumed starter in 2021 for the Blue Raiders. While Hockman has yet to achieve his potential coming out of high school, he’s shown that he is a steady starter at the Power-Five level. Redshirt junior Chase Cunningham and redshirt sophomore Mike DiLiello both saw game action last year and should back up Hockman.
6. Florida Atlantic: The argument can be made that had the Owls received above-average play at the position last year, they would have won their third East division title in four seasons. With the addition of former Miami signal-caller N’Kosi Perry, Willie Taggart’s club may have solved the riddle to their quarterback questions. A four-star recruit out of high school, Perry started nine games and appeared in 25 for the Hurricanes during his time in Coral Gables, throwing for 2,484 yards and 24 touchdowns. In addition to Perry, last year’s primary starter in Nick Tronti is back, along with redshirt freshman Javion Posey, who was the MVP of last year’s Shula Bowl victory over rival FIU.
7. Western Kentucky: Bailey Zappe is one of the most hotly talked about names in Conference USA circles. Some believe that Zappe will light up the scoreboard in Bowling Green, while others are skeptical that his eye-popping numbers at FCS Houston Baptist will transfer over to the FBS level. Regardless, Hilltopper head coach Tyson Helton is all-in on the 6-2, 215-pound Texan — hiring his offensive coordinator at HBU in Zach Kittley. The combo fueled the Huskies to over 8,400 passing yards in two-and-a-half seasons. In my opinion, Zappe has the highest ceiling of any quarterback in the “We’ll See” category.
8. North Texas: Former New York Yankees minor-leaguer Austin Aune performed well in a platoon role with dual-threat option Jason Bean, who transferred to Kansas during the offseason. Aune will turn 28 two days after the season opener against Northwestern State, so it’s very much now or never for the former three-star recruit. Jace Ruder will arrive from North Carolina in the Fall and has an opportunity to unseat Aune. A four-star prospect coming out of high school, Ruder has the size (6-3, 225) and talent to be an excellent player. Littrell has intimated that he won’t use a two-quarterback system again in 2021, so one of these players will take the job.
9. Louisiana Tech: Former Abeline Christian quarterback Luke Anthony was the primary quarterback in all of Tech’s five victories last season. On the year, he completed 62% of his passes and threw for 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Unfortunately, Anthony suffered a gruesome injury in the TCU contest and is in the process of recovering from the injury. As a result, Fall practice will decide whether it’s Anthony or sophomore Aaron Allen under center when Tech takes on Mississippi State to open the year. Allen went 73-for-121 with four touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2020.
10. UTEP: Gavin Hardison has the tools to quarterback the Miners’ offense to great heights in 2021 and all of the weapons needed at his disposal. The 6-3, 205-pound New Mexico native started seven games, throwing for just over 1,419 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. The issue is Hardison was pedestrian, at best, in crucial moments last year. In losses to La Tech and Charlotte, they were a handful of plays away from both contests being wins. Behind Hardison is redshirt sophomore Calvin Browholtz, who started the final game of last season against North Texas.
11. Old Dominion: By virtue of opting out of last season, the Monarchs are in the “We’ll See” category. However, first-year head coach Ricky Rahne does have two talented signal-callers battling for the QB1 role in Norfolk. UCF transfer and Norfolk native D.J. Mack returns home and is competing with redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff, who started three out of the final four games in 2019 for ODU. Mack won AAC Championship Game MVP honors in 2019 after accounting for 6 total touchdowns in the Knights’ win over Memphis. Overall, Mack appeared in 19 games, starting three during his time in Orlando. Wolff was easily the Monarchs’ most effective passer in ‘19, throwing for 737 yards in his three starts. The former three-star recruit may be a better passer than Mack, but doesn’t have the dual-threat capabilities of the former Knight.
12. Southern Miss: After a tumultuous 2020 season, there’s a legitimate reason for optimism for Golden Eagles fans in 2021 and quarterback Trey Lowe is a major reason. The West Virginia transfer was able to gain valuable experience last season, even helping Southern Miss upset C-USA foe Florida Atlantic in the team’s final game of 2020. Expect new Golden Eagle head coach Will Hall to center the offense around Lowe, who is helped by having one of the top deep threats in the conference in Jason Brownlee.
13. Rice: The Owls are back to square one at quarterback after grad transfer Mike Collins’ short tenure in Houston. FCS transfer Jake Constantine began his career at Boise State before landing at Weber State, where he was a two-year starter. He’ll be joined in a quarterback competition by Jovoni Johnson, who started the upset win over Marshall last season and veterans Wiley Green and T.J. McMahon.
14. FIU: The positive is things can only get better for Butch Davis’ team in 2021 — in more ways than one. Following the graduation of James Morgan, FIU’s pass game fell off a proverbial cliff, ranking 121st out of 127 FBS teams that played last year. Davis has been adamant that the loss of spring practice, followed by an abbreviated fall camp affected his signal-callers more than any other position on the team. Last year, it was a revolving door of three quarterbacks (Stone Norton, Max Bortenschlager, Kaylan Wiggins) who played for FIU last year. Norton departed for Southern Illinois following the season, leaving the two veterans to compete for the job with freshman Haden Carlson, who Davis noted would have seen time last year had the Panthers’ season not ended prematurely. A wildcard to watch is highly-touted true freshman Grayson James, who will arrive in the fall.