After a one-year absence due to COVID-19, Conference USA’s media days returned this afternoon — albeit in a virtual format. Luckily for all involved, there weren’t any major technical snafus and the day went rather seamlessly. All seven head coaches and 14 players across the division spoke and there were no shortage of highlights. The overarching topic of the session, however, was still COVID — this time it wasn’t about how teams were being affected, rather how each coach was choosing to go about the vaccine with their programs.
“We’re trying to do everything to educate our players, as I’m sure every school across the nation is,” said Middle Tennessee State head coach Rick Stockstill. “We’re still not back to 100% normal and there’s going to be some adversity that happens, so we’re well aware of that.”
Arguably no two C-USA teams were affected more by COVID-19 than Will Healy’s Charlotte club and Butch Davis’ FIU Panthers. Both teams played a half-season’s worth of games or less and dealt with game cancellations less than 24 hours prior to kickoff. Healy and Davis spoke on their yearning to return to normal and their vaccination approach with players.
“COVID didn’t give any coaches a pass in 2020. A lot of coaches were fired last season. I know Mike Hill (Charlotte AD) doesn’t give me a pass, so I’m desperately looking forward to a return to normal this season — I think we all are,” said Healy.
Davis’ team played just five games last year and after qualifying for three consecutive bowl games in his first three years at FIU, the Panthers went winless in 2020. His thoughts on the vaccination process emphasized personal choice — but also felt that people should explore getting the vaccine.
“It’s what I think everyone should do - but it’s a choice by the player and their family. We’ve had several meetings with medical professionals to explain the positives, and the potentiality of not taking it,” said Davis.
Aside from COVID, there were plenty of notables from C-USA’s official kickoff to start football season. Here’s a look at each team.
After four straight bowl appearances led by his son Brent Stockstill at quarterback, Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders are 7-14 over the past two seasons. While the team had a measure of offensive success with former starting quarterback Asher O’Hara, the elder Stockstill is looking for a shift in philosophy with new coordinator Brent Dearmon.
“We have to improve our running game overall as last year we averaged only 135 yards per game rushing and only 66 of those came from the running backs,” said Stockstill. “We’ll still get some quarterback runs but not nearly as much as we have the past two seasons, we have to become more balanced with our backs getting the rushing yards and improve our passing game.”
Speaking alongside Stockstill were seniors Reed Blankenship and CJ Windham, who both took advantage of the additional year provided by the NCAA. Blankenship, one of the top defensive backs in the league explained his motivations for returning.
“My aspiration is to play at the next level and to be honest, I didn’t feel like leaving would give me the best opportunity to do that,” said Blankenship. “Coming back gives me an additional opportunity to prove myself with a full offseason camp and hopefully a full (regular) season.”
Will Healy’s trademark enthusiasm and positivity were on full display when it was Charlotte’s turn to take the podium. The Niners youthful head coach has plenty of reason to be excited, after the team’s disjointed 2020 campaign.
“It’s exciting to be talking about a season and it’ll be even more exciting to play a game on the date is scheduled,” said Healy. “Last year is not the college experience that I want for these guys, going 2-4 and having nine games cancelled is not the student-athlete experience I want for them and that’s given me sleepless nights. So to say I’m ready for 2021 is an understatement.”
His team will have a chance to put last season in the rearview on opening day as they welcome an in-state ACC opponent in Duke to Jerry Richardson Stadium on September 3rd. He’s looking to jumpstart the momentum that he established after his debut season in the Queen City.
“When you’re building what you expect to be a really good college football program, any ways that you can build your brand are very important,” said Healy. “When people across the country see us hosting a game like Duke at home, I think it does a lot to increase the significance of our program.”
Senior wide receiver Victor Tucker has been a standout in Conference USA since his arrival in 2018, earning All-Freshman and All-Conference honors over the previous three years. When asked who‘s been the toughest defensive back in the league to face, Tucker displayed a level of confidence expected from a Miami native.
“To be honest, it’s more about me and my mentality,” said Tucker. “None of them come to mind, I’m all about dominating whoever is in front of me, so nobody — none of em good.”
Willie Taggart was all business when the Owls’ portion of the day began, stating his gratitude that FAU can look forward to a 2021 season without disruption and also affirming that the team is primed for success, in his opinion.
“It was difficult at times but I couldn’t be prouder of the group of guys we have in place who held guys accountable and made sure that the task at hand was apparent,” said Taggart. “Now in 2021, we want to go out and continue the standard of success that’s been had around here.”
The Owls return several key starters from a defense that ranked among the nation’s leaders in fewest points allowed per game. The team will also be helped by the return of linebacker Akileis “Keke” Leroy, who missed all of last season due to academic issues.
Senior defensive back Zyon Gilbert spoke about Leroy’s return.
“Getting Keke back is real big for our team, not having him last year wasn’t great for us and great for him, so getting him back is great because he’s an energetic ballplayer that we need to have on our team,” said Gilbert.
If there were any questions as to who first-year Marshall head coach Charles Huff worked for previously, that was answered during his opening statement in which he was complimentary for Conference USA during how they handled last year — and quick to dismiss preseason media polls that have his team repeating as East division champs.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of rat poison out there right now about our team and our players,” said Huff, referring to Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s use of the idiom to describe the media’s praise of his team several years ago.
“That stuff is awesome — for everybody who does not put on a helmet, but for us, it’s about focusing on the details.”
Quarterback Grant Wells is looking to rebound following a disappointing end to his 2020 season, one that saw the redshirt freshman throw two touchdowns and five interceptions during the Herd’s last three games of the year.
“I’ve learned a lot, especially from that Rice game, so it’s about putting that behind me and looking forward to growing as a player,” said Wells.
When given the procedural instructions by the Conference USA representative on the line to make an opening statement and then media questions would follow, ODU’s Ricky Rahne stated that he’s “not big on opening statements.” As each team wasn’t privy to the team proceeding them Rahne unintentionally missed the nature of the request — but clearly established the tone he’s looking to set in rebuilding the Monarchs as they return to football after a one-year absence.
The biggest question left to be answered will be the quarterback position, one that the last time ODU took the field in 2019, was one of the lowest producing in FBS football until then-true freshman Hayden Wolff took over with four games left in the year. Rahne affirmed that he has three quarterbacks competing for the job and won’t be announcing a starter until moments before their season-opener.
“Between D.J. Mack, Hayden Wolff and Stone Smartt, we have a pretty experienced quarterback room, so I look forward to knowing who my starter will be with two weeks left in camp and keeping that information private until two minutes before kickoff on week one,” said Rahne.
Mack, a Norfolk native, spent his first three seasons at UCF. During his time as a Knight, he won AAC championship game MVP in relief of an injured McKenzie Milton and was in competition for the starting job before an offseason injury led the way for Dillion Gabriel to secure the role. Wolff started three of the final four games in ‘19 as a true freshman, throwing for 737 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Smartt was the primary starter that year, but was largely ineffective with one touchdown pass and six interceptions.
Hilltopper head coach Tyson Helton made what may have been the biggest splash of the C-USA offseason when he brought in former Houston Baptist signal-caller Bailey Zappe. The grad transfer was one of the most prolific passers in the nation during his time at the FBS level, throwing for over 8,000 yards and 75 touchdowns. During his availability, Helton shed some insight on the process that led both Zappe and former HBU offensive coordinator Zach Kittley to Bowling Green.
“When I hired Zach, we sat down and when it became apparent that Bailey was going to be available in the portal, we came to a common conclusion that we wanted him to be our guy,” said Helton. “What I love most about Zach is he’s willing to throw for 600 yards if that’s what it takes and he’s willing to run it 60 times if that’s what it takes to get a win.”
Helton brought in almost 20 new players via the transfer portal and admits that it’s been a work in progress getting acclimated to all of the new faces.
“Yeah, at times it’s been a lot just seeing exactly how many new players we have and getting everyone acclimated, but it’s part of the job and we feel like were on our way.”
Butch Davis has been a builder of programs for almost three decades. However, there’s nothing that could have prepared the veteran head coach for the turbulence that his Panthers would encounter during their 2020 season.
“I think every coach in America is super excited to get started with the 2021 season, especially after what we all faced last year,” said Davis. “For us to be able to have an offseason conditioning program and an excellent spring practice, the enthusiasm around our program and our building is tremendous.
Running back D’Vonte Price’s 2020 season is one that the history books won’t accurately reflect just how good it was. In just five games, Price rushed for almost 600 yards. Had he played a full 12-game season and maintained his per-game average, Price would have rushed for 1,494 yards. When asked where he feels he ranks among Conference USA running backs, he was affirmative that he’s the best in the league — a league that features UTSA’s Sincere McCormick and Southern Miss’ Frank Gore Jr.
“I feel like I’m the top back in the conference, to be honest. Having a full season this year, I’ll be able to showcase that,” said Price.
Senior linebacker Daniel Jackson has had to patiently wait his turn and earn time on special teams throughout his career. Now, he has a chance to make an impact on defense and Davis is excited about his opportunities.
“He’s our starting linebacker and he’s the captain of our special teams, he’s really been an impact player and one of the benefits for him last year was due to the injuries and COVID, he had an opportunity to play on defense and we want that to carry over to this year,” said Davis.