Conference USA’s virtually-held media days continued with the West division Thursday after coaches and players from the East division took the podium on Wednesday afternoon. One common takeaway is that members of the conference which featured the most COVID-19 related postponements in 2020 are enthused about the return to sense of normalcy in an improving climate.
One offensive and one defensive player joined each C-USA West teams’ head coaches Thursday afternoon. Here is a preview of each team’s current outlook and storylines surrounding the respective program as the 2021 season approaches:
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
The final weeks of the 2020 season were dreary for Louisiana Tech program that was the model of consistency in the conference over the latter portion of the 2010s decade. The FBS’s longest bowl winning streak finally came to a conclusion and starting quarterback Luke Anthony suffered a gruesome leg injury in the regular season finale. While Anthony remains in a state of recovery, the Bulldogs tested the waters of the transfer portal and claimed former Oklahoma and West Virginia quarterback Austin Kendall. The former 4-star recruit started nine games for the Mountaineers in 2019, eclipsing 2,000 passing yards and 14 touchdowns.
“We were expecting 100 percent recovery from Luke Anthony after the injury at the TCU game. I really wasn’t planning to take (a transfer) with four quarterbacks on our roster,” head coach Skip Holtz said. “I was expecting Luke to be further along, and then at the beginning of June, they felt they needed to do another surgical procedure. So I wanted somebody who had playing experience and somebody that’s been on the field.”
Not only did Louisiana Tech add Kendall to the quarterback room to compete with Aaron Allen and J.D. Head, but the Bulldogs hauled in several other notable transfers this offseason to beef up the run game. Marcus Williams Jr. (Appalachian State) and Keyon Henry-Brooks (Vanderbilt) are several newcomers hoping to make an immediate impact on an offense that ranked in the bottom 10 in rushing yards per game and rushing yards per attempt in 2020.
“The biggest reason for us taking a limited number of freshmen wasn’t just because we were trying to add all upperclassmen and bolster our team,” Holtz said on the team’s utilization of the portal. “We felt we need to get better in the secondary and felt we needed more depth at running back. But adding some of the players was more by design of roster management. If you took 25 freshmen a year ago and 25 this year, you’re gonna have 50 of your 85 players as freshmen.”
Holtz trusts the portal after enjoying success with past transfers. Wide receiver Isaiah Graham arrived to Ruston, LA after seeing limited action at TCU, and now he is one of the program leaders on the gridiron and in the locker room.
“Going in and gaining that trust — it started in the weight room. You do things right off the field and then you have guys on the field that respect you,” Graham said on augmenting his leadership role as a transfer. “Leadership has been shown throughout the team. Not just me — you got guys like (outside linebacker) Trey Baldwin, younger guys like (wide receiver) Smoke Harris stepping up and being leaders. You got that one good apple, and it’s just spreading around and the whole team is buying in.”
North Texas Mean Green
One of the main objectives in Denton, TX last fall was to determine the successor to Mason Fine, who starred as the program’s all-time leading passer from 2016-19. After shuffling between quarterbacks throughout the COVID-riddled season, head coach Seth Littrell decided to elevate Austin Aune as the next face of the program.
“The way he ended the season, the way he threw throughout the season... being able to get the speed of the game down — I thought he continually progressed throughout the year,” Littrell said of Aune, who is entering his redshirt sophomore year. “He’s had a great offseason, been great in the film room, working really hard to continue to grow and understand what we want to get accomplished.”
North Texas ranked eighth in total yards per game on the offensive side last season. While Aune registered a trio of 300-yard games through the air last season, the Mean Green remained just as lethal in the ground game. With running backs DeAndre Torrey (656 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Oscar Adaway III (572 yards, 3 touchdowns) back in the lineup, North Texas presents one of the premier tailback tandems in the C-USA.
“It starts off the with o-line. We have to pave the way for the running backs,” center Manase Mose said on sustaining the success of the rushing attack. “DeAndre Torrey is very shifty and Oscar Adaway is able to run over people. They are very versatile in the backfield.”
As potent as the Mean Green offense was in 2020, the defense was the polar opposite. North Texas finished fifth-to-last in points allowed per contest, yielding nearly 43 per outing. The savvy Phil Bennett, a former SMU head coach and a defensive coordinator at nine different stops, was added to the staff to usher in better results when the opposing offenses takes the field.
“Everything feels very natural with (the new defensive staff),” defensive tackle Dion Novil said. “They all know what we went through, so we all understand that in order to be better we all have to come together. When they came here, they made it seem like nothing had changed — they always come to our lifts, come to our workouts, and encourage us.”
Rice improved its passing game in 2020 under one season of TCU transfer Mike Collins, but the Owls are still looking to finish better than 80th in aerial offense for the first time since 2015. Rice revels in the luxury of a crowded quarterback battle this season, with three members of the roster having started and won an FBS game — veterans Wiley Green and JoVoni Johnson, as well as Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey. Rice also brought in Jake Constantine as a transfer from the FCS level to contribute to the crowded quarterback battle.
“Having those quarterbacks in the room is exciting,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “When you introduce more talent to that room, all it does is increase the competition. And we promised those guys day one, that it will be a meritocracy. Whoever can produce on the field in training camp is gonna be our starter.”
McCaffrey was a highly-touted prospect for the program, and he hails from a family composed of several star collegiate and NFL players. Bloomgren has known the former Nebraska quarterback since he was nine years old as a result of coaching Christian McCaffrey at Stanford. Now, the rest of the roster is introduced to the dual-threat quarterback and excited about what he brings to the table.
“With (McCaffrey) coming in, you could see a new level of energy and a new level of juice on the offensive side of the ball,” tight end Jordan Myers said. “That’s why I’m so thankful Coach Bloom had the ability to bring in guys like that, because that’s the expectation we have at Rice University.”
The quarterbacks are gifted with five returning starters on the offensive line and a Biletnikoff Award watchlist receiver in Bradley Rozner, who returns to the field after missing the entire 2020 season. They will work under the direction of newly hired offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, a former NFL quarterback with valuable experience as a Pac-12 assistant. Bloomgren looks to Tuiasosopo to accelerate the passing game and contribute to the growth of the quarterbacks.
“I think the world of him,” Bloomgren said of Tuiasosopo, who played quarterback for the New York Jets in 2007 while Bloomgren was an assistant on staff. “The way he prepared, the way he took unbelievable notes — and whether it was quick game that he’d done 30 times in a row — he’s still taking those same notes with the same detail. And the leader that he is, it was almost too good (of a hire). It was almost like when you call a 5-star prospect or a guy like Luke McCaffrey — you’re gonna shoot your shot.”
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Three different men called themselves the head coach of Southern Miss during the chaotic 2020 football season. After parting ways with longtime frontman Jay Hopson following the season opener, Scotty Walden took over the interim role. But Walden was quickly poached by Austin Peay of the FCS in October, leaving Tim Billings to conclude the season as the second interim. In December, the Golden Eagles decided to bring stability to a tumultuous period for the program and hired Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall as the permanent head coach. Rebuilding will be a primary focus for Hall as he initiates his first FBS head coaching gig.
“We’re a program that believes we’re in the south. Football matters,” Hall said. “We think we can be a ray of light in this community and surrounding area to show people that we’re working together. If we win football games, it’s gonna impact this whole area in a positive way.”
Southern Miss expects to establish a new winning culture under Coach Hall, who is hoping to bring sweeping changes to a program in a state of transience. For a university that has claimed five C-USA titles since 1996, Hall aims to create a product in Hattiesburg that both older alumni and fans can resonate with. The Golden Eagles unveiled new uniforms this offseason to signify the dawn of a new era and new identity.
“We didn’t really have a consistent uniform and a consistent brand,” Hall said. “What we’re trying to do is create a brand that matches our history and tradition — something that the young kids think has swag, but is something that the older crowd looks at and thinks has a really good class look to it. We think it’s going to allow us to enhance our program.”
Despite the turnover of staff, Southern Miss surprisingly returns 18 starters for 2021. One of the leaders of the roster that will help Hall instill a new culture for the program is offensive lineman Arvin Fletcher. After starting games at left guard, right guard, and right tackle in 2020, Fletcher is taking on the challenge of moving to center for his fourth season as a Golden Eagles’ starter.
“Being able to have experience playing in different positions, going to center helps me out because if something happens — we have an adjustment on the play or the play gets changed — I know what’s going on around me,” Fletcher said. “This should be a smooth transition.”
UAB is one of the most remarkable stories in college football over the last decade. After a brief program shutdown, the Blazers have bounced back from their hiatus to claim three consecutive C-USA East titles and two conference championships. Currently sitting in the throne of the conference and ranking No. 1 in the preseason media poll, UAB is aware that the target is on its back for the 2021 season.
“I think that’s one of the things that we strive for is to build a program,” head coach Bill Clark said. “I don’t know how you can expect to win championships if you don’t talk about it and work for it. You’ve gotta stay humble. We’ve got a big bullseye on us this year. It’s the ultimate team goal to win a championship, and that’s what’s so great about football.”
The Blazers’ budding C-USA dynasty will be granted with a new kingdom this fall. After inhabiting Legion Field since 1991, UAB will move into the 47,000-seat Protective Stadium for a grand opening on Oct. 2 against Liberty. Not many programs in college football have witnessed home success like the Blazers, which posted a 21-1 record in Birmingham over the past four seasons. The goal of protecting the city remains unchanged in the new venue.
“The new stadium is going to be the new trademark of Birmingham for years to come,” cornerback T.D. Marshall said. “After we’re gone, after the group after us is gone, Protective Stadium is gonna be big and everybody’s house.”
While many could have finished their college careers on the high note of a conference championship, 12 UAB players elected to return for an additional senior season. Armed with experience, the “super seniors” plan to revel in the excitement of a new stadium while aiming for a third C-USA title in four years.
“It’s a big deal because it’s an indication of how they feel about our program,” Clark said of the super seniors. “We all know our new stadium is coming and they want to play in that. They want a chance to win another championship. They’re competing against last year’s UAB team and all the other ones. They want to be the best, and that’s the goal.”
After posting a catastrophic 2-34 record from 2017-19, UTEP witnessed signs of an escalating turnaround. The Miners finished 3-5 last season, and although two of those wins were over FCS programs, they displayed competitiveness in the majority of their losses. Being forced to play the final five games on the road due to El Paso’s restrictive COVID-19 measures, there is belief that UTEP can blossom into something special as normalcy returns to the sport.
“We came into a really unusual situation when we got here and we definitely made some dramatic improvements,” head coach Dana Dimel said. “We want to get over that threshold and get our team into postseason play. And more than anything, I want to do it because those guys have worked so hard and I want them to get the recognition they deserve as a football unit.”
The sharpest upswing in the Miners’ play last season was the prowess of the defensive line. Led by Praise Amaewhule (5.5 sacks, 8 pass deflections) and Keenan Stewart (34 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss), UTEP was able to assert dominance in the trenches against several conference opponents. This year, the Miners hope to amplify the strength of their defensive line by switching to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto.
“Having the ability to rush four rather than three, it should be a good thing to see this season,” Amaewhule said. “We have guys on the interior — Keenan Stewart, Kelton Moss — making the job easy for the ends to get after the quarterback, taking two or three blocks every play.”
Peveto isn’t the only new coordinator showing up to the Sun Bowl this fall. UTEP’s offense still ranked in the 100s in scoring average and total offense in 2020, so the team hopes to amend those numbers after spending the summer working under first-year offensive coordinator Dave Werner, who spent his prior 13 seasons focusing on the passing game at Michigan State.
“The biggest difference is just the perspective of the game and that’s what Coach Werner emphasizes — the way he’s on the quarterbacks to make the right reads and to read the defenses,” wide receiver Justin Garrett said. “Last year, we didn’t have the opportunity to have a full camp. That’s the main thing. Building that mental toughness to make us faster and stronger is gonna take our offense to the next level.”
No C-USA team inhabits a larger market by itself than UTSA, which calls the seventh largest city in the United States its home. When NIL (name, image, likeness) legislation was passed on July 1, the Roadrunners program morphed into a conference heavyweight in the NIL landscape — a tool which could be utilized to improve recruiting in the future. Running back Sincere McCormick and strong safety Rashad Wisdom — two 2020 First Team All-C-USA selections and San Antonio natives — are already capitalizing with endorsement deals and podcasts of their own.
“We want to start recruiting in our local city, and we’ve already gone from 11 (San Antonio natives on the roster) to around 40, but it helps when you got Sincere and Rashad,” Traylor said. “The name, image, and likeness — another blessing for me because those two kids are gonna be the pioneers for me to go teach my players name, image, and likeness for us for all the other local San Antonio recruits that are gonna be coming. They’re gonna see what happened with Sincere and Rashad, and they’re gonna want to follow suit.”
While McCormick’s brand is thriving off the field, his impact is just as great when he’s rocking the blue and orange on it. He ranked second among all FBS players with 1,467 rushing yards last year and was recognized as the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, and a Second Team All-American.
“The 10 other guys out there also play a huge part in the way that I perform out there and I’m happy to have the guys out there with me,” McCormick said when asked about his 2020 postseason and 2021 preseason awards shower. “It’s something that I expected for myself because I hold myself to a high standard, and it helps that I have coaching staff and medical staff behind my back too.”
Thanks to McCormick’s contributions to the offense, the Roadrunners are projected to finish second in the West division per the C-USA media day poll. That lofty ranking can also be attributed to the vast improvement of the defense headlined by Wisdom, which allowed fewer than 30 points in eight of its final nine games last season.
“It’s definitely good, especially from a year ago where we were picked to finish second to last out of everybody,” Wisdom said regarding preseason expectations. “At the end of the day, like Coach Traylor always says, ‘You can’t eat the cheese,’ and it’s just dependent on how we use it. We use it as motivation because we want to be the best we can be.”