Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the sixth 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.
UTSA: After struggling to stay on the field during his first two seasons at UTSA, Frank Harris has been nothing short of sensational over the past two years as the trigger-man for the Roadrunners. In his last 25 contests, the 6-0, 205-pound Harris has thrown for 4,807 yards with 39 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions — while adding over 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Unlike the last two seasons, the quarterbacks behind Harris, while all former three-star recruits — are inexperienced and untested. That aside, Harris is a top-five player in Conference USA.
Charlotte: Has Chris Reynolds finally earned the respect he deserves? At bare minimum, he’s certainly respected by the people inside the 49ers locker room. The diminutive Reynolds battled off challengers for his job over the past two seasons, while performing as one of the top quarterbacks in C-USA. Over his four seasons in the Queen City, Reynolds has thrown for over 7,000 yards and 60 touchdowns while also adding just shy of 1,000 yards on the ground and 11 scores. If not for the aforementioned Harris and Bailey Zappe’s theatrics last year, Reynolds would have been an All-Conference performer. Behind Reynolds is former four-star recruit James Foster, who should be the heir apparent once Reynolds is gone.
Western Kentucky: Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton bet large on Bailey Zappe last year and it paid off immensely. This season, he’s managed to snag one of the most prolific passers over the last few seasons in FBS football — along with the top quarterback in Division II. Former Bowling Green and West Virginia signal-caller Jarret Doege arrives in Bowling Green (Kentucky, that is) having thrown for over 10,000 yards and 79 touchdowns in his well-traveled collegiate career. Also challenging for the job is former West Florida quarterback Austin Reed, who led his team to a D-II national title in 2019 and has an impressive pedigree in his own right. The Toppers have also recruited well, having a pair of three-star recruits in Caden VeltKamp and Chance McDonald in-tow.
Florida Atlantic: All things considered, N’Kosi Perry wasn’t bad in his first season at the helm of the Owls. Entering 2022, Willie Taggart is looking for the former four-star recruit to realize the potential that landed him at Miami to begin his college career. Perry completed over 60% of his passes for 2,771 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. If they can develop more consistency as an offense this season, Perry’s ranking could rise behind Harris. Former four-star recruit Michael Johnson Jr. and three-star recruit Willie Taggart Jr. will backup Perry.
UAB: Bryant Vincent will look to guide the Blazers back to the top of Conference USA for a final time and a huge factor in that will be quarterback Dylan Hopkins. After earning playing time as a freshman, Hopkins took hold of the job over incumbent starter Tyler Johnston III, throwing for 2,274 yards and 18 touchdowns while continuing Vincent’s love of pushing the ball downfield. Former Baylor Bear and four-star recruit Jacob Zeno will backup Hopkins and provides another talented option, should it be needed.
UTEP: Slotting UTEP’s Gavin Hardison behind Hopkins was a tough call. However, while Hardison undoubtedly took a major step forward with his play last season, there were still moments of inconsistency that plagued the talented New Mexico native. At 6-3, 215-pounds with a cannon for an arm, Hardison looks the part of a quarterback out of central casting — but in order to take the next step, he’ll look to improve on a career 54% competitions and 24 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. Redshirt junior Calvin Brownholtz has seen action over the last two seasons and is a capable QB2.
North Texas: Seth Littrell has acquired a stable of arms at the quarterback position. The question is, can any of them come remotely close to the production that Mason Fine provided the Mean Green? Austin Aune has had the task of immediately following Fine and in two seasons has been pedestrian — throwing for 3,641 yards with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He enters this year’s QB battle as the incumbent, but will be pushed by former four-star North Carolina signee Jace Ruder, well-traveled Grant Gunnell who arrives in Denton after stops in Tucson and Memphis and former Louisiana Tech QB JD Head.
Middle Tennessee: Rick Stockstill’s club enters 2022 with a quarterback battle between two players who few expected to see significant time last year. Following Bailey Hockman’s decision to walk away from football early last season, Chase Cunningham took over and put up excellent numbers during a surprising bowl season for the Blue Raiders. The 5-11, 185-pound Cunningham threw for over 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions before suffering a season-ending injury. True freshman Nick Vattiato rebounded from a five-interception outing in his first career start to lead MTSU down the stretch and help them secure a bowl berth. The winner of the QB competition should have potential to rise on this list.
FIU: Not much went right for FIU last year during a one-win 2021 campaign. With the departure of two-year starter Max Bortenschlager and the arrival a new coaching staff, former Duke starter Gunnar Holmberg arrived in Miami in time for spring ball and is battling to win the starting job. Former three-star recruits Haden Carlson and Grayson James are competing with Holmberg for the QB1 role. Whoever wins the job will have arguably the league’s number one or number two (depending on who you ask) wideout in Tyrese Chambers.
Rice: Mike Bloomgren is again in search of a quarterback. Luckily, he at least returns players from last year’s roster in veterans Wiley Green and Jovoni Johnson along with T.J. McMahon, who will all be looking to lockdown the QB1 role. Green is the most experienced and likely will be the opening day starter. The Texas native has appeared in several games over four seasons in Houston, throwing for 1,849 yards and 11 touchdowns. Johnson is a dual-threat quarterback who helped the Owls upset then-ranked Marshall in 2020. McMahon saw action last season, helping Rice beat Louisiana Tech.
Louisiana Tech: Sonny Cumbie will have a clean slate at the quarterback position in his debut season at the helm of the Bulldogs. With Luke Anthony and Aaron Allen finding new homes, Tech fans are looking at a pair of transfers in former TCU QB Matthew Downing and former Texas Tech QB Parker McNeil along with two untested freshmen. Downing has appeared in a dozen contests during his time at TCU and Georgia prior to that — while McNeil didn’t play at Tech but was a JUCO All-American at Navarro College. Redshirt freshman Andrew Brister and true freshman Landry Lyddy make up the rest of the quarterback room.