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.
Strong safety Rashad Wisdom is one of the most experienced defensive backs in the league with nearly 1,000 college snaps to his name. Wisdom has been a first team All-Conference pick for both of the last two seasons. He’s also been UTSA’s leading tackler in each of the last two seasons.
Add to that another experienced safety in Clifford Chatman and a loaded stable of corners (including nickel Dadrian Taylor, Corey Mayfield, and West Virginia transfer Nicktroy Fortune) and the Roadrunners are sitting pretty despite the loss of Tariq Woolen to the NFL.
As we’ve said many times, UAB’s defense has been one of the most dependable in the league since the Blazers reinstated their program. They might be even better this year with safeties Grayson Cash and Will Boler returning for their senior seasons. Keondre Swoopes is another impressive piece of this defensive backfield playing the “Star” position, a safety/linebacker hybrid position. Senior corner Starling Thomas was an All-Conference Honorable mention last year for racking up 41 tackles with two interceptions and eight pass breakups. Talent and depth are abundant here.
Safety Teja Young and corner Romain “Smoke” Mungin lead a talented group for FAU this year. Younger players like Daemon Hill and Jayden Williams also add some exciting pieces to the mix. Young was a strong player last year totaling 59 tackles with three interceptions and five pass breakups. Young earned PFF’s All-Conference USA first team honors and was an honorable mention by the league itself. Mungin had two picks and seven passes deflected in 2021.
This really might be the best the Owls secondary has been since 2019, which feels like several lifetimes ago.
Redshirt junior corner Kahlef Hailassie was a first-team All-Conference USA pick for 2022 by Phil Steele. Hailassie proved himself to be one of the conference’s best pass defenders last season with two interceptions and five pass break ups in addition to 57 tackles. Former Wyoming safety Rome Weber joins the group this year after a productive career with the Cowboys despite mostly serving in a backup role. Corner CJ Jones and safety Kaleb Oliver are two other seniors who will help replace the losses of Antwon Kincade and Miguel Edwards.
Cornerback DeShawn Gaddie, a junior, was a second team All-Conference USA preseason selection by Athlon Sports for 2022. Gaddie had his best college season last year jumping between corner and safety. Senior cornerback John Davis is also worth keeping an eye on after making Phil Steele’s preseason all-conference first team. Utah State transfer Zahodri Jackson adds some additional depth to a group that’s mostly seniors and juniors.
It’s tough to say what we get out of this group. In the first half of last season, they looked rough allowing 17 passing touchdowns through their first seven games. That number dropped to eight in the last six games of the season. How will they perform on a consistent basis this year?
Tank Robinson and Trey Creamer are the headliners of this group. Robinson was a highly touted transfer from East Carolina prior to last season, but went down for the season with an injury in the win over Duke. He’s received some high praise for how he has looked in spring ball and looks poised to be one of the 49ers leaders. Creamer is a hard-hitting corner who had 26 tackles and seven pass break ups in 2021. Charlotte’s defense definitely was not good in 2021, but it’s hard not to be optimistic about those two names.
As far as the rest of this group, some steep improvement is needed. The 49ers allowed 465 yards per game and a whopping 7.14 yards per play. That comes out to roughly 9.7 yards per pass attempt.
Strong safety Teldric Ross ended last season with 47 tackles, two TFLs, an interception, 12 pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Reed Blankenship was a huge loss from last season’s group. The Blue Raiders have six defensive backs with starting experience, but aside from Ross, there’s not much to be excited about in this group. It’s hard not to think this group is a little bit worse in 2022.
Safety BeeJay Williamson and cornerbacks Myles Brooks and Cedric Woods return from last year’s team that allowed 267.8 yards per game through the air last season. The upside of this group is there’s some great potential with a new scheme under new DC Scott Power. Three transfers in Joriell Washington (Illinois), Jakelyn Morgan (Arizona), Myles Brooks (Stephen F. Austin) help things as well, but the proof will be in the results.
FIU had yet another tough time defensively last season allowing more than 260 passing yards per game. It’s hard to see them making a major improvement, especially after losing the Dames twins. Adrian Cole, a transfer from Syracuse, will likely add some help to this group as one of the new starting corners. Henry Gray, a transfer from Nebraska who appeared in seven games for FIU last season, is a former four-star prospect who should see an increased role this season. In theory, it seems like FIU would make some kind of improvement this year, but this is a program in the middle of a major rebuild.
UTEP’s defensive backs last season were great and a big part of their success. Heading into this season, however, they only have one starting defensive back returning in Dennis Barnes. Barnes led all UTEP defensive backs last season in tackles with 59. Justin Prince is back, but he’s returning from a foot injury that kept him out of the second half of last season. The rest of UTEP’s defensive back corps is unproven, so it’s tough to say whether or not they will return to the level they reached last season. However, keep an eye on Blinn Junior College transfer corner Torey Richardson, who showed flashes of brilliance in minimal playing time last year.
Owls’ safety George Nyakwol, a grad student who played his high school ball in Houston, is extremely athletic. The problem is he’s been battling injuries most of the last two years. It’s been a rough time for Rice’s pass defense for the better part of the last decade. That was on display last season as the Owls allowed 436 yards per game and over 36 points per game. But maybe that was just inexperience. Aside from Nyakwol, they only have one other senior defensive back on their projected depth chart.
The Owls’ DB unit could show some big improvement this year, but they need this young group to stay healthy.