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.
Coached by longtime assistant and former UAB offensive lineman Cameron Blankenship, the Blazers’ offensive front once again returns some important pieces. Tackle Sidney Wells and guard Matthew Trehern were named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-C-USA team. Kadeem Telfort also returns at the other tackle spot after an All-C-USA honorable mention last year. All three of the guys mentioned have been key parts of UAB’s offensive line accolades from the last few seasons, including well over 2,000 yards in the running game in 2021 and the fewest sacks allowed in the league in 2020. Center Will Rykard should be a more concrete part of the line as well after playing in about half of the Blazers’ games the last two years. If that veteran group can continue the precedents since the program’s return, they’ll once again do fine offensively.
Spencer Burford going to the NFL was a big loss for the defending conference champs. However, Co-OC/O-Line Coach Matt Mattox has a great deal of experience returning to the offensive line. Their least experienced projected starter is a redshirt junior in Demetrius Allen. This group will be led by Ahofitu Maka at center, a Hawaii native and former Last Chance U star who is an impressive mix of size, strength, and brains. Makai Hart, a former JUCO All-American, returns at right tackle this season after an All-C-USA Honorable mention last season and an All-League second team nod in 2020. Kevin Davis also returns at right guard after not allowing a sack or a hit on the quarterback all last season. There’s a lot of talent here, but they have to stay healthy.
Center Manase Mose may be the best offensive line prospect in C-USA this year. It’s a tough choice between him and Ahofitu Maka. Regardless, Mose has started 48 games on North Texas’ offensive line over the last four seasons. In 2021, Mose was a critical blocker for the best rushing offense in C-USA (233.5 ypg), which ranked fifth in all of FBS in 2021. In addition to Mose, the Mean Green also return sophomore Gabe Blair at left guard: a Denton native who started 11 games as a freshman in 2021 after earning a great reputation as a run blocker in high school. While the Mean Green didn’t lose much from last year’s line, they did add another interior lineman in Leke Asenuga from New Mexico who adds some decent depth to the group. The Mean Green are missing some depth at tackle, but it’s hard to argue with the results this group produced in the run game last year.
Co-Offensive coordinator Zach Lankford enters his first year as an offensive line coach at the division one level. However, Lankford has experience as an offensive quality control assistant with specificity to the offensive line at WKU during the program’s best FBS years from 2014 to 16. Lankford has also been an offensive line coach at NAIA Faulkner University and at the JUCO level at Georgia Military College. While the Tops did lose two important pieces in starters Mason Brooks and Cole Spencer, they did gain South Carolina transfer Vinnie Murphy and have All-C-USA Second Team guard Quantavious Leslie returning alongside C-USA Honorable mention Rusty Staats and 2019 All-Freshman team selection Gunner Britton. Essentially, The Tops have what they need on the interior line. The questions come when you get to the tackles. Do they move one of the more experienced interior o-linemen out to those spots, or take a chance on someone who hasn’t quite proven themself yet?
Run-game coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warriner, who is in his second season with FAU after coming down from the University of Michigan, has some decent tools at his disposal. At left tackle, Rutgers grad transfer Brendan Bordner should earn the starting spot after seeing time at both tackle spots for the Scarlet Knights after converting from the defensive line in 2019. Guys like Chaz Neal, Kamaar Bell, and Nick Weber, and Marquice Brown will need to continue to improve and cement themselves as key pieces of the offense, but they will also need to stay healthy to do so. Despite a tough season last year for the entire Owls’ program, this unit could surprise some people with a strong campaign.
Last year, UTEP turned in one of their best seasons in recent memory and matched their highest win total since 2014 with seven. UTEP also ranked 18th nationally in time of possession (31:51) and 21st in sacks allowed (1.46 per game) in 2021. Linemen like Elijah Klein and Jeremiah Byers were important pieces of that. Klein has been a consistent starter at right guard for the Miners for the last few years, earning a C-USA Honorable Mention nod in 2021. Byers became a consistent starter at right tackle in 2021 and also earned a C-USA Honorable Mention nod in 2021 after making the league’s All-Freshman team in 2020. Klein, Byers, and the rest of the Miners’ offensive line will need to help prove that 2021 was not a flash in the pan.
Shea Baker has done everything asked of him at Rice and racked up quite a few rewards and accolades as a result. He’ll once again be an important piece if the Owls want to take the next step as a program after a 4-8 season last year. He has experience at center, but looks likely to start the year at right guard. Sophomore Isaac Klarkowski will likely play center, who has been described by several of the Rice staff as “an absolute genius.” Left tackle Clay Servin will also be important, but after that there’s a noticeable drop to their next best offensive lineman. They have two JUCO transfers coming in as well as West Virginia transfer John Hughes, who can play guard or tackle fairly well, adding some additional experience.
One of the biggest areas the Panthers struggled in was sacks allowed. The Panthers allowed 41 sacks in 2021 defenders in the backfield were all too frequent. While it’s the opinion of a lot of FIU observes that Panther quarterbacks contributed to that problem by holding the ball for too long, it seems like it’s an issue with the entire unit.
It clearly wasn’t that the Panthers didn’t have talent on the line. The Panthers lost tackle Miles Frazier to LSU and interior linemen Dontae Keys and Sione Finau to Colorado State and Purdue, respectively. Tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr. has been one of the only mainstays along the Panthers’ offensive line throughout the last two injury-plagued seasons for FIU. They’ll need another strong campaign from him if they hope to improve this season.
Among their offensive position groups, Charlotte’s line arguably has the most questions. They lost mainstay Dmitri Emmanuel to Florida State in the offseason and still feel to loss of Ty’Kieast Crawford to Arkansas from a couple of seasons ago.
Redshirt senior tackle TJ Moore’s success will once again be critical, along with redshirt senior Ashton Gist. Pass blocking last year for Chris Reynolds was above average, their run blocking was fine, but how much of that was due to the previously mentioned guys who left? We’ll see.
Three starters from last season return for the Bulldogs’ offensive line, which will now likely need to adapt to a more air-raid type of offense under new coach Sonny Cumbie. In terms of pass blocking, Tech wasn’t great last season, so a step up is needed there. They’ll likely demand a lot from their tackles, one of which will likely be redshirt junior Biron Rossell. Left guard Joshua Mote, the anchor of the group, was an All-C-USA Honorable Mention last year and has a second and third team preseason nod from Athlon Sports and Phil Steele, respectively. Center Abraham Delfin also brings a lot of experience from the past few years, the Memphis transfer Isaac Ellis should bring some additional help to the interior offensive line.
Center Jordan Palmer is definitely the best piece of this MTSU line. Palmer started all 13 games for the Blue Raiders last season, but there’s little experience at all the other spots on the line. That group was absolutely gutted due to transfers and graduations. It’s easy to anticipate MTSU’s o-line having a rough 2022, so some strong recruits will be needed to start building it back up for the future.