After a rough few transition years, Conference USA is finally getting its foothold back. The conference has become increasingly competitive against Power Five programs and in bowl games, providing some sorely-needed exposure for the conference. While names like Devin Singletary, Marcus Davenport, Mason Fine, and Brent Stockstill have entered the consciousness of college football fans, many C-USA players still toil in anonymity. In the hopes of shining a spotlight on some hidden gems in the conference, I dove into each program’s roster to find one returning athlete that fans should become aware of heading into the 2018 season.
Charlotte - Benny Lemay
While Lemay is no secret to 49ers fans as the team’s returning rusher, Lemay is virtually unknown outside of Charlotte due to his team’s poor win/loss record throughout Lemay’s career. While his efforts may not be putting tallies in the wins column, there’s no denying the 5’9”, 216 pound junior’s production despite the void of talent surrounding him. Lemay has rushed for 907 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and two touchdowns through his first two seasons in Charlotte.
FIU - Shawndarrius Phillips
One of my favorite athletes in Conference USA, Phillips makes for an excellent foil to speedster running back Napoleon Maxwell. Phillips is a load at 225 pounds but don’t mistake his size with a lack of speed. Once he has the ball in his hands in open space Phillips is a freight train en route to the end zone. Phillips rushed for 469 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns last season. He also caught 10 passes, including one touchdown pass.
FAU - Harrison Bryant
While FAU tight end Harrison Bryant was named to Conference USA’s all-conference second team, his contributions are often overlooked in the Owls’ explosive offense. Bryant caught 32 passes for 408 yards last year, collecting five touchdowns along the way. Bryant is clearly the best tight end in the conference this season.
La Tech - L’Jarius Sneed
Sneed’s career at Louisiana Tech is on an upwards trajectory. The local product made a huge splash as a freshman in 2016 as he worked his way into starting duties by the last two games of the year. The coaching staff’s faith in him was rewarded as he returned a pick six for 48 yards in the C-USA championship game. Sneed’s sophomore year saw him record 30 tackles, an interception, and six pass break ups.
Marshall - Obi Obialo
Tyre Brady gets the most attention in Marshall’s receiving corps, and rightfully so, but Obi Obialo would be the main passing target for almost any other team in Conference USA. Obialo turned in 19 catches for 238 yards last year and his elite stature and physicality will certainly allow him to expand on that in 2018. A six catch performance against UTSA for 80 yards showed Obialo’s ability to take over a game.
MTSU - Brad Anderson
Even before we dive in to Anderson’s fantastic freshman season, can we talk about how perfect this guy was at Bob Jones High School? Facts: Voted Homecoming King. Maintained a 4.0 GPA. Earned all-state, all-region, and all-Huntsville honors. Broke an Alabama state record with two 99 yard touchdown runs in a single game. Anderson started at running back in seven games for the Blue Raiders as a freshman, rushing for 491 yards before an ankle injury derailed his season. He’ll be back with a vengeance this season.
UNT - Nate Brooks
A steady presence in UNT’s secondary over the past three seasons, Brooks is due for a breakout season in his senior campaign. The 6’0” tall senior had his best season in 2016, earning honorable mention all-conference honors after posting 57 tackles. Brooks has shown his potential — if he can play more consistently in 2018 then he could be in line for a return to C-USA’s all-conference team.
ODU - Miles Fox
If a defensive tackle is going to wear #11 he better be a playmaker. ODU senior Miles Fox fits the bill. While Fox started all 12 games for the Monarchs, earning honorable mention all-conference honors, he was starkly overshadowed by fellow defensive lineman Oshane Ximenes. Fox was a force himself, turning in 57 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss. Double team Ximenes at your own risk.
Rice - Jack Fox
It’s time to show the specialists some love. Ranked 15th nationally in punting average, Fox punted six of his last 10 attempts of the year for over 50 yards. Fox also handles kick off duties for the Owls, averaging 63.1 yards per kickoff. With Rice’s offense undergoing a transition this season, Fox’s punting ability could be the deciding factor between Rice competing for four quarters or getting laughed out of stadiums.
USM - T-Rod Daniels
While Southern Miss fans will definitely miss dynamic running back Ito Smith, T-Rod Daniels is fully capable of replacing Smith’s production. Daniels is incredibly fast once he hits his stride and can move fluidly in motion, much like Ito Smith did before him. Daniels only saw 21 carries in 2017 but he converted those into 172 yards of offense, good for a jaw-dropping 7.6 yards per carry average.
UAB - Garrett Marino
A transfer from Montana State, Marino consistently improved throughout the 2017 season, earning starting honors for the last six contests of the year. Marino is a tad undersized for an FBS defensive tackle but his relentless motor changed the direction of games for the Blazers last year. The junior will look to build on his output of 33 tackles and 8 tackles for loss as he settles in to his starting role on the defense.
UTEP - Kahani Smith
Good safeties keep the football in front of them. Great safeties grab the ball out of the sky and put it in the opposing endzone. A JUCO transfer, Smith only had two interceptions in his junior season but he made the most of them, returning the two picks for 45 and 52 yard touchdowns. Smith also returned a fumble for a 52 yard touchdown against Arizona. An electric player that can change the momentum of a game, Smith is a prime candidate to break out in 2018.
UTSA - Carl Austin
Even as Underdog Dynasty’s beat writer for UTSA, I’m admittedly guilty of underrating Carl Austin III. Austin burst onto the scene in 2017, starting in seven games for the Roadrunners. Despite being surrounded by a ton of talent in UTSA’s nationally-ranked defense, the defensive back ended the season with the third most tackles on the team (48). He also pitched in three tackles for loss, two pass breakups, and one fumble recovery. The senior should build on these numbers in 2018 with a starting spot locked down.
WKU - Mik’Quan Deane
While Deane doesn’t pop out on the stat sheet (11 catches for 143 yards and one touchdown), he’s an able blocker with quick feet that can spread the field for the Hilltoppers. WKU’s offense is bound to improve in 2018 and Deane’s presence should play a major factor in their rebuilding efforts.