Hello everyone! Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. Now that the NFL Draft has reached its conclusion, it’s time for us to review what C-USA football has in store for us in 2019.
For those who are new around here the format is quite simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth entering the season. At this time, there’s no way to know if this position will be a positive.
“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. You obviously want your team to be here.
I’lll 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.
Just like last year, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title. Let’s get to it.
1. North Texas: Mason Fine enters his senior season with the following UNT passing records to his name: all-time leader in passing yards (9,417 yards), single-season passing yards (4,052) and single-season passing touchdowns (31). The two-time Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year is the most decorated and accomplished QB in the conference by far.
2. FIU: James Morgan was the C-USA Newcomer of the Year after passing for 2,727 yards and a school record 26 touchdowns. With another year in offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky’s system and two of his top three receivers back (the electric duo of Maurice Alexander and Austin Maloney), Morgan could finish his senior season by making an all-conference team.
3. Louisiana Tech: With 27 starts under his belt and 33 career appearances, J’Mar Smith is second to only Mason Fine in game experience. But for all of the experience, Smith has yet to put it together. As La Tech fans know, consistency has been his biggest issue. In two seasons as the starter, Smith has passed for 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions with a 57 percent completion percentage. Entering his third season as the starter, it’s now or never for J’Mar Smith to play to his full potential as his play will determine if the Bulldogs can win the conference.
4. UAB: AJ Erdely is gone, but Tyler Johnston III is back. Bill Clark’s midseason change to Johnston was a slight surprise but Johnston rewarded Clark’s gutsy decision by elevating the offense as the starter down the stretch, en route to a conference title. As a freshman Johnston passed for 1,323 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. With a boatload of seniors now gone at receiver, we’re going to find out just how capable Johnston is.
5. Marshall: Isaiah Green passed for 2,459 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a redshirt freshman. Green missed three games so durability is a concern but I liked the poised he played with last season. Without star receiver Tyre Brady, Green must elevate his game for the Herd to contend for a division title.
6. Southern Miss: With a new offensive coordinator in Buster Faulker, head coach Jay Hopson has decided to make QB1 up for grabs entering fall camp. Depending on who you ask, Jack Abraham will be the guy. Abraham had a 73.1 completion percentage in 2018, the highest in the country. While that’s great, he took far too many sacks and only passed for 15 touchdowns and 2,347 yards. Southern Miss was really inconsistent on offense last season but the potential is there for the passing offense to really be among the best in the conference as a veteran receiving corps is set to return. We’ll see if Faulker can tap into Abraham’s potential.
7. Charlotte: As a redshirt freshman, Chris Reynolds completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,173 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. An ankle injury suffered against WKU ended Reynolds’ season prematurely but he’s now 100 percent healthy and is currently battling senior Evan Shirreffs to be the starting quarterback. Shirreffs passed for 631 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions last season. USF grad transfer Brett Kean will also be added into the mix once fall camp starts. If nothing else, first-year head coach Will Healy has a lot of experience here.
8. Old Dominion: With the departure of Blake LaRussa, ODU has a three-way competition at quarterback. Head coach Bobby wilder signed two three-star JUCO QBs in Stone Smartt and Messiah deWeaver. deWeaver and Smartt are competing with redshirt sophomore Steven Williams. Williams displayed a lot promise as a true freshman in 2017 where he started seven games and passed for 1,528 yards and six touchdowns.
9. WKU: Davis Shanley and Steven Duncan both started games last season but didn’t necessarily have impressive showings. Shanley and Duncan both return this season. Former Arkansas starting quarterback Ty Storey was added in the middle of the spring and figures to be an option for QB1 as well. Storey threw for 1,584 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a Razorback in 2018.
10. FAU: Projected to be the starter in 2019, Chris Robison was suspended indefinitely at the start of spring camp and has yet to return to the team. With QB1 up for grabs, Nick Tronti and Justin Agner received the majority of the reps this spring with neither creating much separation. Tronti transferred from Indiana last season and appears to have the edge over former Kent State QB Justin Agner. Robison started 11 games for the Owls last season, throwing for 2,540 yards and 12 touchdowns. Despite the up and down season, FAU fans expected Robison to make the next step as a sophomore. Whether head coach Lane Kiffin gives Robison the chance remains to be seen.
11. UTEP: Seniors Kai Locksley and Brandon Jones return after giving UTEP uneven QB play in 2018. Locksley had his moments and is the more dangerous runner (5.3 yards per carry, 475 yards, six touchdowns last season) between the two when healthy. Locksley figures to be the starter in 2019 but must improve his accuracy as he completed 49 percent of his passes last season.
12. Middle Tennessee: Four-year starter Brent Stockstill, the most prolific passer in school history, is gone. Asher O’Hara and JUCO three-star signee Randall Johnson are the top candidates to replace Stockstill. O’Hara saw some game action last season against FIU where he went 9-of-20 for 114 yards and an interception, while rushing for 85 yards and a score. Johnson is also a dual-threat QB, so we could see a lot more QB designed runs from the Blue Raiders this season.
13. Rice: Wiley Green, Evan Marshman, Sam Glaesmann and Harvard transfer, Tom Stewart, are all competing for the job. Green and Marshman saw the field last season with mixed results.
14. UTSA: Cordale Grundy, redshirt freshman Jordan Weeks, former LSU backup Lowell Narcisse, freshman Suddin Sapien, and sophomore Frank Harris battled through spring camp to be QB1. Whoever wins the job must bring life to the most morbid offense in the conference. Harris was the front runner to win the job last year before suffering an ACL injury. Harris has the highest upside of the QBs mentioned and will be the the frontrunner to win the job entering fall camp.