It’s time to officially start the countdown to kickoff, as Conference USA media days took place this week at C-USA headquarters in Frisco, Texas.
Players and head coaches from each program talked to the media over the two-day event, previewing the season and talking about the state of their team.
I covered the East division's portion on Thursday afternoon and here are some highlights from each school.
Middle Tennessee State
Rick Stockstill’s team exceeded most preseason prognostications by winning Conference USA’s East division (with the help of an FIU loss) on the final day of the year in 2018.
The past four seasons of Blue Raider football have been the most successful in school history.
However, those seasons have coincided with the quarterback position being occupied by Stockstill’s son Brent. Now, with the younger Stockstill’s having graduated, the expectations are still the same despite his son’s presence being missed.
“It wasn’t emotional seeing that chair empty for the first time, but it was different because I’ve been used to having him there and with him, you know what you’re going to get every day,” said Stockstill.
“I like our team right now, we have some question marks in certain areas that we did not get answered in the spring, they have to get answered in August. But we have pretty good depth at most positions. We have some guys who are inexperienced, mainly at the offensive line. Quarterback position, we have three guys battling, hopefully, one of those guys separates from the pack, but I’m not in a hurry to make a decision, just to make one.”
While the quarterback spot is still up for grabs, returning all-conference safety Reed Blankenship is a player who the Blue Raiders look to use as a building block for next season.
“Reed’s a phenomenal player, it really helps when you have a guy like him back there in the secondary,” said Stockstill.
MTSU will be tested early, as three of their first four games in 2019 are against Power Five programs (Michigan, Duke, Iowa).
“You don’t get a I-AA (FCS) game to get the kinks out. We have to be ready to roll right out of the gate,” said Stockstill.
The theme for Doc Holliday and the Thundering Herd during media days was sustaining success and living up to the culture that’s been set in Huntington.
“Expectations and standards at Marshall are extremely high and as the head football coach, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere where the standards aren’t such. Now along with that comes responsibility. It doesn’t matter where you are now, it matters where you are at the end of December and we’re working everyday to get where we want to be,” said Holliday.
The fate of the team may very well rest on the play of second-year quarterback Isaiah Green. The redshirt sophomore passed for 2,459 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.
While his play needs to be more consistent in order for Marshall to be competitive in the division, he has two running backs who the offense can lean on when needed.
“I like our backs, they’re a completely different style. (Brenden) Knox is a physical runner, who’s about 225 pounds, while (Tyler) King is more explosive and I like our offensive line a lot as well,” said Holliday.
He also had some thoughts on the infamous “transfer portal,” which has become a hot-button topic among coaches in college football.
“I don’t like it, I think the greatest thing that this game teaches you is how to overcome adversity and fight through things, I think to give these kids an easy way out isn’t what’s best. There are certain situations, but that being said we’re going to take advantage of it. I’m anxious to see how it shakes out after a few years because only 10% of these kids are landing somewhere and getting scholarships,” said Holliday.
One of the most impactful games of the conference schedule last year was Marshall’s match-up with FIU.
That game knocked the Panthers out of the C-USA title picture and propelled MTSU to play against West division champs UAB.
The Herd end the season against FIU at home this season, and Holliday has great respect for the program and their head coach, Butch Davis.
“What a great job Butch has done, he and I go way back. They’re a really well-coached football team, great respect for Butch. We got a kid who spent the last few years with them in Fermin Silva and I’m excited to see what he can do for our program,” said Holliday.
Make no mistake, Butch Davis is ahead of schedule with the FIU program.
After multiple losing seasons under Ron Turner, Davis has led the Panthers’ efforts to two bowl games in as many seasons. Now, they're no longer the underlooked team in C-USA, but instead, they have a target on their back.
“Being the hunter or the hunted, it goes into the culture that we set on day one. We better come out and set the tone in our practices and in meetings,” said Davis.
“The biggest difference is now the team is taking ownership of themselves. You’ll never meet a coach who says he doesn’t want to win every game, but when the team starts taking that responsibility, it’s huge,” he added.
Quarterback James Morgan has gone from being benched at Bowling Green, to now being the reigning C-USA Newcomer of the Year and being named to the Davey O’Brien Award watchlist.
However, for the redshirt senior, the only thing he’s focused on is finishing the task at hand from last season.
“We’re still motivated to go out and have a phenomenal season. Regardless of being the hunted or the hunter. Because we still have unfinished business. The culture that Coach Davis is trying to instill is coming to fruition. It’s tough to look back and be satisfied with how far I've come because I’m so motivated by this season, I have a one-track mind and it’s focused on finishing up from last season,” said Morgan.
The 6-5, 225-pound signal-caller threw for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2018, and his head coach believes that he ranks right up there with some of the best that he’s ever coached.
“James Morgan is one of the best I’ve ever had, he’s super smart, unbelievable work ethic, there’s not a throw on the field that he can’t make and I think that he’ll be one of the best,” said Davis.
Lastly, the 67-year-old Davis had strong feelings on the trend of younger coaches getting opportunities, in favor of older and more experienced coaches.
“There are a lot of coaches who are not coaching, who should be coaching. And the reasoning is he’s too old, there’s a lot of guys who have had success after 55-60 years old. But the administration may think that they’re out of touch and can’t relate to an 18-year-old,” said Davis.
They don’t realize that we have 30-plus years of experience doing just that. Rick Neuheisel, for him not to be a coach somewhere in college football is insane and a perfect example,” he added.
The message coming from Lane Kiffin is the same that’s on the minds of many C-USA fans and observers alike - are they the conference championship team from 2017, or the five-win team from 2018?
“There’s a lot of motivation to prove who are we. Are we that group who won the conference or are we that program from the second year. Let’s get back to showing people who we are from the first year, play good football, be explosive on offense, play good defense and win the turnover battle,” said Kiffin.
One of the biggest keys to helping the Owls play good football on offense will be tight end, Harrison Bryant.
The senior made the decision to put his NFL future on hold for another season and is now tasked with being one of the leaders for the young FAU team.
“Our goal right now is to rebound. People always talk about going undefeated, but our goal is to win the conference championship, go to a bowl game and as a leader on this team, I take that seriously,” said Bryant.
With Azeez Al-Shaair and his career 395 tackles gone from the program, linebacker Rashad Smith will assume the role of captaining the linebacking core.
“I feel the responsibility of picking up where the other guys left off. This is my senior year, I want to finish strong and I feel the need to be a more vocal voice, but I feel you should lead by example more than anything,” said Smith.
The most glaring losses from last season’s team are running backs Devin Singletary and Kerrith Whyte Jr.
The duo combined for over 2,100 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns in 2018.
“Losing those two guys (Whyte and Singletary) is difficult. Devin is one of the most historic players scoring-wise in the history of football. It’s not going to be just one guy, it’s got to be the entire group picking each other up,” said Kiffin.
Former Alabama running back B.J. Emmons is slated to take over at the running back position.
“We have high expectations of B.J. but he also hasn’t played competitive football in a few years. Obviously, he’s a really talented player, who’s matured and grown up a lot,” said Kiffin.
After a 5-7 season in 2018, Charlotte Athletic Director Mike Hill made the decision to fire Brad Lambert, who had been the program’s only head coach.
Now, they’ve turned to 34-year-old Will Healy to jump-start the 49er football team.
How he’ll fare on the field is unknown, however, his infectious nature and energy that he’s brought to the program is apparent.
“If you don’t enjoy doing what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? You can overcome obstacles by having a positive attitude because that’s infectious,” said Healy.
While he’s only been on the job for seven months, that attitude has already rubbed off on his players.
“As soon as he stepped on campus we all were like wow, just the tone of his voice, he wants us to have fun, celebrate after every big play, the music is blaring at every practice. That stuff helps us because he wants us to have fun and play with energy,” said DE/LB Alex Highsmith.
The transition from Lambert to Healy had special significance for Highsmith because along with Lambert’s dismissal meant that defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer (now at FAU) wouldn’t be returning as well. Highsmith noted Spencer’s impact on and off the field.
“He was such a great coach not just on the field but off, he wanted us to become great men. He’s such a guru with his defensive schemes. He’s the biggest reason we were such a great defense last season. He’s had a huge impact on my life and I’ll always be grateful for him. Now, I’m ready to go out and show Coach Healy that I can be the same for him and the coaching staff here,” said Highsmith.
With the Niners picked to finish last in the East by the media, running back Benny Lemay is out to prove that this program is on the rise.
“It’s going to take a statement game and we have a lot of them on our schedule. If we come out and win, it can help jump-start this whole new wave we’re trying to build. People don’t realize Charlotte is a real division one program in terms of being top-notch, facilities, the stadium, and weight room. It has everything you could ask for,” said Lemay.
By all accounts, Bobby Wilder’s club underachieved in 2018. Despite having stars like Oshane Ximines, who was a third-round pick of the New York Giants, along with receivers Jon Duhart and Travis Fulgham (both of whom are in NFL camps), ODU limped to a 4-8 record.
With former starting quarterback Blake LaRussa deciding to leave football behind to pursue seminary school, the Monarchs’ hopes now rest with a quarterback competition that includes former starter Steven Williams, Michigan State transfer Messiah deWeaver and JUCO transfer Stone Smartt.
“It’s going to be a process through pre-season camp and to be honest it may progress into the early part of the season. I played quarterback and I’ve always coached quarterbacks, so when it comes to determining who the starter is, someone has to win the job. One of those guys has to step forward and if none of them do, then it’ll be a quarterback by committee until we find that guy,” said Wilder.
It’ll be similar to last year, how Williams and LaRussa had to rotate until Blake stepped up,” he added.
When asked about who improved the most in the offseason, Wilder had to pause and then came up with an answer that’s close to home.
“I’d have to say, my son, Derek Wilder. I think I’m one of four or five guys who has their son playing for them in division one football. Moved him from linebacker to defensive end, he’s got his weight up to 265 pounds, he had the strongest squat on the team with over 600 pounds and he’s poised to have a really good season for us,” said Wilder.
Tyson Helton inherits a Western Kentucky program that seemed snake-bitten in 2018.
The team seemed to never recover after a 30-point loss in the season opener at Wisconsin.
What ensued was a loss to an FCS opponent in Maine, and the Hilltoppers’ ability to play a complete four quarters of football went along with it.
Now, Helton has to energize not only the football team but the fanbase as well.
“It’s been great being back, it’s like I never left. It’s not a lot different with the program from the time that I left in 2015 to now. I can sense the same passion to win among the guys. Their demeanor says it all to me, now it’s just a matter of putting our players in position to make plays and do my job as a head coach. The number one thing is consistency,” said Helton.
As a first-time head coach, Helton notes that now it’s his turn to learn from his family legacy and put his imprint on this WKU team.
“I’m sure there are some growing pains coming, but like anything that’s new, once you do it over and over again, those growing pains will go away. I know there will be lessons to learn, but I grew up in a coaching family, my dad is a coach and my brother is a current coach. I’m excited to learn from their mistakes, but also learn how to do it my way,” said Helton.
A theme around Conference USA is uncertainty at quarterback. For Helton and Western Kentucky, it’ll be a race between Arkansas transfer Ty Storey and returning players Steven Duncan, Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas.
Shanley completed 68.7 percent of his passes last season, while Duncan led the team in passing with 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns.