Now that the 2017 recruiting class is signed and delivered, on-field preparation for the upcoming football season is set to commence. Spring practice is truly the most wonderful time of the season, giving fans the first inkling of that “football’s back” feeling.
The Roadrunners have high expectations in C-USA as head coach Frank Wilson completed one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds we’ve seen in recent years. His sophomore season as commander-in-chief should propel UTSA into the upper-echelon of the conference, but the groundwork to reach that milestone must begin being laid this week.
As the Roadrunners begin to prime for next season, they have a few key issues that need to be addressed looking forward. For the most part the team has began to hone their new identity, but a few holes exist on the back-end of the roster that affect an issue that is all too familiar for the Birds: depth.
Quarterback 2: Who’s the Guy?
Because it wouldn’t be an offseason if we didn’t spend six months bickering back-and-forth about quarterbacks, right? Where’s the fun in that?
But seriously, UTSA must establish starter Dalton Sturm’s backup. It will probably be a decision that isn’t made any time soon, as I expect several guys will be duking it out in an offseason battle up until week one. As for now it’s a wide-open competition among several guys. The good thing about this issue is that UTSA is by no-means shorthanded when it comes to quarterbacks on the roster.
A guy high on our list is Kingwood, TX’s very own Jaylon Henderson. He came to UTSA in the spring of 2015 as an early enrollee after starting for three years at Kingwood Park High. His high school accolades include membership to the distinguished Touchdown Club of Houston. Henderson is a guy that’s actually been slightly slept on among UTSA’s quarterbacks in my honest opinion. Former head coach Larry Coker called him one of the most athletic quarterbacks he had ever seen. A big credit to that is size: at 6’1” and 205 pounds he’s one of the stronger quarterbacks on the team. He also still retains three years of eligibility after redshirting his freshman year.
Alongside Henderson’s arrival was Manny Harris, a guy that a lot of fans have been aching to see for quite some time thanks to the heavy decoration Harris received at Copperas Cove HS. Another Texas quarterback you may have heard of, Heisman-winner Robert Griffin III, is also an alumnus of Copperas Cove. Harris gained extensive notoriety in 2013 after breaking Griffin’s single-season passing record with 3,775 yards in his junior year. His senior year, however, was unfortunately cut short after partially tearing his MCL. Harris is certainly anticipating the chance to prove his injury hasn’t diminished his ability, and in the same breath that Coker lauded Henderson’s athletic ability, he praised Harris as “one the most cerebral quarterbacks” he’s watched.
He almost took the field as a true freshman against Old Dominion when Sturm was getting his ankle taped on the sideline. In fact, Harris trotted into the huddle but a timeout was called for Sturm get back in without burning Harris’ redshirt. One thing going against Harris is his size; he’s a bit shorter at six-foot even and at 225 pounds he’s the heaviest quarterback on the roster, and that may not necessarily be a good thing.
The third guy to watch out for is true freshman Bryce Rivers, a home-grown product out of San Antonio Stevens HS. He’s a major component in UTSA’s future and one of the most talented football players to ever enter the program. He stands at 6’2” and dons a coveted three stars next to his name on Rivals.com. He skipped his last semester at Stevens as an early enrollee this semester and is currently on campus for practice and classes.
Rivers isn’t the only three-star true freshman quarterback from San Antonio, either. UTSA will also welcome Frank Harris out of Clemens HS, one of Rivers’ top competitors through their high school years. It’s expected for both of these guys to redshirt as their talent level is much too potent to field prematurely, but at the same time it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if one of these guys took the backup quarterback spot this year. I imagine the staff will want to preserve Frank Harris’ redshirt moreso than Rivers as Harris is currently rehabbing an ACL tear.
Running Back 2: Can UTSA Keep Their Dual-Threat Ground Attack?
UTSA had the second most rushing attempts in C-USA last season, and that’s because they had two workhorses that they could constantly feed without either one getting completely worn down. It was an even distribution between starter Jarveon Williams and number-two Jalen Rhodes. With Williams now graduated Rhodes takes on all responsibility as the starter. Williams averaged 16 carries a game last season as Rhodes averaged 13. It would be outlandish to think Rhodes can jump from 13 carries to 29 without suffering some wear and tear, and establishing a relief back is in my humble opinion the most important issue to address for UTSA’s offense this offseason.
The guy that immediately comes to mind is Tyrell Clay. He got a small fraction of touches last season and showed spurts of good running but it’s up for debate if he really possesses that spark the ground game needs off the bench. Another name fans may think of is Brett Winnegan, a specialty back that had a few great moments in the 2015 season but is now more of a special teams only guy. The only time he took the ball out of the backfield last year was on a pair of double reverses. He’s shown high speed and a serious ability to cut at times, but I just don’t see Wilson and company putting him in the offense, though I do think he deserves a fair shot at in the competition. Missing spring practice with a wrist injury won’t help his case.
A name people probably haven’t considered is that of Boo McKnight. I personally think he should be at the front of the list because of his name alone. Kidding, but I’m a big fan of his game. Joking aside, McKnight is a quality back that transferred over to UTSA after his true freshman season at Southern Arkansas, where he racked up 5.8 yards per carry and six touchdowns. He also showed great ability catching passes out of the backfield, a scheme that the Roadrunners have long implemented into their offensive game plan. If he’s ready to play quality snaps, I anticipate him being the number two behind Rhodes.
Now most people’s heavy favorite is undoubtedly B.J. Daniels out of Melbourne, FL Palm Bay HS, and rightfully so. He was ranked the 99th running back in the nation by Scout.com. A behemoth for a running back at 6’2” at 208 pounds, Daniels has developed a reputation for his violent running style. From his film he’s also got quite an elusive game as well, demonstrating firm cuts and spins when getting around defenders. But the kid’s size is just tremendous, and he can pulverize most defensive backs when running downhill. I expect him to get significant snaps as either the number two or the number three running back. That said, I also fully expect for there to be a third man in regular rotation.
Offensive Tackles: Who’s Going to Beef Up this Line?
The long-time weakest link of UTSA’s offense, the offensive line, is most critical in gauging the team’s win column for 2017. Through last season there were leaps and bounds of improvement under the tutelage of OL coach Ryan Pugh. If they can start pushing around conference defenses then the Roadrunners are going to be in a great position to contend.
The two anticipated starters are Josh Dunlop and Reed Darragh. Dunlop is a 6’7” two-star sophomore transfer from Dodge City CC (Kansas). His towering size will add some beef to the line where it’s needed most. Darragh has been a major component to the unit dating back to 2015 when he racked up 46 knockdown blocks. He’s not the largest guy on the line but he makes up for it with sound technique - especially in run blocking.
Behind those two expect to see Zach Pare and Josh Oatis. A pair of freshman that both add much-needed size to the trenches with a lot of reach. With these two coming in relief roles their ability to play quality snaps through the season will determine UTSA’s ability to pull out close games. The depth of the offensive line unit has long haunted the Roadrunners, the unit has often been fatigued in past one-possession fourth quarters when opponents had fresh bodies to put on the field. These two will have a big responsibility in that regard.
Replacing Michael Egwuagu: Who’s Covering the Secondary?
UTSA fans bid a sad farewell to a long-time favorite player and personality, strong safety Michael Egwuagu. Along with his lovable spirit he was also a big safety net for the Roadrunners, always eliminating the deep pass and stopping big runs from being huge runs. No matter what the play, Egwuagu was often within a few a feet of the ball when the whistle blew. The Roadrunners have the luxury of a very stout defense, a unit in which most of the playmakers are rather young as well. But, this is the one of the most important positions on the defense, only fit for a team captain. Finding someone to replace “Egg” is probably the defensive staff’s biggest job through this offseason. For the most part, the rest of the unit will be fine as is.
I’m a huge fan of the guy that played behind Egwuagu last season, C.J. Levine. On more than one occasion he had tremendous pass break ups while being tasked with one of the opposing team’s premier receivers. He sticks like glue and simply has excellent hand placement. His timing is also uncanny, he seems to leap at the right moment every time. The only knock against Levine is his shorter size, coming in at just 5’10”. Levine might have a tough time when holding guys that will for the most part hang a few inches above six foot. He’s still got my vote.
Two other guys I like here are Andrew Martel and Carl Austin III. Both stand at 6”1’ with Martel being a little bit heavier. Both have shown some very good moments in the secondary, but I personally see Austin backing up Levine here. Austin appears to have a very savvy style of play, and he’s a bit quicker than Martel in my opinion. Former three-star safety Darryl Godfrey should also factor into the competition thanks to his size and athleticism. I don’t see any freshman taking on the responsibility of this position.
UTSA is set to make strides this season and most of the issues they need to address aren’t on the front end of the ball. This roster now has the depth to minimize all of these issues if addressed correctly upfront here in the spring. Here’s to a great spring season for the Roadrunners.