This week across America young men will burrow their fingers into turf and feel the coolness of rubber pellets bristling against their knuckles. They’ll smell the distinct sterile odor of athletic tape wrapped around their wrists and ankles. They’ll wait for the ring of a whistle, the snap of a ball, then they’ll hear the crack of pads colliding against one another. The crowd will roar and at last, football will have returned. The world will make a little bit more sense.
The return of football provides a huge opportunity for the UTSA Roadrunners. Returning a strong and experienced group of seniors, UTSA is set to compete for their first ever conference championship under the guidance of second year Head Coach Frank Wilson. While the 2017 season provides the allure of new-found success, it also comes with the burden of program-high expectations. Will the Roadrunners seize their potential or will they continue to be labeled as a “sleeping giant” of college football?
2016 Season Recap
Frank Wilson entered his collegiate head coaching career with something to prove. Thanks to his stellar work on the recruiting trail at Ole Miss and LSU, Wilson was known for his recruiting prowess but not much more. Wilson quickly proved to the college football world that he’s so much more than a great salesman. UTSA drew eyeballs as they nearly upset Arizona State early in the season. A blow out victory over Southern Miss had fans believing. While the path was never easy for the Roadrunners, they were able to secure six wins, tying the FBS record for a start up program to earn a bowl game invitation. The Roadrunners fell just short against the New Mexico Lobos in the New Mexico Bowl.
It’s pretty straight forward for UTSA on offense. This team will go as far as senior quarterback Dalton Sturm will take them. A former walk-on from tiny Goliad, Texas, Sturm has shown flashes of being a top quarterback in the league. He’s also been pulled from games due to inaccuracy and slow blitz recognition. Without any experienced quarterbacks staring over his shoulder, Sturm should play much more loosely without the fear of being pulled from games for making mistakes. If he plays within himself then UTSA shouldn’t have any problem putting points on the scoreboard.
Sturm will be joined in the backfield by a playmaking junior running back in Jalen Rhodes. A former Texas Tech commit, Rhodes is one of the eldest juniors in college football after taking both a greyshirt and redshirt season before joining the UTSA roster. While Rhodes wasn’t the nominal starter in 2016, he was the Roadrunners’ most efficient rusher, totaling 827 yards on 5.3 yards per carry.
The Roadrunners were expected to be thin at running back this season however fall camp has shown that not to be the case. UTSA has a sure thing in senior back Tyrell Clay however junior back and former track star Brett Winnegan has made huge strides this fall after growing to 200 pounds. Winnegan could provide dynamism to the offense with his game-breaking speed. Freshmen B.J. Daniels and Demarco Guidry should also be a factor. Daniels is a legitimate Power Five talent and has already been breaking off long carries in practice. His combination of size and speed is exceedingly rare at the G5 level.
For the Roadrunners’ pro-style offense to really click they must utilize a capable fullback. The Roadrunners have an extremely good one in Halen Steward. At 5’11”, 260 pounds, Steward is an absolute freight train when blocking out of the backfield but he still has the quick feet and athleticism to be a true offensive threat off of both handoffs and passes. Late JUCO transfer Devin Rothrock also looks the part. Both could see the field on power packages.
UTSA returns their top four pass catchers from the 2016 season however more consistency from the group is needed. The receivers are headlined by 6’5” Josh Stewart. A transfer from Midwestern State, Stewart was absolutely shocking in his first year at UTSA as he made one-handed catches look like a breeze. Stewart’s production tailed off in the last few games of the season so he’ll need to enter the 2017 season recharged.
Stewart’s brother Kerry Thomas will likely finish the 2017 season as UTSA’s all time leading receiver. While Thomas can’t match the imposing stature of his brother he is pretty sure handed and runs smooth routes. The Roadrunners can always count on Thomas for a big first down when it’s needed. The group of returners are rounded out by slot receivers Brady Jones and Marquez McNair. Both of the returners struggled with drops last season. McNair is incredibly talented and has the athleticism to be a breakout receiver for UTSA if he plays to his potential. Be sure to keep an eye on 6’5” true freshman Tariq Woolen. He’ll be playing immediately and should carve out a monster career at UTSA.
Of course the success of all previously listed players stands on the shoulders of the offensive linemen charged with making it all click. While the Roadrunners graduated both of their starting tackles, the unit should be better as a whole. Left tackle will be manned by 6’7” JUCO transfer Josh Dunlop. With his outstanding reach and plus athleticism, Dunlop should end up earning all-conference honors at some point in his career. The position battle for right tackle is still ongoing with redshirt freshman Josh Oatis and redshirt senior Reed Darragh battling it out for starting honors. Both are solid options and should see plenty of playing time regardless of who earns the starting snaps.
The strength of this unit, and the offense in general, is the interior of the offensive line. Three seniors will lead the way for the offense as left guard Kyle McKinney, center Austin Pratt, and right guard Stefan Beard have all been forged in fire through their careers. If these three are able to prop open holes for Rhodes and the rest of the backs then the Roadrunners should keep the sticks moving consistently.
If UTSA is to win a championship this year it will likely come via the strength of their defense, particularly their front seven. The Roadrunners are stout and disruptive on the defensive line where they’re anchored by 6’7”, 255 pound defensive end Marcus Davenport. As Davenport has physically grown and developed his technique his statistics have improved every season. If that trend continues then Davenport should be one of the premier pass rushers in the NCAA.
Following Davenport in potential is defensive end/tackle hybrid Kevin Strong. The 6’4”, 295 pound athlete has all-conference talent but needs to find more consistency in his approach through his junior season to reach his potential.
UTSA also has two disruptive nose tackles to platoon this season. The two sophomores, Baylen Baker and King Newton, are both able to play behind the line of scrimmage and give the program a strong anchor to build around for the future.
The real wildcards along the defensive line are defensive ends Eric Banks and DeQuarius Henry. Both explosive athletes, the young guns will need to prove that they have the physicality to handle playing a large number of snaps against Division I offensive linemen.
While UTSA’s defensive line is certainly one of the best in the conference, it’s hard to argue against the Roadrunners’ linebackers being the best duo the league has to offer. Redshirt sophomore Josiah Tauaefa broke onto the scene in a major way in 2016, playing his way into freshman All-American honors, a program first. Tauaefa’s praises have been sung with full lungs from the mountaintops of this site as well as many other publications but his colleague La’Kel Bass has surprisingly flown under the radar. Bass was a havoc machine in 2016 as he totaled 87 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, a forced fumble, and a pass break up. Not bad for the “other guy”.
With almost all of their cornerbacks standing at 6’0” or taller, UTSA certainly emphasizes size on the outside. Led by starters Austin Jupe and Devron Davis, UTSA is in pretty good shape at corner. Both Davis and Jupe graded extremely highly last season and return after both earned their first Division I starting snaps in 2016. UTSA will be young behind their two starters but there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings as the program has stockpiled three-star talent at corner over the past few years.
Moving deeper into the legions of the defense, the Roadrunners will be tasked with replacing two talented starting safeties this season. Junior CJ Levine looks to be the man at the “Lion” safety position while Darryl Godfrey will seek to step up into a larger role as the starter at the “Ram” safety spot. You can find an explanation of both positions and the anticipated starters in this breakdown of the UTSA secondary.
Lastly, senior free safety Nate Gaines is primed for a major season after enjoying a strong start to his career in San Antonio. The 6’2” safety has played extremely well in spurts but he’ll need to come back from an injury to lead this secondary in 2017. If he can come down with a few interceptions this season it could help turn the tide for this defense.
Special Teams Preview
While returning placekicker Victor Falcon is anticipated to maintain his duties, he’ll have to fight off competition from true freshman Jared Sackett. Falcon was really dependable within 40 yards out but has yet to show long-distance range at UTSA.
Senior kicker Daniel Portillo likely won’t handle too many place kicks this season but he has carved out a niche as an outstanding kickoff specialist for the Roadrunners. Portillo has an extremely strong leg and set the program record for touchbacks (27) last season. His hang time on kicks created stellar field position for UTSA in several games last season.
Junior Yanni Roustas enjoyed a very strong season as UTSA’s punter last year. He returns for his junior season after averaging 42 yards per punt, 11 of which flew at least 50 yards. Roustas pinned the returner within the 20 yard line 17 times and caused four turnovers off muffed punts.
Lastly, Matt Bayliss will seek to continue his streak of perfect deep snapping after going 131 for 131 last season. Naturally Bayliss’ strong performances earned him pre-season All-CUSA deep snapper.
September 2nd, 6 pm vs Houston (W) - I just can’t shake the gut feeling on this one. I’ve never been much of a Kyle Allen fan and I think Major Applewhite will suffer some growing pains as a first year head coach. I think UTSA toughs this one out at home.
September 9th, 7 pm @ Baylor (L) - Due to insane roster attrition and a major change in offensive scheme, Baylor might be in poor shape when the Roadrunners come to town. I think the Bears still have enough elite talent to fight off a scrappy UTSA effort though.
September 16th, 6 pm vs Southern (W) - UTSA didn’t exactly sweep the floor with their FCS opponent last year but a year under Wilson’s system should take care of that problem. The Roadrunners create a good portion of playing time for their younger players in this blowout.
September 23rd, TBA @ Texas State (W) - This should have been a dangerous game for UTSA but Texas State really struggled with completing their roster this offseason. Several plug-and-play JUCO transfers failed to report and the Bobcats’ offensive line will sorely hurt for it.
October 7th, 6 pm vs Southern Miss (W) - Southern Miss will be gunning for UTSA this year after suffering an embarrassing defeat at the Roadrunners’ hand (beak?) last season. Fortunately for UTSA the Golden Eagles’ offense should take a big step back this season without Nick Mullens running the show.
October 14th, 5:30 pm @ North Texas (L) - I have a lot of faith in UNT Head Coach Seth Littrell as a game planner. The Mean Green owe UTSA a game in this emerging rivalry. I see UNT winning a wild one this time around.
October 21st, 6 pm vs Rice (W) - Rice has enough talent to put up a fight but I think Head Coach David Bailiff might be preparing for retirement at this point in the season. UTSA finally delivers a big win over Rice after historically struggling with the Owls.
October 28th, 7 pm @ UTEP (W) - It’s hard to imagine UTEP’s offense being able to keep up with UTSA this season. While the Miners dropped 52 points on UTSA in quintuple overtime last season, losing running back Aaron Jones will be a massive, massive blow to the program.
November 4th, 6 pm @ FIU (L) - I’m banking on Head Coach Butch Davis surprising the nation in his debut season at FIU. The Panthers are the most experienced roster in the nation and UTSA will be due for a let down at this point in the schedule.
November 11th, 6 pm vs UAB (W) - The Blazers have some promising players on their depth chart but as the season takes it toll UAB will likely have to trot out a ton of freshmen and rusty transfers. UTSA’s physicality should wear down the Blazers’ thin personnel.
November 18th, 6 pm vs Marshall (W) - Marshall has as much sheer athleticism as you’ll find on a C-USA roster but that didn’t help them too much last season. I won’t be shocked if Marshall bounces back this year but man did they look bad in 2016. I’ll take UTSA to win this one in the Alamodome until Marshall proves they can return to form.
November 25th, TBA @ Louisiana Tech (L) - Conference USA West’s game of the year in my opinion. This game will likely decide the division championship. The Roadrunners have yet to win a match in Ruston and I think that will prove true again as UTSA comes up just shy of their first division title.
Final record prediction: 8-4