1. Louisiana Tech
It was a resurgent year for the Bulldogs, and the potential is there to take another huge step forward with RB Kenneth Dixon back. The O line returns four starters, but the key will be to find the depth for the passing game with options needed to help out Trent Taylor and Paul Turner. Ryan Higgins is a veteran quarterback who can replace Cody Sokol, but Jeff Driskel didn’t transfer over from Florida just to hold a clipboard.
The defense has a few key losses, but it returns Vernon Butler at tackle and enough options for the line to get into the backfield. Nick Thomason is a big-tackling linebacker, and safeties Kentrell Brice and Xavier Woods are back, but three of the top five tacklers are gone. Vontarrius Dora will be the spotlight pass rusher with Houston Bates done, but Tech gets to the quarterbacks from a variety of spots. Kickers Kyle Fischer and Jonathan Barnes are back along with punters Logan McPherson and Gerald Shouse.
The veteran Owls lose three starters up front and have to replace the left side, but QB Driphus Jackson returns along with Zach Wright and Dennis Parks to throw to, but the top two targets – Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull – are gone. Counting Jackson, everyone who gained a rushing yards in 2014 is expected to be back led by Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard.
Defense is the bigger issue with three of the top four tacklers gone and only LB Alex Lyons returning. Four starters are gone in the 4-2-5 secondary, but there’s hope up front with Brian Nordstrom back after camping out in the backfield for most of the year. PK James Hairston is gone, but P James Farrimond is back.
3. North Texas
The offense will only be as strong as the line that has to replace three starters including both main men on the right side and top guard Mason Y’Barbo. For the most part the skill players are back and fine, but the quarterback situation has to be better between Andrew McNulty and Dajon Williams. Leading rusher Antoinne Jimmerson returns, but Reggie Pegram is gone – enough freshmen got time to be ready to fill in. Carlos Harris should be among Conference USA’s top receivers, while TE Marcus Smith is a weapon, especially around the goal line.
The defense has the potential to be an absolute terror up front with everyone back except LB Derek Akunne and DE Daryl Mason. However, the secondary could be a major work in progress with three starters gone and only CB Kenny Buyers returning. The team’s top four tacklers are done, but enough pass rushing production returns to be okay. Punter Eric Keena is back after averaging 44.6 yards per boot, but Blake Macek can kick, too. PK Trevor Moore did a nice job as a true freshman, hitting 15-of-17 field goals.
Jameill Showers UTEP career is over, and it’ll likely be up to 5-10 Mack Leftwich and 6-7 Garrett Simpson to fight it out for the starting quarterback gig. The offense will revolve around RB Aaron Jones, but the top three runners behind him are all done – depth will be a big area of concern – but the line won’t be a problem with four starters back and only losing left tackle Jerel Watkins. The passing game didn’t have any irreplaceable targets, but leading receiver Ian Hamilton is finished.
Three of the top five tacklers are gone, but three starters return to the front of the 4-2-5. The secondary will be the biggest problem this offseason with four of the five starters gone and only FS Devin Cockrell back. Alvin Jones is a keeper of a weakside linebacker, while Jimmy Musgrave will get the first look at the middle spot. Jay Mattox will handle all the kicking duties again.
5. Southern Miss
This is when the Golden Eagles have to start to produce with everyone back on offense except for WR Markese Triplett. All five starters are back up front, everyone who gained a positive rushing yard returns – let by leading man Ito Smith and goal line guy George Payne – 13 of the 14 players who caught a pass are back starting with leading target Casey Martin and leading yardage man Michael Thomas. Now it’s up to QB Nick Mullens to be a bit better.
The defense is another story with the top three tacklers gone and four of the top five needing to be replaced. DE Michael Smith and DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches need to anchor the line, while Elijah Parker is the veteran main man now of the linebacking corps. The secondary needs safeties, but the corner tandem of Cornell Armstrong and Kalan Reed return. PK Corey Acosta is done after hitting 19-of-25 attempts last year, and P Tyler Sarrazin has to be a bit stronger after averaging 39.5 yards per kick.
It could be a tough run offensively with all five starters gone. This was a veteran group with 176 starts between then, and now it’s time for an overhaul. Not helping the cause is the loss of three of the top four and five of the top seven receivers, but TE David Morgan is back along with steady senior-to-be Aaron Grubb. Leading rusher David Glasco II, also gone, but Jarveon Williams is back along QB Austin Robinson, who split duties but will take over.
The defense also loses a ton, especially off the line with all four starters gone along with a little bit of depth. LB Jans Jeters is finished, but Drew Douglas returns in the middle and SS Michael Edquagu is back and should be among the league’s best hitters. He needs to be with four other starters in the secondary gone including main man Triston Wade. In all four of the top five and six of the top eight tacklers have to be replaced. If that wasn’t enough, P Kristian Stern is finished after averaging over 41 yards per pop, and PK Sean Ianno is gone after nailing 17-of-21 field goals.
2015 Pre-Preseason C-USA West Rankings
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