After so much fun and so many points and yards, the offense gets to keep on rolling with QB Brandon Doughty getting a sixth year of eligiblity. Most of the other key parts are back including three starters up front to try to get leading rusher Leon Allen rolling again. The top five rushing leaders return along with receivers Taywan Taylor and Jared Dangerfield. Willie McNeal is done, and TE Mitchell Henry is finished, but don’t expect the O to drop off if Doughty can somehow be replaced.
Defense might have been optional at times throughout the year, but it comes back experienced with nine starters returning including all four on the line. Leading tacklers Nick Holt and Dejon Brown are back in the linebacking corps, and good hitters Marcus Ward and Branden Leston are back at safety – the team’s top four tacklers are back. PK Garrett Schwettman and P Joseph Occhipinti return.
2014 was supposed to be the dream season in a lot of ways, and it was with a Conference USA title and a dominant campaign, but there wasn’t a New Year’s Day Six bowl and the playoffs weren’t even on the radar. Now the Herd must go forward without starting quarterback Rakeem Cato. However, most of the other key parts on offense are back including all of the top receivers other than Tommy Shuler – okay, that’s a big one – and three starters return to a line that’ll pave the way for Devon Johnson and a great backfield.
The line needs the most help on defense with three starters gone, and the linebacking corps could use some work, too, with Jermaine Holmes gone from the middle and Neville Hewitt finished on the weakside. Three starters return to a secondary that should be outstanding with help from the pass rush. Kicker Justin Haig is done, but punter Tyler Williams is back.
3. Middle Tennessee
Only three starters are gone off a defense that needs a new defensive end, middle linebacker and corner, but should be stronger. However, that end – Shubert Bastien – was one of the team’s top pass rushers, and leading sacker – Leighton Gasque – is also gone. Leading tackler T.T. Barber is back at weakside linebacker, and the secondary should be fantastic with three senior starters back including safeties Kevin Byard and Xavier Walker. The tackle combination of Shaquille Huff and Patrick McNeill need to be a force.
Almost everyone is back on an explosive offense but RT Isaiah Anderson and leading receiver Marcus Henry. Third-leading receiver Devin Clarke also has to be replaced, but there are plenty of options to step up and shine including Ed’Marques Batties. Leading rusher Reggie Whatley is done, but Jordan Parker and Shane Tucker are more than fine to pick up the slack, while QB Austin Grammer is a good runner to go along with his solid passing skills – now he has cut down on his interceptions. Both punters are gone, but PK Cody Clark is back after hitting 9-of-15 field goals.
4. Florida Atlantic
The Owls should be far more dangerous offensively with four starters returning on the line – only losing RT Braden Lyons – and with most of the key weapons back. Losing do-it-all playmaker Lucky Whitehead hurts, and three of the top four receivers in terms of yards are gone, but QB Jaquez Johnson is back along with top back Jay Warren. Jenson Stoshak has to become a go-to receiver, and the freshmen who got their feet wet last year now have to shine.
Most of the top pass rushers return, but the defense has to replace leading tackler Andrae Kirk from the linebacking corps and second-leading tackler Damian Parms at safety. Fortunately, the line should be fantastic with all four starters – all underclassmen last year – returning along with all the backups. The linebackers are loaded and need to dominate with some key losses in the secondary. Not having Parms hurts, but losing CB D’Joun Smith is a killer. The Owls alternate punters, but they’re both back led by Dalton Schomp, who averaged over 45 yards per kick. PK Greg Joseph returns after hitting 14-of-20 kicks.
5. Old Dominion
It’s all going to start at quarterback with veteran Taylor Heinicke gone. David Washington – a receiver last year - has good size and the upside to take over and shine, but he’ll be challenged. The rest of the Monarch offense was really, really young with C Josh Mann gone along with leading receiver Antonio Vaughan, but that’s it. Everyone else of note who caught a pass is back, as is 947-yard, 16-touchdown running back Ray Lawry to work behind a veteran line.
Leading tackler D.J. Simon is gone from the middle of the linebacking corps, and while he was the main man at getting into the backfield, too, enough experience returns up front to be okay. The problem is in the interior with NT Chris Smith done along with DT Malik Gumbs, and the corner situation is a concern with both starters gone. There was enough of a rotation to fill in the gaps with size on the line and decent players in the secondary, and there are several strong players to work around. All the kickers are back with Satchel Ziffer likely the main option among a crowded group of placekickers, while P Jarrett Cervi returns after averaging around 40.5 yards per kick.
6. Florida International
The Golden Panthers should be far better offensively if they can replace C Donald Senat and RG Delmar Taylor – everyone else is back. Jonnu Smith should be one of the nation’s top tight ends, and the receiving corps might be stronger with nine of the top ten targets back. All of the freshmen runners of last year should come up big this time around with Alex Gardner leading the way, while senior Anthon Samuel is technically the returning starter – he provides a little pop. Can the passing game generate a bit more? Sophomore-to-be Alex McGough knows what he’s doing now, while E.J. Hilliard is an experienced second option.
Leading tackler Justin Halley is gone from the secondary along with fellow safety Demarkus Perkins, but just about everyone else is back including pass rushing terror Michael Wakefield on the end. All three starting linebackers return along with their backups, and the tackles should be terrific with five options to rotate into the two spots. Corners Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon return, and they need to be great with the safeties a question mark. P Jose Laphitzando is back after averaging close to 41 yards per punt, while PK Austin Taylor is back after hitting 15-of-21 field goals.
It’s the first year in the new world, and the 49er defense has to be far, far better. Fortunately, last year the D took its lumps with several young underclassmen who need to grow into their jobs. Only one starter, OLB Tyler Destefani, is gone after making 34 tackles – the D will go on. Leading tackler Branden Dozier is back to lead a secondary that gets all four starters back including promising CB Greg Cunningham Jr. and good-hitting CB Tank Norman. NT Larry Ogunjobi has all-star potential as a dangerous interior pass rusher and star to work around – all four starting linemen are back, and all four are juniors.
The offense returns loaded with veterans, too, starting with RB Kalif Phillips, who tore off 1,436 yards and 20 touchdowns averaging 6.3 yards per pop. The line loses RG Daniel Blitch, and that’s it, while the receiving corps gets everyone of note back but third-leading receiver Dmarjai Devine. Will it be Matt Johnson or Lee McNeill under center? Johnson got banged up, but McNeill was more than fine when he got his chances. PK Blake Brewer returns after nailing 18-of-24 field goals – he has 50-yard range – but the punting has to be better after Arthur Hart averaged just 36 yards per pop.
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