Observers of Conference USA have been saying for years that the best thing a league school can do to improve its exposure and recruiting is to beat a marquee program, and doing it on national televison would make it all the sweeter. The Louisville Cardinals proved that sentiment to be true when they whipped Florida State on national TV and then signed the league's best class. But UL has company at the top. New coach Art Briles did his best Anne Sullivan impression and pulled in a strong group despite being hired after the regular season had ended. League champion TCU continued its impressive recruiting with yet another good haul. South Florida got its share from one of the nation‚s richest recruiting areas and Memphis also managed to keep some of the local talent at home. Tulane, Southern Miss, UAB, Cincinnati, and East Carolina also filled needs with their classes. Army does not release its list of recruits. Here, then, is a look at where each C-USA team finished and how each did in the 2003 recruiting race.
1) Louisville: Louisville‚s biggest coup was signing hometown hero Michael Bush (6-3, 225, 4.5) of storied Louisville Male High School. Bush is a tremendous athlete who could play any number of positions in college, including quarterback and wide receiver. He had offers from Ohio State, Tennessee, and Michigan State, among others. A trio from Venice, California also helped the Cards win this year‚s C-USA recruiting championship. The standout among them is B.J. Vickers (6-3, 215, 4.5), who was rated one of the top twenty wide receivers in the nation. He has prototypical size and speed at 6-3, 210, 4.5. Vickers‚ opposite number at Venice, Antuan Giddens (6-5, 185, 4.5) also signed on with the Cards. And the quarterback who got the ball to them, Eddie Miller, cast his lot with Louisville as well. UL further bolstered their receiving corps with three from Georgia: wide receiver Harry Douglas and tight ends Thomas Boyce and Wayne Riles. UL signed one of the nation's best and fastest running backs in Tallahassee's Kolby Smith. Three impressive defensive backs from Florida, including twins Thomas and Eric Miller and safety William Gay, also decided to wear the red and black.
2) Houston: The University of Houston again challenged for the league‚s top recruiting class. UH has been at or near the top of the conference three years‚ running now, and that success should start paying big dividends on the field the next few years. The Cougars looked more like foxes sneaking around in a henhouse this recruiting season, as they swiped some seven players that were committed to other schools, four of them to the Big XII. The Coogs got a gem at quarterback in Stephenville's Kevin Kolb. Kolb (6-2, 225, 4.6) was rated the #2 QB in the Big XII region by recruiting maven David Garvin, and after running Coach Briles‚ offense for five years, he is an especially good fit at UH. Other key signees on the offensive side were WR Bennie Swain of Houston Madison, a consensus state top 100 selection, and RB Anthony Alridge of Denton. The Coogs also added five solid offensive linemen, a critical area of need, as well as a bevy of quick receivers who should cause havoc for defenses. Defensively, the standouts are defensive tackle John Harrell, the Texas Class 4A Defensive Player of the Year and a True Orange Top 75 prospect, who switched from Texas Tech to join Briles. Marquay Love of Crowley is another impressive DT, who would have been on everyone's recruiting list if he were a couple of inches taller. Love was as impressive as anyone I saw on film. DaVell Lauder of Smiley and Eddie McCray of Baytown Lee are a pair of 6-3, 230 pound defensive ends with good quickness. The Coogs signed some athletic linebackers along with some promising defensive backs, including former Texas Tech signee Ricky Wilson of Pt. Arthur.
3) TCU: TCU continued its recruiting success in Texas, signing arguably the state‚s top quarterback in Texas in Denton Ryan's James Battle (6-2, 200, 4.5), a dual threat with a strong arm and good speed. But they didn't stop there. The Frogs also added solid QB prospects Chad Huffman of Fort Bend and Brian Bonner of Beeville. They pulled in one of the state's best fullbacks in Marcus Draper (5-11, 235, 4.6), who could become one-half of a formidable running game with freshman sensation Lonta Hobbs. Marcus Brock (6-0, 175, 4.5) and Ervin Dickerson (6-3, 190, 4.5) are a pair of fast, capable wideouts, and Will Oliver (6-3, 260) and Wade Sisk (6-5, 270) give the Frogs two solid building blocks on the offensive line. Clearly, TCU did very well on the offensive side of the ball. The Frogs didn't have as much luck defensively, but then they didn't need as much help on that side of the ball. Coffeyville Community College CB Larry Bradford (6-0, 205, 4.5) will be counted on next year, and Jamison Newby (6-3, 245, 4.8) of Cleburne was one of the state‚s better defensive ends.
4) South Florida: Located in one of the nation‚s hottest recruiting hotbeds, South Florida simply needs to do well in its own backyard to have banner recruiting seasons. Obviously the Bulls will have trouble beating the likes of Miami, Florida, and Florida State for the cream of the crop. Even so, USF is in a situation not unlike UH in Houston and TCU in the Metroplex. If they can get their share of the tier-two recruits in their area, they will put themselves in a position to win every year. The Bulls signed three quarterbacks, two of whom weigh more than 250 pounds. USF also got one of the top fullbacks in the Sunshine State, Josh Balloon. He had offers from numerous major programs. A major sleeper among the Bulls‚ signees is 6-8, 320 Jerome Springfield. He received heavy interest until his grades became a concern. If he puts in the time and effort in the classroom and on the field, he could be playing in the NFL several years down the road. Maybe the Bulls‚ most impressive defensive recruit is 6-2, 230 defensive end Eric Thomas of Lake City, FL. Thomas was sought by Florida State, Tennessee, and others. He looks like a football player and definitely played like one in high school. Mike Jenkins from Bradenton Southeast, the high school of UH Cougar Steve Cucci, is the best DB in South Florida's class while another good one, A.J. Brant, hails from another old Cougar pipeline, Daytona Mainland High School.
5) Memphis: Coach Tommy West signed some very talented prospects last year, but unfortunately for the Tigers, many of them never made it on campus. This year there are more good players, and it looks as if these recruits will be sticking around for awhile. Like most of their conference brethren, the Tigers signed a top-rated quarterback. Bobby Robison (6-3, 205) of Northwest Mississippi J.C. is an excellent pro-style passer and the odds-on favorite to start for UM. West hit the Mississippi jucos hard and also landed a few plums from Northwest‚s rival, Northeast Mississippi Junior College, among wide receiver Chris Kelley, guard Jason Matthews (6-4, 300), defensive end Tyrus Jackson (6-3, 250), and punter Brandon Roberson. The Tigers‚ best defensive recruit was linebacker Quinton McCrary, who is pushing 220 and runs a 4.5. Signing top players in its own backyard is essential to Memphis moving into C-USA upper-division, and West made some headway on the homefront, inking two of the city's most prized defensive prospects, linebacker Quintin Williams and safety Jamaal Rufus.
6) Tulane: The Green Wave hit both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts for recruits this year. At quarterback, Tulane nabbed Californian Richard Irvin (6-2, 185), a talented thrower who started for four years in high school. From New Jersey, however, comes the most impressive of the Wave's Œ03 signees. Camden‚s Preston Brown (6-4, 210, 4.5) is an outside linebacker with a world of potential, and his teammate, defensive end, Elijah Robinson (6-3, 250, 4.8), turned down offers from Big 10, Big East, and ACC programs to join Brown at Tulane. Billy Harrison (6-3, 250, 4.6) from Pensacola (FL) gives the Wave another outstanding DE prospect. Tulane signed twelve solid prospects from their home state, including kicker Barrett Peppers, considered one of the nation's best. But the Wave had trouble in Texas, usually a happy hunting ground for TU, this year, signing only a couple of little-known sleepers from the Lone Star State.
7) Southern Mississippi: It‚s a little tough to rank such a solid program as Southern Miss as low as seventh in recruiting, but Jeff Bower and the Golden Eagles have proven again and again how skilled they are at finding and developing unheralded. Information on USM's recruits is, as usual, a little sketchy. One point that should be made, however, is that USM's alleged reliance on junior college players is largely a myth. This year, for example, there is only one juco on their commitment list, and he had not signed as of just a few days ago. Southern Miss stretches its talons throughout the south, reaching into Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and of course, Mississippi for players. The Eagles followed the rest of the C-USA pack by signing a well-regarded quarterback. Jeremy Young (6-3, 180, 4.6) of Jackson is athletic but still more of a pro-style QB. He chose USM over offers from in-state rivals Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Eagles‚ top defensive recruit is linebacker Ken Griffith (6-3, 240, 4.8. Look for him to fill Rod Davis's shoes when Davis moves on to the NFL.
8) UAB: If quantity counted more than quality, then UAB would be the recruiting champion this year. Watson Brown signed 30 players to letters of intent, and give that old fox's record, you can bet many of those players are going to make an impact in C-USA. One signee whose quality is unquestioned is quarterback Jake Tompkins, a 6-2, 210-pounder with 4.5 speed who can run and throw and is sure to cause fits for defensive coordinators. Also highly regarded is inside linebacker Jeffrey Williams (6-0, 220, 4.7), a run-plugger extraordinaire from Tallahassee.
9) Cincinnati: If any conference team didn't need a quarterback, it was Cincinnati, which has starter Gino Guidugli returning for only his sophomore year. Even so, the Bearcats joined the C-USA crowd by inking 6-5, Todd Spitzer of South Carolina. Oklahoma State pursued Spitzer when they lost out on Kevin Kolb to Houston, but the Cowboys didn't have any luck prying away C-USA QBs from their commitments. Impressive recruits Terry Arnold (6-0, 205, 4.5) a slashing running back, offensive guard Digger Bujnoch (6-5, 255, 4.9), and wide receiver Hannibal Thomas (6-3, 200, 4.6) plan to pillage C-USA opponents in coming years.
10) East Carolina: The Pirates got a very late start under new coach John Thompson, and couldn't have been expected to do very well given the new staff's limited time. The Pirates' top recruit is 6-4, 230 defensive end Brandon Jones of Miami. Thompson is a defensive mastermind, and if he can continue to sign players like Jones, the conference will have two teams with purple people eaters on defense.