About the Blazers: Talk about a new-look ball club… There's a lot more different about the 2007 edition of the Blazers than carried over, starting with the staff. Neil Callaway is the third coach to take charge of the program, replacing Watson Brown after a 3-9 season. It's Callaway's first head job after assistant stints with alma mater Alabama, at Houston, Auburn, Wyoming, East Carolina, and most recently at Georgia as offensive coordinator. The new boss has put a pretty new team on the field, as no less than 27 first-year players including a dozen true frosh saw action in their opening game. These kids have been knocked around by a brutal early schedule, but the Blazers seem to shake off the shots and give some back as the scoreboard shows. If the defense catches up with the offense UAB has the chance to make things happen, especially once past the first half of this '07 schedule when they get to stay home more often.
Offense: This was a good juncture for a new staff and system as UAB's offense graduated much of the production from a 2006 unit that wasn't all that stout anyway. Changing the pace, and plays, seems to suit the personnel. It's a multiple sort of scheme that either of the two quarterbacks is comfortable with. Senior Sam Hunt is the ‘thrower' of the pair with 680 yards and five touchdowns. Hunt can run, too, and has scored once that way; in fact he's accounted for seven of UAB's eight total touchdowns. But the real runner is soph WR Joseph Webb who doubles as the alternate quarterback in a spread sort of lineup. Though only a 40% passer with one TD, he's caught 16 balls from Hunt for 270 yards and two scores. And he's good for 4.5 yards every time he keeps the center-snap. Either triggerman has two smallish, quick backs to pitch to in soph Rashaud Slaughter (135 yards, 3.5 per carry) and former Bulldog Brandon Thornton (104, 4.5). Neither has scored on the ground yet; in fact Hunt has the only rushing touchdown on this team. Whoever quarterbacks has a selection of mostly-young wideouts to work with. Freshman Frantrell Forrest is the h-back with 11 grabs and two scores, while Slaughter is good for shorter catches as is FB David Sigler. Those starting backs have 20 of the squad's 69 receptions between them, keeping defenses spread-out to cover every eligible option from side-to-side. And UAB doesn't shy away from the deep ball to stretch coverages; the percentages are low but it only takes a couple of connections with Webb & Co. to produce big gains. The blocking is a total contrast from one end to the other. From center-to-left it's a youth movement with two sophs inside and a freshman at left tackle. A tall ‘un too at 6-7, 295-pound Matt McCants. The experience is on the right side with seniors RG Jo Arnold and RT Adam Truitt, who has also played both guard and center. UAB hasn't been too fumble-prone so far, and the 35% conversions of third downs show this youthful unit has plenty of potential to work with.
Defense: Early-season stats can be misleading, and they've played three tough foes on the road. Still, giving up over 500 yards per-game and 6.8 per-play show the Blazer defense is a work very much in-progress. And this is the unit with both pre-season All-CUSA nominees. That pair, FS Will Dunbar and WLB Joe Henderson, are certainly living up to summer expectations. Dunbar, a senior, leads the nation with nearly 14 tackles-per-game; and junior Henderson is second on the squad in both stops and tackles for losses, and first in sacks with three of the team's six baggings. The unquestioned strength on this side is in the secondary; Dunbar not only tackles but covers, with two interceptions. CB Kevin Sanders also has a pair of picks. Matt Taylor and Durrell Fuqua are listed 1-2 at strong safety but both play a lot in the varied secondary packages UAB uses and have 46 tackles between them. Mike Tashman is just a freshman but a precocious one, especially for a middle LB with 5.5 tackles for losses. The dark side of those shiny stats is the ‘backers and safeties have to do much more support-work than usual, behind a very young defensive line that lists three seniors and a soph starting this week. It's a small group at tackle, too, so look for as many three-fronts with an extra safety as the base four-man line. Ends Bryant Turner (245 pounds) and Joe Happe (250) are active behind the line-of-scrimmage, it's keeping the ball there that is a problem as UAB gives up 236 yards on the ground and 5.5 per-carry. Factor out the lone win over lowly Alcorn State and those figures balloon to 283 yards and 5.9. No wonder the I-A teams have averaged an eye-opening 48 rush attempts against this unit.
Specialists: PK and Jackson native Swayze Walters is the Big Name on this squad. He ranks first in the NCAA in field goals per-game (3.0), with just one miss in 13 attempts this season, and has hit a trio of 50-yarders already. His punting isn't as superlative but plenty good enough at 39.5 yards with six fair-catches and nine balls hit inside the 20-yard line, pointing to good coverage work. And yes, he kicks off with six touchbacks. Sanders returns punts at a 7.2 yard clip, while kickoff returns are split up among a bunch of Blazers.
The Series: There have been only two meetings, with each school winning on the other's home field. The Blazers won 27-13 at Starkville in 2004, and last year the Bulldogs returned the favor 16-10 in Birmingham. UAB is 2-9 against the SEC; State is 81-61-3 in all games played against teams now in CUSA.
The Last Time (September 23, 2006): The Bulldogs saved their best two plays for last…for overtime actually. An interception by the defense and a vault of the goal line by quarterback Omarr Conner gave Mississippi State a 16-10 victory at Legion Field, and their first win of the 2006 season. State became the first SEC team to play at the Blazers' off-campus house, and through three quarters the hosts were looking to celebrate a win. After a scoreless first quarter UAB lit their scoreboard with a nine-yard touchdown run by quarterback Chris Williams. The Dogs only mustered a 47-yard field goal from Adam Carlson before halftime, then failed on two promising series in the third period. Finally in the last quarter Conner got barely enough ground on 4th-and-3 from the Blazer four-yard line to move the chains, and halfback Anthony Dixon crashed the goal line for a 10-7 lead. UAB kicker and Starkville native Parker Mullins' 37-yard field goal forced overtime, where Williams was intercepted in the end zone by Adron Chambers. On third down at the 21-yard line Conner ran down the left sideline and jumped over tacklers at the goal to land in the end zone. The play withstood review. Conner had 45 rush yards and 115 in the air, while Dixon got 81 yards on 19 runs. UAB's Williams threw for 99 yards, as neither team topped 300 yards for the night.
Did You Know? The Blazers are a bit picky about their title. While many around the SEC still write ‘Alabama-Birmingham' on schedules, the official names are either UAB (no periods) or University of Alabama at Birmingham (no hyphens).
Bulldog Player Notes: DE Titus Brown collected two sacks, on consecutive plays, at South Carolina, giving him 16.5 for his college career. That pushed the senior past the 16.0 of Robert Young (1987-90) for seventh on the MSU list. Next-up is the 19.5 sacks by Greg Favors (1994-97). Brown has notched a tackle-for-loss in 12 of his last 13 games and owns 143 career tackles of all sorts.
*Through five games the Dog defense is credited with 34 tackles for losses of 140 yards and 11 sacks. Brown has six of those sacks. He and fellow DE Avery Hannibal have 14 quarterback ‘hurries' between them, of the team's 23 total. In fact, Brown and Hannibal have as many hurries between them as all MSU's opponents managed in five games.
*And the Bulldog offensive line has allowed nine sacks this season, while the Dog defense has eleven.
*The State defense has intercepted six passes in five games; last year's group had 12 interceptions in 12 games. But, the Dogs had a three-game streak of interceptions returned for touchdowns, a school record as far as can be told, ended over the weekend.
*S Derek Pegues got his second interception of the season at South Carolina, picking a pass in the end zone. He couldn't convert this one into a touchdown as he did his pick at Auburn, but it gives the junior seven career interceptions. He needs two more to move into the MSU top-ten. His three ‘pick-six' plays, or touchdown returns, are already a MSU career record; and he also holds the season record with two INT/TDs, in 2006.
*Pegues averages 19 yards in returns every time he picks a pass.
*Pegues has climbed to 8th in career punt return yardage, with 409 on 35 attempts. He passed both Eddie Myles (1987-90) and Frank Dowsing (1970-72) in the same game to get into the top-ten. Pegues also has surpassed Glen Young (1979-82) for second in MSU career kickoff returns with 68. He is third in KO return yards at 1,474, trailing Young's 1,538 for second.
*Senior Gabe O'Neal has moved into the team tackle lead, at 33 total stops (26 solo, 7 assists). And junior Jamar Chaney is now second at 31, both having passed junior Dominic Douglas over the weekend. Douglas had led or been tied for the lead for four games, and he still has most tackles for losses of the three starting linebackers.
*Junior DE Jimmie Holmes hasn't started a game but is second only to Brown in tackles-for-losses with 3.5, and in sacks with 2.0. Holmes also has two of the team's five recovered fumbles.
*Junior P Blake McAdams had an excellent afternoon at Columbia, at least when his protection held up. On the six un-blocked punts he averaged 45.7 yards. Two of his balls were downed inside the 20-yard line, for a total of eight this season.
*McAdams has punted 161 times as a Bulldog, sixth-most in program history. He passed both Bobby Collins (1951-54) and Andy Russ (1993-96) on the same day, and is ten punts away from top-five status. His 6,462 career yards are 7th-most at State.
*Senior WR Tony Burks ran his streak to 13 games with a catch, on two grabs at South Carolina. Burks is the only State wideout with double-digit catches through five games.
*Burks is netting 18.4 yards per-catch this year; last season he led the SEC in that unofficial stat at 24.3 yards. He is still looking for his first 100-yard game of the season, after five such efforts in 2006 to tie for the season record.
*The main reason Burks isn't putting up big individual numbers is the football is being spread around this year. Nine Dogs caught a pass last week, with junior Co-Eric Riley getting three balls.
*Through five games, the tight ends and fullbacks have 13 receptions. In all last season those positions combined for only 30 catches.
*Junior FB Jeremy Jones' touchdown reception at Tulane was the first receiving score by a Bulldog fullback since Bryson Davis in the 2005 Egg Bowl. He has three receptions this year; and against G-Webb Brandon Hart made his first catch of the year.
*Sophomore HB Anthony Dixon has scored six of State's eight rushing touchdowns this year, with a couple of them at Columbia. Dixon had nine touchdowns his whole freshman season, though that did set a class record at State.
*Dixon is already up to 434 rushing yards this year, where he had a (freshman record) 668 in 12 games last season. He just went over 1,100 career yards (1,102 in 17 games). Twice this year he's run for 100 or more in a game, at Tulane and Auburn, and he has four 100-yard career games.
*Junior QB Mike Henig is back to practicing after breaking his throwing hand at Auburn, though he's being held for emergency-only service this week. Before the injury he'd completed 51.6% of his throws in three games; in his previous years Henig was a 43.8% career passer. And when Henig got hurt, he was coming off his fourth 200-yard game in the win at Tulane when he completed 20-of-31 throws.
*At Tulane, Henig scored the first rushing touchdown of his MSU career when he ran 18 yards into the Wave's end zone in the first quarter.
*Henig's replacements, Wesley Carroll and Josh Riddell, are a combined 31-of-66 passing, or 46.9%. Before his season-ending injury at South Carolina, junior Riddell was passing at 48.6% with two touchdowns and two picks. Carroll is 13-of-29, 44.8%, with no scores and no turnovers.
*PK Adam Carlson has converted all 13 of his PAT tries this season. Last year he was one of four SEC kickers who did not miss a point-after, and he is now 47-of-47 for his career. Carlson did not attempt a field goal at South Carolina, and is 4-of-7 for the season, 12-of-23 career.
*Two Bulldog seniors hold the team lead in career games played. Both TE Dezmond Sherrod and DE Avery Hannibal have gotten on the field in 39 contests through four seasons. The consecutive-start lead belongs to P Blake McAdams at 28. C Royce Blackledge is first among the non-specialists in starts with 23-straight.
*A total of 35 Bulldogs, not counting specialists, have started at least one game this season.
*LB K.J. Wright became the latest true freshman activated this season when he played on special teams against G-Webb. That brings the total to six first-year frosh playing in 2007, joining QB Wesley Carroll, ST Karlin Brown, S Zach Smith, DT Lamarcus Williams, and OT Derek Sherrod.
*True freshmen who have dressed without playing are QB Chris Relf, S Wade Bonner, HB Robert Elliott, HB Marcus Green, and LB Jamie Jones. True frosh who have not dressed out in the first five games and thus are presumably redshirting are: CB Damein Anderson, LB Terrell Johnson, OL Addison Lawrence, OL/SN D.J. Looney, OL Dakota Merritt, PK Eric Richards (injured), DL Quentin Saulsberry, and FB Ethan Stockett.
*Redshirted 2006 freshmen who have played so far are: OG J. C. Brignone, SN Aaron Feld, OT Mark Melichar, DE Rodney Prince, and TE Brandon Henderson. Classmates who have yet to see action are WR Alex Carpenter, DL Brandon Cooper, TE Chris Herrera, DT Reggie Odom.