Scouting UAB

Darrell Hackney was a hot high school prospect until he tore up his knee the summer before his senior season.

Darrell Hackney fell from the graces of many upper echelon programs. He was taken off the recruiting board as damaged goods.

But Marshall didn't give up. Neither did Watson Brown at Alabama-Birmingham.

Hackney picked the Blazers and he's helped a young program make great strides in the shark tank known as Division 1-A. Hackney has over 6,700 career passing yards (3,070 last season) with 49 career touchdowns.

``We were very, very lucky to get Darrell,'' Brown said. ``He's fought the knee injury since he's been here, but now, he's healthier than he's ever been.''

UAB must find steals like Hackney to compete. Brown said the state of Alabama usually has 70 1-A prospects. Alabama and Auburn get about 30, he said.

``We've really done a good job getting the next kid, beating Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt on some of them,'' Brown said. ``That's really made our program.''

Brown said UAB hits the Mississippi junior colleges hard, canvasses the Atlanta area about two hours away and dabbles into Florida.

``We really don't recruit over about three hours from campus,'' Brown said. ``We feel there are enough kids to build a good program in those areas.''

Hackney is one of eight potentially outstanding quarterbacks on the Tennessee schedule. Chris Leak of Florida, JaMarcus Russell of LSU, Michael Spurlock of Ole Miss, D.J. Shockley of Georgia, Brodie Croyle of Alabama, Brady Quinn of Notre Dame and Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt are the others.

The Vols face UAB in the Sept. 3 season opener at Neyland Stadium.

They face a quarterback who has been compared to an NFL star who makes his home less than three hours from Knoxville – Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans. Hackney is big, mobile, elusive and has a strong arm.

``He's the best I've had in all the schools I've been at,'' said Brown, a 20-year head coach who hails from Cookeville. ``He's got it all. I think he's an NFL guy.''

Brown agrees with comparisons to McNair. While an assistant at Mississippi State, Brown recruited McNair.

``Their personalities are similar,'' Brown said. ``Their body build is similar. Darrell is a better passer than Steve was (in college). Steve is a great athlete. Darrell is a good athlete.''

McNair is 6-3, 240.

Hackney is 6-2 and 246. He finished last season at 260. He's had trouble controlling his weight in part because of his knee problems.

But, Brown said, ``Darrell is in the best condition and shape of his life.''

It's players like Hackney that have helped UAB survive against the big boys.

UAB started as a Division III school in 1991. When Brown took over in 1995, UAB went 1-A. Brown has been head coach at Rice, Cincinnati and Vanderbilt. But he'd never quite faced the challenge he had at UAB.

``I've taken some tough jobs to say the least,'' Brown said. ``But this one, you start from scratch and build a program. It's been fun. But it's been hard. I'm not sure I'd do it again, looking back on it.''

UAB has taken its lumps. But last year, the Blazers broke through with their first bowl invitation, playing Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.

``What a great place to go for your first bowl,'' Brown said. ``The kids tasted that, enjoyed it and they want to go back. We've got high goals.''

The Blazers were 5-1 and ranked No. 24 last season before being upset by Tulane. They've been bowl eligible three of the past five years.

``I'm proud of what we've done,'' Brown said, ``but we've got a lot more to accomplish. We're growing. We're very hungry to keep it going.''

In 2000, UAB upset LSU in Baton Rouge. The next week, the Tigers beat Tennessee. It's the marquee win of the Brown Era at UAB.

And that wasn't Brown's best team. Last season was. But last season's team was horrendous in the secondary. That's why UAB gave up 59 points to Tulane, 59 points to Hawaii, 45 to South Florida.

``Our defense was very good against the run,'' Brown said. ``When we faced a passing game, we got killed. The secondary was our Achilles' Heel.''

Brown said UAB lost two secondary starters in 2004, one in preseason, one in the first game. ``We couldn't overcome it,'' he said.

One of those defensive backs, Carlos Hendricks, returns, as well as defensive end Larry McSwain, whose 13 sacks ranked second in the nation last year. Brown compares McSwain to former Virginia Tech star Corey Moore, a short, compact, speed rusher.

Brown feels he's bringing his best UAB team to Knoxville. The key is staying healthy.

``The whole thing in football is to finish the season with the ones you start with,'' Brown said. ``If we're playing with the same guys in January that we started the season with, we should be in another bowl.''

Brown has never won at Neyland, not as a player, an assistant coach or a head coach. His last trip to Knoxville was 1998, when the Blazers lost 37-13 to the eventual national champions.

``It's always fun to come there,'' Brown said. ``It's a wonderful atmosphere. Our kids love these games. We've played 25 BCS schools in the last nine years so we've done a whole lot of this and been to a lot of stadiums. We've played these kinds of teams very well because our kids haven't, in the past, gotten flustered or let big crowds bother them. Maybe we haven't won a lot of them, but we've played a lot of close games.''

Brown said in his tenure at UAB, the Blazers are 45-27 against non-BCS teams, 4-21 against BCS teams.

``We'd like to see if we can knock off a few more of those BCS teams as we go,'' Brown said.

Starting with Sept. 3.

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