Team preview: UAB
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 UAB Blazers, exclusively on Insider.
When UAB finished 7-5 in 2004 and earned its first-ever bowl bid, the Blazers took aim at bigger, better goals in 2005, focusing their attention on winning the Conference USA Eastern Division title and playing in the first C-USA championship game.
With the core of the 2004 team returning, it seemed like a realistic goal for a program that appeared primed to take the next step in its young growth.
Then the growing pains set in. A narrow loss at Tennessee seemed to hint at better things to come, followed by a one-sided win at Troy. The next week, the Blazers struggled to hold off Division I-AA Jacksonville State and lost several players to injuries. Some of them would struggle to return. Some never did.The Blazers bounced back to beat Rice, but then found a way to blow a late lead at home against SMU, allowing the previously struggling Mustangs to drive down the field in the final minute and win by one on a desperation pass in the end zone.
The next week the Blazers lost by one at Marshall, blowing another late lead by allowing a touchdown on a quarterback scramble and then missing a field goal in the final seconds.
The Blazers never really seemed to recover. Sure, they beat two bowl-bound teams, Memphis and UTEP, but they never found a way to generate any lasting momentum. In their final game of the season, with their last desperate hope for a winning season and a possible bowl on the line, they lost at East Carolina and finished 5-6.
"We lost six games last year and every one of them was a close loss," UAB coach Watson Brown said. "We've always been a team that won the close games here. We've really got a strong record in the close games and we went 0-6 in one season. There were little things we didn't do as well as we've done in the past. Hopefully we're going to get those things corrected."
Brown started by making changes at the top. After three years in a dual role as head football coach and athletics director, Brown gave up his athletics director duties to focus on coaching football again.
"I feel like I'm back to my old self again," Brown said. "I had just gotten pulled so thin and I wasn't around the players like I needed to be. I knew it last year and I could tell. "I've been around these kids a lot more in the past few months than I've probably been in the past two years and I feel good about that."
It's a team that must start over at quarterback without the most accomplished player in school history, Darrell Hackney, find and develop some capable receivers and do a better job in every area of the kicking game.
It's also a team, though, with 51 returning lettermen, 29 seniors, 24 players with starting experience and several other young players who have been thrown into the fire the last two seasons.
"It's a different team," Brown said. "We've got 29 seniors, so this should be a very mature team in a lot of ways. Almost everyone who will play has played already. There's a ton of experience coming back, but then there's two major positions where we have inexperience and those will be big keys for us."
The inexperience at quarterback is the single biggest concern on offense. Without Hackney, the Blazers will look to senior Chris Williams, as well as junior Sam Hunt, a transfer from Middle Tennessee, and redshirt freshman Joseph Webb.
"I think we're very talented there but how quickly they become good players will be the key to this team," Brown said. "I think they'll be good, but the question becomes: when will they be good? Will it take four or five games for them to be? Will these kids come out and play early? We don't know that because they haven't really played."
Because of that inexperience at quarterback and receiver, the Blazers will take on a different offensive personality this season.
"I think we'll be a little bit more of a running team this year where with Darrell we were pass first, run second," said offensive coordinator Pat Sullivan, who also coaches UAB's quarterbacks. "Now with the experienced part of our offense coming back being the running backs and the offensive line, we're probably going to have to run the ball first and throw it second.
"But we still plan on being balanced. We want to run the football, but you've got to take what the defense gives you and we've got to be able to pass when the situation arises."
In addition to making changes in his own job, Brown also fired defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt and elevated longtime assistant coach Rick Christophel to defensive coordinator. Christophel will also continue to coach the defensive tackles, while George Pugh will coach the defensive ends, new assistant Ron McCrone will coach the linebackers, Shawn Raney will coach the cornerbacks and Ross Robinson coaches the safeties.
Christophel doesn't intend to make any drastic changes in the scheme and will continue to run a familiar version of the 4-3 defense. Instead, he hopes to take better advantage of UAB's experience and overall team speed.
"We feel like we can run pretty well, so we've got to be able to put our players in a better position to use their ability and fly around to the football," Christophel said. "We want to simplify some of the things we've done in the past and just let our kids just play a little more. It's not that we were all that complicated last year. There are going to be adjustments to make during the game, we know that, but there were times last year when we were confused in our base package. When we go out on the field we want to be able to line up in our base defense and say 'this is where we're going to attack this and this is what we've got to do to stop this.'
"We want to do a better job of controlling what we do. We don't want an offense controlling our defense. We want to be able to play our defense and do the things we want to do when we want to do them."
Whoever plays quarterback for the Blazers has some substantial shoes to fill. In reality, none of the three is likely to fill Darrell Hackney's shoes after Hackney finished his UAB career with 9,886 yards and 71 touchdowns.
"We're not only losing a great player who set all the records around here but we're losing a lot of experience," Sullivan said. "All three of them bring different things to the table and I'm sure we'll end up playing them all this fall at various times."
Chris Williams (5-11, 205) is the only player who brings playing experience to the job. Williams has played in 10 games, started three games and thrown 93 career passes, with most of that action coming in 2003, when Hackney was sidelined by a season-ending thumb injury. Unfortunately for Williams and the Blazers, very few of those snaps came last year because UAB played so many close games.
Williams isn't as big, strong or as athletically talented as Sam Hunt and Joseph Webb, but his positives are difficult for Hunt and Webb to replicate at least as the season begins.
"He doesn't have the best arm on the team or the best legs on the team," Sullivan said. "The most important thing that Chris brings is experience. He's been around and he understands. He's not as big or tall as the other ones, but he's been there. At this point in time, he's got the most knowledge of our system and he understands what to do. He's a leader, too, and the kids on the team respect him and pull for him. That's a big plus factor."
Hunt (6-3, 215) saw limited action in six games for Middle Tennessee during the 2004 season and sat out '05 as a transfer.
"Sam is the in-between guy," Sullivan said. "He's a little older because he's been redshirted and been around a little bit. He's a big guy who can really run -- he's probably about a 4.5 guy. He's a good athlete. The only thing he needs is actual playing time." Webb (6-4, 210) may be the most talented of the three quarterbacks, but he's yet to play a single snap at the college level.
"Joe Webb is really a gifted player but he's just young," Sullivan said. "He can run and throw. He's got an abundance of talent. He's got a great future ahead of him." Williams emerged from the spring as UAB's No. 1 quarterback, but the starting job remains wide open for competition as the Blazers prepare for preseason practice in August.
"They all had some good days in the spring and they all had some learning days," Sullivan said. "After the first week of fall practice we'll have to settle in on a starter, but I still think it will be a situation where all three will get a chance to play and they'll all three deserve to play.
"All three guys have got a great attitude and they're pulling for each other. They're team players, and that's important. The big thing is that our football team hasn't chosen sides. They don't care who's out there. There's no division and you can't survive with that kind of division. That's a big plus for us."
For all the inexperience at quarterback, the Blazers are blessed with an abundance of experience at tailback with four seniors, each of whom has rushed for 100 yards in a game.
Corey White (6-2, 235) and Dan Burks (6-1, 218) have combined for 3,398 yards and 28 touchdowns during their UAB careers and bring size and strength to the position. Burks is the most versatile of UAB's backs with his ability to run, catch and block, but he's also spent a considerable amount of time on the sidelines because of injuries.
Marculus Elliott (5-9, 195) and Trey Chaney (5-8, 190) bring speed and quickness to the backfield. Chaney has rushed for 638 yards in his career but missed most of the 2005 season with injuries, while Elliott emerged from relative obscurity last fall to average 97.3 yards over the season's final three games, including a career-best 116 on only eight carries against UCF.
"That's got to be a strength for our team this year," Sullivan said. "Corey White and Dan Burks are our two big backs and Trey Cheney and Marculus Elliott are our scatback type of guys, so we've got some versatility there. All four of those guys are seniors, so we've got some experience there, too."
If injuries become an issue again at tailback, the Blazers can also turn to sophomores Brandon Alexander (5-11, 200) and T.J. Slaughter (5-10, 220).
The Blazers' don't have any fullbacks because of the nature of their offense, but they do use junior David Sigler (6-3, 250) in a multiple role as a fullback/tight end/H-back. The Blazers will also look to a former linebacker, senior Taylor Owenby (6-2, 245) in a similar role.
The Blazers have lost their most productive receivers each of the last two seasons -- Roddy White in 2004 and Reggie Lindsey and Jhun Cook from a year ago.
That leaves UAB with several unproven players in key roles. Even the most productive returning receiver, senior Norris Drinkard (6-0, 195), is playing in a different role. Drinkard caught 41 passes for 390 yards and rushed for 201 yards in 2005 while playing A Back, a versatile runner-receiver backfield position.
Despite the lack of experience, Sullivan is confident the Blazes are capable of passing the ball effectively this season.
"We feel like, talent-wise, we might be as good or even a step up -- if they stay healthy. They just haven't played a lot," Sullivan said.
The most positive surprise of the spring came from junior Willie Edwards (6-3, 215), who has spent most of the last two seasons fighting off injuries. Edwards brings much-needed size to the receiving game and finally appears ready to make good on his potential.
The Blazers are also counting on senior Nick Coon (6-2, 185) and sophomore Steven Brown (6-1, 185). Coon made an immediate impact by catching 10 passes for an impressive 36 yards per catch average as a freshman in 2003 but has since caught only three passes. Brown, an Auburn transfer, was another one of the best surprises of the spring.
Beyond the first four, the Blazers are hoping sophomore Sylvester Mencer (5-11, 185), redshirt freshman Gershom Bigham (5-11, 190) and incoming freshman Mike Jones (6-1, 180) will be able to contribute this fall.
While Drinkard will play the outside receiver position, or "X," backed up by Edwards, Coon and Mencer will play flanker, or "Z" with Brown and Bigham at the inside receiver, or "W."
The Blazers are also starting over at tight end after the loss of Cedric Hampton, who started the last two and a half seasons. The coaches have high hopes for senior Jordan Erwin (6-3, 245), who, after a solid spring, will most likely open the season as the starter, ahead of redshirt freshman Zach Lankford (6-4, 245). Sigler is also capable of contributing at tight end.
"We'll use them a lot," Sullivan said. "They'll play a lot of football for us."
To add a little strength and size to the running game, the Blazers also spent the spring working with tackle LaDarrius Stanley (6-3, 315) at tight end.
"He was really a pleasant surprise for us in the spring," Sullivan said, "and he gave us a lot of strength running the football in power situations."
For all the concerns on offense, the offensive line should be a team strength this season. Four starters, as well as several key reserves, return.
"You can't be one-dimensional in college ball today," Sullivan said. "You've got to be able to do both [run and pass] and you can't let the defense just tee off on you, so we're going to have to be balanced. That starts up front."
That one departed starter is Matt Batusic, a three-year starter and all-conference center who was a team leader.
It's not realistic to expect any of UAB's current centers to bring all Batusic brought to the line as a senior, but the Blazers are not without talent at the position.
Redshirt freshman Jake Seitz (6-2, 300) is talented enough to get the job done, but he's yet to play a down of college football and still has a lot to learn. That's why the coaches moved junior Adam Truitt (6-3, 310) to center in the spring. Truitt started at left guard in 2005 but also backed up Batusic at center, and his presence at center ensures better competition and depth at a key position.
"That's why we moved Adam from guard to center," offensive line coach Brandon Herring said. "Adam has played some center and he's got some experience as a starter, so that should help Jake a little bit. There's nothing wrong with Jake at all except his lack of experience, so we're just going to try and help him a little bit and let Adam work at both."
The coaches would not have been so willing to move Truitt to center if it had not been for the spring performance of senior guard Alan Leon (6-4, 320), who struggled as a junior college transfer last fall and then made an impressive transition in the spring, moving into position to start at right guard.
"He's really coming on, so he's the reason why we can afford to move Adam to center," Herring said.
Beyond right guard and center, seniors Cornelius Rogers (6-4, 320) and Julius Wilson (6-5, 310) return as the starting tackles for the third consecutive season, giving the Blazers what could be the best tackle tandem in C-USA.
"They've been around for awhile and played a lot of ball for us," Sullivan said. "We're counting on them to be their best as seniors."
The Blazers played without senior left guard Quinton Harris (6-4, 330) in the spring while he devoted his time to improving his academic status, but he started most of the last two seasons and is expected to do so again in '06.
Behind the starters, the Blazers are counting on support from junior guard JaMarius Dismuke (6-5, 320), senior guard Tommie Keys (6-1, 300) and redshirt freshmen tackles Patrick Swoopes (6-4, 310) and Willie Thompson (6-6, 280).
After starting at punter in 2003 and '04, Parker Mullins (5-11, 180) added the placekicking job to his duties in 2005, with mixed results. Mullins made 14-of-18 field goals and all 37 PATs, but then struggled with his punting.
Sophomore Swayze Waters (6-0, 170) ended up handling kickoffs last year and produced only seven touchbacks, with five kicks sailing out of bounds.
Both players will continue to battle for the placekicking job, but even though the Blazers didn't sign any new kickers, they plan to bring in some walk-ons who will compete for the job in August.
"We must kick the ball better, in my opinion," Brown said. "We're going to bring in some different kickers and punters, see if [Mullins and Waters] will accept it and keep getting better. We're going to challenge them with some different guys."
Last year's Jacksonville State game was tough on the defensive line, which lost three experienced players -- end Tony Haynes-Dalton and tackles, Sam Williamson and Earnest Respress -- in the game.
"We didn't get healthy for another 3-4 games," Christophel said.
The Blazers lost Williams, Respress and Sam Kendrink from the defensive tackles and nose tackle spots and then spent most of the spring working without two nose tackles, senior Clarence Respress (6-2, 320) and Jason Hamlin (6-2, 280), as well as two defensive ends, senior Jermaine McElveen (6-5, 250) and junior Haynes-Dalton (6-4, 285).
"I think we'll be a little bit better this year because we're experienced, we had a good spring and we're getting some guys back in August who didn't practice much in the spring," Christophel said.
At nose tackle, Respress is ready to move into the starting lineup while Hamlin is attempting to return after missing most of the last two seasons with a knee injury.
At defensive tackle, sophomore Brandon Jeffries (6-5, 255) and junior Jerrickus Speights (6-5, 255) both moved inside from end with positive results. Haynes-Dalton will return to compete for the starting job at tackle after missing most of last season and the spring.
"Every one of those guys inside has played," Christophel said, "so our defensive line -- I'm going to put a little heat on our guys -- should have a good year. The beginning of our schedule is tough, but if we can shore up that three-technique [tackle] and nose tackle position with these guys, we'll be OK."
For all the experience at the two interior positions, the ends will be even deeper, more experienced and more talented, starting with senior Larry McSwain (6-1, 255). McSwain has been a first-team all-conference selection each of the last two seasons and enters the 2006 season as a candidate for the C-USA Defensive Player-of-the-Year award, as well as the "Watch Lists" for both the 2006 Lombardi and Lott Trophy Awards.
McSwain finished with 53 tackles, four forced fumbles and an interception in 2005, but his sacks dropped from 13 in 2004 to four last year and Christophel is working with the defense to give McSwain more opportunities at pressuring the quarterback.
"He didn't have as good a year as he did as a sophomore, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that people changed up the way they did things against Larry," Christophel said. "People who passed the football did everything they could to take him out of games with an extra blocker.
"But the good thing about it for us is that Larry isn't the only experienced end coming back. We've got three other guys who have started at some point in their career here."
The key for McSwain will be getting help from McElveen and senior David Miller (6-3, 265), who will probably continue to share the positions as "co-starters" in 2006. Senior Kyle Bissinger (6-3, 255), a former high school quarterback, will continue to provide depth behind McSwain.
"All four of those guys are good football players and we feel good about that position, so that ought to help Larry and maybe free him up to make more plays," Christophel said.
Before last season, the Blazers were concerned about replacing their linebackers after losing three experienced starters. It didn't take long, though, for the coaches to see that the new linebackers, seniors Orlandus King (6-3, 215), Mastaki Smith (5-11, 230) and Marcus Mark (6-2, 230), would give the Blazers what they needed.
The trio went on to combine for 171 tackles, with King leading the team with 85 stops, three sacks, six tackles for loss and two interceptions. This time around, the linebackers are the least of UAB's concerns, with Smith plugging up the middle and King and Mark manning the outside spots.
"Last year was a new year for them, but this year we have some experience so we should be better," Christophel said. "The linebackers are kind of like the quarterbacks. They've got to be in control out there and that comes with experience. We felt like coming out of spring those guys did a real good job."
King was especially impressive in the spring after adding 10 pounds in the offseason. "There's not a better one than Orlandus in our league," Brown said.
The UAB coaches also like their depth behind the starting linebackers, with the return of sophomore Joe Henderson (6-2, 215), sophomore Kris Guyton (6-3, 230) and junior Gerod Condry (6-2, 220). Henderson is expected to play even more after making 35 tackles in 2005, while Guyton earned C-USA All-Freshman Team honors after making 43 tackles last season. Condry is a former defensive back who brings additional speed to the linebacker position.
Even though the Blazers lost three experienced players with the departure of two starters, safety Dominique Cosper and cornerback Carlos Hendricks, as well as reserve safety Julius Wainwright, the secondary returns several young players with experience.
At one cornerback spot, junior Carnell Williams (6-1, 205) enters what should be his first full season as a starter, but he emerged as a starter down the stretch last season and finished the seasons with 22 tackles.
At the other corner, senior Will Evans (5-9, 175) has seen starting duty the last two seasons and finished 2005 with 27 tackles and one interception.
Sophomore Kevin Sanders (5-11, 185) saw plenty of playing time in 2005 and intercepted two passes, while junior Durrell Fuqua (5-11, 185) and sophomore Matt Taylor (5-11, 185) saw considerable playing time at nickel back last year, recording 20 tackles. Brandon Carlisle (5-10, 180) may be a redshirt freshman, but he'll compete for playing time at cornerback and nickel back.
"Darrell and Matt played well for us at the end of last year," Christophel said. "And coming out of the spring we felt like our corners did as much improving from the end of last season to the end of spring as any area on the defense."
The Blazers aren't quite as deep at the safety spots, but they return two experienced starters at free safety in junior Will Dunbar (6-1, 195) and senior Brandon Register (5-11, 190).
"Brandon brings more experience and he's seen a lot of things," Christophel said. "He improved his speed and flexibility in the spring and did some good things, but Will is a good football player. We feel like we're in good shape there coming out of spring." The loss of Cosper and Wainright and the decision to move Register to free safety means the Blazers are starting over at strong safety, but both candidates for the starting job, senior Chris Felder (5-10, 185) and junior Chris Johnson (6-1, 190) bring some practical experience to the job.
Add it all up and the secondary should be better this season after some shaky moments in 2005.
"Every one of those guys except Brandon Carlisle has been on the field for us," Christophel said. "We have some different ideas about how we want to do some things, but you can see why we want to simplify and just let these guys play."
Parker Mullins may have been the Blazers' starting punter the last three seasons, but he averaged only 38.6 yards per punt last season and had two punts blocked. For all of Mullins' experience, Brown is more than willing to open up the job. Swayze Waters will continue to compete, along with the walk-ons expected to arrive in August.
"I think Parker will be better, but he's also being challenged," Brown said. "We have some kids coming in who will push him and we already have another kicker on the team, Swazey Waters, and he's pushing Parker, so some of that is up for grabs."
The Blazers have made a habit in recent years of gaining an edge in the kicking game, but that wasn't the case last year. Between two blocked punts and only 5.9 yards per punt return and only 20.3 yards per kickoff return, the Blazers didn't measure up to their usual standards.
"We weren't as good in the special teams as we have been here," Brown said. "We've always been very strong in special teams here. We've always been good on blocks and returns, but that fell off a little bit, too. That's going to change."
In order to put more emphasis on the kicking game this season, Brown assigned assistant coach Rodney Bivens to coordinate the special teams after coaching the wide receivers the last three seasons.
The Blazers return both snappers, with junior Chris Barrett (6-0, 235) on long snaps and sophomore Jeff Hamby (6-1, 205) on short snaps.
In the return game, Drinkard, Sanders, Evans, Mencer, Elliott and Burks are among the players who may see action at punt and/or kick returner.
"Our punters and kickers are all back, our snappers and holders are all back," Brown said. "All the kickoff returners are back. The only thing that's not back in the kick game is the punt returner, and we weren't that good at that last year."
Except for the injured players who sat out, the Blazers came through with a productive spring in many areas.
"A really good spring," Brown said. "We didn't hurt anybody, got a lot of questions answered and we know what the questions are. I feel like we're leaving spring with everything in our minds of exactly where we are and what we need to do."
Now the Blazers must spend their offseason program and preseason practice preparing for a season that begins Sept. 2 at Oklahoma. After a home game against East Carolina on Sept. 9, the Blazers play at Georgia on Sept. 16.
"I think it's the toughest schedule in the short history of UAB football," UAB Brown said.
The Blazers need to be at least 1-2 heading into a must-win home game against Mississippi State on Sept. 23. A 2-2 record heading into October would be fine, considering the schedule. A 1-3 record would put the Blazers in a tough position to meet their goals of a winning season and a bowl, because they play three roads games at SMU, Southern Miss and UCF among their four final games.
"Does it concern me? Yes, but no," Brown said. "It just seems that's the way it's fallen here and that's the way it fell this year. We'll deal with it."
The big key to surviving the tough early schedule and getting on track heading into the conference schedule will be the progress of the offense.
"The talent level is there on offense, it's how quickly does that talent level play the role," Brown said. "Can they go to Norman and grow up fast? Can they come home and not wait till about game four or five before I'm really seeing what I want to see? Can it be in game one and two?"
Even then, the defense and special teams will no longer be able to count on Hackney to bail the team out with a rally or a big play.
"We're going to be a run-first team after being a pass-first team the last couple of years, and if you're going to do that, you have to be good on defense and be good in the kicking game," Brown said. "We've played to our defense before and had success with it, and we can do it again."
Without Hackney, Brown expects the Blazers to be picked to among the bottom three teams in the Eastern Division. He also expects his team to defy those predictions and surprise a few folks along the way.
"It's a funny team and it's going to be funny to see how people pick us," Brown said. "People may pick up down a little bit because of Darrell being gone. I think we can have a really good team. The schedule is brutal and we've got to get through the first piece of our schedule and stay healthy and win some games in the conference.
"If we get through the first part of our schedule alive and beat East Carolina early, we'll have a chance. It's a team people better look out for because by the time the conference season really kicks in we could be pretty good."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
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