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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 100: U.A.B.

If Neil Callaway doesn't keep U.A.B. afloat in 2010, he'll have plenty of time for golf.

U.A.B. has increased its win total in each of the last two seasons, indicating the progress that has been made under Neil Callaway since finishing 2-10 in 2007, his debut season. Yes, this team has improved in each season. Yet the Blazers remain in the second division of Conference USA, thanks to a failure to put together consistent periods of play and a penchant for folding in November. Last year was no different: 5-5 through mid-November, U.A.B. dropped its final two to finish out of bowl contention. This year’s schedule features a very winnable final month, but with the way U.A.B. opens the year, it might be too late by that point to finish with six wins.

Conference
Conference USA, East

Location
Birmingham, Ala.

Nickname
Blazers

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 95

2009 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 83

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Florida Atlantic
  • Sept. 11
    at S.M.U.
  • Sept. 18
    Troy
  • Sept. 25
    at Tennessee
  • Oct. 6
    at U.C.F.
  • Oct. 16
    UTEP
  • Oct. 23
    at Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Southern Miss
  • Nov. 6
    Marshall
  • Nov. 13
    E.C.U.
  • Nov. 20
    Memphis
  • Nov. 27
    at Rice

Last year’s prediction

For me, the best-case scenario for the 2009 Blazers (this is different than dream season, where the laws of reality rarely come into play) is a 6-6 mark. This takes into account the following games as victories: Rice, S.M.U., Marshall, UTEP, Florida Atlantic and U.C.F. Of course, anything can happen, and no one ever said the Countdown was perfect. Still, despite an electric quarterback in Webb and an experienced defensive line to build around, I just don’t think the Blazers are prepared to go bowling just yet.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The offense was among the most overlooked in the country: thanks to the severely underrated quarterback Joe Webb, the Blazers racked up 229.9 yards of offense on the ground and an additional 196.0 yards through the air. The 333 points scored was a program-high under Callaway and the second-most in program history, trailing only the 372 points the Blazers scored in 2004. So what was the problem? As one would expect from a 5-7 team with this offense, U.A.B. struggled on defense. This was particularly true against the pass — though U.A.B. was not stout against the run either — where opponents threw for 311.5 yards per game while completing 65 percent of their attempts. More bad news: Webb has exhausted his eligibility. Does U.A.B. have any chance of competing for a West division title without the all-conference quarterback doing all the heavy lifting?

High point A streak of three straight victories from Oct. 31 – Nov. 14, which evened U.A.B.’s record at 5-5. Not that the wins were all that impressive; UTEP, Florida Atlantic and Memphis combined to win 11 games on the season. The Blazers did top Southern Mississippi by 13 to open October, giving it one impressive victory on the season.

Low point A 34-27 loss to Central Florida, the team’s second straight to end the season, sent U.A.B. to its fifth consecutive losing season. If any game summed up the year on a whole, this was it: the Blazers racked up 527 yards of offense, averaged more than six yards per carry and forced U.C.F. into a pair of turnovers – yet trailed by 17 entering the fourth quarter.

Tidbit One reason to think U.A.B. may be on the verge of breaking through: for the fourth consecutive season, Callaway’s coaching staff has suffered no turnover. As you can imagine, this is extremely rare. While four seasons is not necessarily unheard of, the consistency is at least somewhat reminiscent of Gary Pinkel’s staff at Missouri, which until offensive coordinator Dave Christensen’s departure for Wyoming prior to last season had remained static for the better part of a decade. Like U.A.B., Missouri struggled to break into the top half of the Big 12 over Pinkel’s first five years with the program; however, the last five years of Missouri football has been some of the best — if not the best — in school history.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 LB Bryan Thomas (New York Jets), K Swayze Waters (Oakland), WR Joe Webb (Minnesota), WR Roddy White (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Last five times I’ve worn a blazer
1. December 2009. Brother’s wedding.
2. August 2009. Brother’s wedding.
3. Unknown.
4. Unknown.
5. Unknown.

Coaching

Neil Callaway (Alabama ’78), 11-25 after three seasons with the Blazers. Though U.A.B. has yet to post a winning record under Callaway, it has made an improvement in the win column in each of the last two seasons. After opening with a 2-10 record in 2007, the Blazers followed up a 4-8 mark in 2008 with five wins last fall. The Blazers have also improved their win total in conference play in each season. While the U.A.B. job represents Callaway’s first head coach position, the longtime assistant brought with him more than 20 years of college experience, much of it in the SEC. Prior to being hired, Callaway served six seasons as the offensive coordinator at Georgia (2001-6), a period during which the Bulldogs won 61 games and a pair of SEC championships. The Bulldogs also finished in the top 10 four times, including a 13-1 finish and No. 3 ranking in the final poll. Though a graduate of Alabama, Callaway’s longest coaching stint was at Auburn (1981-92), where he served as the team’s offensive line coach. Prior to Auburn, Callaway spent two seasons as a part-time assistant at East Carolina (1978-79) and a single season as the offensive line coach at Wyoming (1980), both times under Pat Dye, whom he followed to Auburn. After Auburn opted to replace Dye in 1992, Callaway spent three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Houston (1993-96) before taking a position at Alabama (1997-2000); in addition to his typical line duties, Callaway was also the team’s offensive coordinator.

Players to watch

Quarterback Joe Webb accounted for 73 percent of U.A.B.’s total offense in 2009, which should tell you all you need to know about how difficult it will be for the Blazers to replace the two-year starter. The good news is that his likely replacement, David Isabelle, is built in the same mold as his predecessor: a true threat as a runner, mobile and super athletic. He finished second on the team in rushing last fall with 288 yards, averaging nine yards per carry. The bad news is that Isabelle, like Webb was in his first season under center, is not quite the polished passer. He completed 6 of his 14 attempts last fall for 39 yards and a touchdown. He’s only a sophomore, so expect some ugly games as a passer, but Isabelle has athleticism to spare; if he starts the entire season, look for him to challenge the 1,000-yard mark in rushing. If Isabelle’s lackluster passing forces Callaway to ponder other options, look for Bryan Ellis, a better thrower, to step into the starting lineup.

The Blazers return three of their top four receiving targets from a season ago. Leading the way is senior Frantrell Forrest, who posted team highs in receptions (34), yards (558) and touchdowns (9). His healthy yards per receptions average (16.4) and touchdown total came as a result of Webb’s dual-threat ability, at least somewhat, so it will be interesting to see if Forrest can remain a deep threat with a new starter under center. Helping matters is senior tight end Jeffrey Anderson, who made 26 grabs for 398 yards and 5 scores, and junior receiver Nick Adams, whose 15 catches for 277 yards yielded a team-best 18.5 yards per reception. With Forrest and Adams stretching the field and Anderson finding holes between the seams, this is not a bad group. Keep an eye on receiver Mike Jones, who had a very quiet 2009 but was one of the leading performers during winter conditioning and spring practice.

It would be great if U.A.B. could some — any — production from its running backs. Such an improvement would take pressure off a new quarterback, allowing a player like Isabelle to grow into the position instead of feeling pressured to not only compete as a passer, but carry the load on the ground. The Blazers must replace Rashaud Slaughter, who all U.A.B. backs with 250 yards rushing in 2009, but return three players currently vying for the top spot. The favorite is Justin Brooks, who trailed only Slaughter among U.A.B. running backs with 211 yards rushing a season ago. He’ll face a challenge from Daniel Borne (188 yards) and JUCO transfer Pat Shed, who arrived on campus in time to participate in spring practice.

The improvement of the defense is the key storyline for the Blazers as we enter the summer. As I’ll touch on in the season breakdown, U.A.B. will only be as good as its defense, which was often overshadowed — if not altogether bailed out — by last season’s very good offense. The crux of the problem last fall? A terrible secondary, which, as noted earlier, struggled mightily. It’s promising that three starters return in the defensive backfield in 2009, and U.A.B. added a few new additions with the goal of boosting this paltry last line of defense.

If available — all four missed time in the spring either due to injuries or suspensions — the quartet of Chase Daniel, Hiram Atwater, Elliot McGaskin and A.J. Wilson will give the Blazers four safeties to work with. Add in JUCO transfer Jamie Bender, and defensive coordinator Eric Schumann will have the luxury of competition, often a rare sight in the U.A.B. secondary. The competition will be especially fierce at strong safety; Atwater, who lead the team with 89 tackles, was the starter for most of last season, but McGaskin and Daniel (three interceptions) showed the ability to perform ably when inserted into the lineup. Bender arrived on campus as a strong safety, though he could double at free safety, where he played his JUCO ball. When all is said and done, Bender may be the best player in the defensive backfield; he was superb during the spring.

There’s a similar story at cornerback, though the position lacks the depth the Blazers have at safety. One starter returns: junior Terrell Springs, who posted 68 tackles and a team-best 10 pass breakups in 2009. Marquis Coleman, also a junior, will figure heavily into the mix to replace Brandon Carlisle, who played cornerback in addition to free safety for the Blazers. Coleman started some games for U.A.B. last fall, tying Daniel for the team lead with three interceptions. Like Bender, JUCO transfer T.J. Ballou will earn every opportunity to earn significant playing time in his first season on campus. Though he was limited somewhat by injuries, Ballou began to make an impact toward the back end of spring practice.

The front seven is in better shape. The Blazers bring back four players with starting experience at linebacker; in better news, the final two-deep at linebacker for the 2009 season featured all underclassmen, including four freshmen. Another youngster, junior weak side linebacker Lamanski Ware, finished second on the team with 71 tackles. The lone seniors in the mix, Keon Harris and Darrion Wilson, will again battle for time on the strong side.

Three more starters return up front. The interior of the line will be manned by junior Elliot Hanigan (47 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 4 sacks) and senior David DeCordova, the latter a former JUCO transfer who will be counted on for increased production in his final season. Things look fine at end, where the Blazers return starters Tim Davis and Derek Slaughter — though Slaughter is still recuperating from injury — and top reserve Bryant Turner, who accounted for a team-best 11 tackles for loss and 6 sacks a year ago. All three are seniors.

Position battles to watch

Center Outside of Webb, the biggest loss on offense is that of center Jake Seitz, a four-year starter. U.A.B. can hope to offset his loss with the return of four players with starting experience up front. Juniors Matt McCants (left) and Greg Calhoun will again man the bookend tackle spots, having earned valuable experience in the starting lineup a year ago. Senior Greg Bulls, the starting left guard, becomes the most experienced offensive lineman on the roster; he’s started each of the last two seasons since arriving on campus as a JUCO transfer. Coming in at right guard is junior Caleb Thomas, who shared time at the position last fall with departed contributor Jared Koechner. So the Blazers are set at both tackle and guard spots. What about at center? Two players are competing for the position, though Thomas, perhaps the team’s most versatile lineman, could find himself moving to center in 2010. Darion Smith, a JUCO transfer, and sophomore Adam Arthur shared time in the middle during the spring, with Smith singled out multiple times by the U.A.B. coaching staff for his solid play during the spring.

Game(s) to watch

Even with East Carolina expected to take a step back this season, U.A.B. should look at that game, along with dates at Southern Mississippi and U.C.F., as the key games of the conference season. The Blazers don’t need to win all three to win the division – or even to reach six wins – but it would certainly help. With three non-conference games coming against Troy, Mississippi State and Tennessee, U.A.B. should look at the season opener against Florida Atlantic as a must-win.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell With all the talk of a new quarterback, with all the concerns such a move brings — a move exacerbated by the importance Webb played to the offense — U.A.B. will only improve as far as its defense improves. After three consecutive seasons ranked in the bottom 20 in total defense (114th last fall), is there any reason to think this season will be any different? No, I don’t think so, though this group should certainly make a least a slight improvement heading into 2010. Where is the improvement going to come from? Returning experience, perhaps, though such things are nearly always overrated. Instead, I’m banking on a deeper secondary, which welcomes back three returning starters and a few new contributors who will undoubtedly find themselves in the mix come September. It’s only a shame that the secondary could not be as deep a year ago, when U.A.B. certainly had the offense of a bowl team. Instead, while the defense will take a step forward, the offense will take a step back. Such as life, especially when you must replace the best quarterback in team history — one of the best quarterbacks in the F.B.S. from 2008-9 — with an unproven commodity, whether it be Isabelle or Ellis. Can U.A.B. match last season’s win total? Yes, but it won’t be easy.

Dream season For the third consecutive season, U.A.B. improves upon its win total: 9-3, 6-2 in conference. That’s good enough for a division title, the program’s first championship of any kind since its inception.

Nightmare season The university would likely be in the market for a new coach should the Blazers slip to 3-9.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.A.B. fans congregate? A few options. One is Blazer Talk, which seems to me to house the most U.A.B. football chatter. You can also go with Blazer Sports Report, which gives more recruiting-based coverage. Can’t go wrong either way, though I’d always suggest going to the fan-run site before the Rivals or Scout site.

Up Next

Who is No. 99? Our next school was a clue in Tuesday’s New York Times crossword puzzle.

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Comments

  1. Freakville says:

    Navy?

  2. [...] Pre-Snap Read is doing a count down – #100 UAB. [...]

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