No. 117: U.A.B.
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 20, 2012
Even if all had gone according to plan, Jimbo Fisher still wouldn’t be the head coach at U.A.B. in 2012. Either Fisher would have flamed out, failing to lead the Blazers to respectability, or he would have won enough games in Birmingham to land the top job at, say, Arkansas. Or Florida State, even. His eventual landing spot doesn’t matter. What does matter is how the University of Alabama Board of Trustees set U.A.B. football back at least a half-decade, if not more, by nixing the university’s contract agreement with Fisher late in 2006, when he was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at L.S.U. Take Neil Callaway instead, suggested the trustees. In comes Callaway; five years later, Callaway and his 18 wins were sent packing. Where is U.A.B. today if Fisher is hired instead? Are the Blazers on the upswing, like Houston or Southern Mississippi, or are the built-in hurdles too much for any coach to overcome?
Conference USA, East
11 (7 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 15
at South Carolina
- Sept. 22
at Ohio St.
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at Southern Miss.
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
So what’s not to like? Well, to be blunt, Callaway — and the program at large — has done nothing to prove itself worthy of receiving the benefit of the doubt; the Blazers have been bad for years, frustrating for longer, perhaps, and we’ve been in this place before, expecting a bowl run, only be disappointed come season’s end. So I’m not falling for it, not even with an offense with talent and a deeper defense complete with a new coordinator. I’m more of mind to believe the 2011 season will end for U.A.B. how it has for the last half-decade and more: disappointed, frustrated, below .500 and in the bottom half of Conference USA.
In a nutshell At various points from 2008-10, U.A.B. seemed on the verge of breaking through. The Blazers went 4-8 in 2008, but two losses came by four points or less. A 5-7 finish the following season included another two losses by a touchdown or less. Even if U.A.B. fell back to four wins in 2010, another four defeats came by five points or less, including a heartbreaking overtime loss at Tennessee. But sandwiching those three fairly competitive seasons were two of the foulest, smelliest, least-competitive years in program history, and only one can be excused. The Blazers should have been terrible in Callaway’s first season: new coach, new system, new look, new everything. But by his fifth season, 2011, U.A.B. should have figured out a way to get over the hump and reach bowl eligibility. Sadly, Callaway’s last team was worst than his first.
High point Callaway’s departure was already written in stone by the time U.A.B. reached November, so it’s frustrating that the team saved its best play for the year’s final month. On Nov. 17, U.A.B. beat then-No. 20 Southern Mississippi, the eventual Conference USA champs, 34-31. Callaway saved his best win for the second-to-last game of his tenure. And followed it up with a loss to winless Florida Atlantic in the season finale.
Low point U.A.B. suffered two of the worst losses of any team in the country. There’s the 38-34 loss to F.A.U., then 0-10. Over its previous five games, F.A.U. had combined for 49 total points. On Sept. 17, the Blazers lost to Tulane by 49-10. Both scores boggle the mind.
Tidbit U.A.B. is 21-51 since 2006, Watson Brown’s final season with the program. During this six-year span, the Blazers are 5-19 during non-conference play. Three of the five wins came against Sun Belt foes – Troy twice, F.A.U. once. The other pair came over Alcorn State and Alabama State. Over the same time frame, U.A.B. is 16-32 in Conference USA play. In the history of the program, U.A.B. holds a winning record against only two F.B.S. conferences: the Sun Belt (17-15) and the Mountain West (2-1). Somehow, the Blazers beat T.C.U. twice in a three-game span from 2001-4.
Tidbit (running and throwing edition) U.A.B. was never good under Callaway, but the Blazers remained mediocre even when reaching certain offensive milestones. From 2007-11, U.A.B. went 16-17 when rushing for 140 or more yards. Over the same period, the Blazers went 14-21 when throwing for 200 or more yards. When running the ball well, U.A.B. was average. The Blazers won 40 percent of their games when throwing at a slightly above-average rate. Perhaps the problem was that U.A.B. couldn’t run and throw the ball well at the same time.
Former players in the N.F.L.
3 LB Bryan Thomas (New York Jets), QB Joe Webb (Minnesota), WR Roddy White (Atlanta).
Arbitrary top five list
Baseball players born in Birmingham, Ala.
1. 1B Lee May.
2. SP Virgil Trucks.
3. SP Bob Veale.
4. C Spud Davis.
5. OF Lyman Bostock.
Garrick McGee (Oklahoma ’96), entering his first season. McGee is only the fourth coach in the program’s short history, joining Jim Hilyer, Watson Brown and Neil Callaway. He inherits something well short of a full deck: Callaway left the roster largely devoid of difference-making talent, and in addition to dealing with personnel issues McGee must reverse the losing mentality that has pervaded the program for the better part of a decade. He arrives in Birmingham from Arkansas, where he spent the last four seasons as an offensive assistant under Bobby Petrino. After serving as Arkansas’ quarterbacks coach from 2008-9, McGee was promoted to offensive coordinator prior to the 2010 season. That fall, the Razorbacks were the only team in the F.B.S. with a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and five 600-yard receivers. Last fall, despite losing Knile Davis and breaking in a new quarterback, McGee’s offense led the SEC in passing, scoring and total offense. Immediately prior to joining Petrino’s staff in 2008, McGee spent four years as an assistant at Northwestern, the final two as quarterbacks coach and coordinator. That was a difficult situation for any coach to encounter: McGee took over offensive duties from the late Randy Walker, the Wildcats’ former head coach who died prior to the 2006 season. After scuffling in 2006, the Wildcats averaged nearly 26 points per game during a 6-6 2007 season. In addition to Arkansas and Northwestern, McGee was an assistant at Toledo, U.N.L.V. and Northern Iowa. His offensive background sets him apart from other young offense-first head coaches: McGee learned spread principles from Walker and passing schemes from Petrino, and not many can say they learned at the feet of two such highly-regarded offensive minds. Are there warning signs? The fact that he’s never been a head coach raises a slight red flag, though everyone needs to start somewhere. His ties to Arkansas, especially with the Razorbacks looking to make a hire within days, is the biggest concern.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Meet the new staff. In some spots, McGee’s group has an Arkansas feel. New defensive coordinator Reggie Johnson spent the last four seasons as the Razorbacks’ inside linebackers coach, for example. Arkansas’ two graduate assistants last fall, John Owens and Brandon Sharp, will coach the tight ends and safeties, respectively. As a whole, it’s an impressive staff for a debut coach. Jeff Brohm, a Petrino disciple in his own right, will be McGee’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after spending the last two years at Illinois – though McGee will remain hands-on with the offense. Former Buffalo defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams will coach the defensive line. Former Ohio State tight ends coach John Peterson will handle the offensive line. The staff also has one holdover from Callaway: Tyson Helton, the former quarterbacks coach, will coach the Blazers’ running backs and serve as the recruiting coordinator.
Players to watch
The quarterback competition is crowded, but I think that’s how McGee wants it. He’s in a better situation than, say, Memphis, which quickly saw its applicant pool drop from three to one – or two, if we count the wide receiver listed as the emergency quarterback – over the span of three months. What U.A.B. has, however, is three or four options, all of whom have used the spring as a showcase for the new coaching staff. Somewhat poor numbers during the spring – the scrimmage totals don’t stand out – can be tied to the change in offensive philosophy, not to mention one major tweak the returning quarterbacks have encountered: after years of playing out of the shotgun, the majority of plays will come with the quarterback directly under center.
On paper, junior Jonathan Perry will be tough to unseat. Thrown into the mix as a first-time starter down the stretch last fall, Perry put together a few nice games: he threw for 327 yards in a win over U.C.F. and another 410 yards against Memphis, and in the win over Southern Mississippi completed 17 of his 26 attempts for 236 yards and a score. The talent is there for Perry to be the Blazers’ starter for the next two years. But it’s hard to hand him the starting job outright, thanks to a few other options McGee has at his disposal. One is senior Joe Bento, even if he scuffled as a reserve last fall. Another is redshirt freshman Austin Brown, who’s had his moments during the spring. A fourth is true freshman Josh Greer, who enrolled early. Greer was McGee’s first scholarship offer at U.A.B. – he was also under consideration for an offer from Arkansas – which does mean something, even if Greer’s time lies a year or so down the road.
While the offensive line was crippled by graduation – more on that below – U.A.B. is fortunate to return nearly every offensive skill player from a year ago. In fact, the Blazers lose only three significant contributors from last fall: backup quarterback Bryan Ellis, running back Pat Shed, who only played in five games as a senior, and blocking tight end Danny Volk. Everyone else returns, including receiver and return man Nick Adams, who landed another season of eligibility after missing all of the 2010 season due to injury. With Adams, junior Jackie Williams (58 receptions for 607 yards), senior Patrick Hearn (31 for 364) and sophomores Jamarcus Nelson (17 for 358, team-best 21.1 yards per catch) and Jay Davis (18 for 174) in the fold, U.A.B. has a deep and fairly gifted receiver corps.
McGee has also had good things to say about junior Freddie Moore, though he was quick to point out that Moore still lacks the consistency needed to crack into the rotation on a permanent basis. In addition, look for this new offense to rely more heavily on the tight ends, such was the case at Arkansas. While there’s no D.J. Williams-like target on the roster, returning tight ends like Nolen Smith and Kennard Backman will hold more substantial roles.
An issue for years, it’s hard to see the U.A.B. running game making a large, night-and-day improvement without some help from the offensive line, which must replace four starters. What you will see is a larger commitment to running the football, and a new look at that: less finesse, less side-to-side running, more downhill, more straight ahead. McGee wants bigger guys, bruisers, and he may have two in junior Greg Franklin (430 yards, 2 scores) and sophomore Darrin Reeves (327 yards). Reeves, at 5’11 and more than 200 pounds, certainly fits the criteria that McGee is looking for. But beyond size, the new running style will take a wholesale change in mentality – from the running backs themselves to the offensive line. We’ve seen countless times how difficult it can be to move from one ground philosophy from another; adding to that learning curve is the new-look front, which should be a constant source of irritation for much of the season.
Not that the defense was particularly good in 2011 – it was horrible, actually – but the lack of proven starting experience on the roster heading into this season is cause for concern. The Blazers must replace seven starters off last year’s group, including the entire secondary and both interior linemen. The stream of departures has McGee and his staff playing connect the dots, moving ends to tackle, ends to linebacker, safeties to cornerback and so on down the line. If the offense has issues, the defense has problems – there’s a difference, though it’s hard to explain.
One of the Blazers’ first personnel moves was switching two-year starting end Connor Boyett (31 tackles) inside to tackle. What Boyett has in experience he lacks in size – he’s about 270, give or take – so U.A.B. would be wise to partner him with sophomore Mickey Jackson (17 tackles, 1.5 for loss), the team’s biggest lineman. It’s not just about heft for Jackson: he’s also a pretty nice prospect who acquitted himself well as a rookie last fall, and might need only experience to become a all-conference candidate. Deric Scott, who started the first two games of last season at tackle, would be a solid reserve.
What Boyett’s move does is leave sophomore Diaheem Watkins without a running mate at end. While the best options are similarly raw underclassmen like Chris Walton, Trey Grissett and Jose Casanova, it’s been heartening to see each add some size over the last 12 months. Watkins was in way over his head as a true freshman; the added size will do him some good.
Marvin Burdette (92 tackles) is back in the middle and Greg Irvin (66 tackles) returns on the strong side, but U.A.B. needs to find a replacement for weak side linebacker Lemanski Ware. D.A. Autry (39 tackles) is one potential replacement for Ware, though Autry is best suited on the strong side. The Blazers’ best starting trio might be Irvin on the strong side, Burdette in the middle and Irvin on the weak side, though U.A.B. would prefer to have a more athletic linebacker in Ware’s old spot. One player who has impressed the staff during the spring is converted end Jesse Parrish, a former walk-on.
The secondary starts from scratch. With the massive losses – only three returning starts out of a possible 48 – it’s vital that returning contributors like Cornelius Richards, Caleb Lester, Lamar Johnson and Calvin Jones take on leadership roles. Richards, who made one start at cornerback last fall, is locked into a starting spot. So is Johnson at safety, joined by JUCO transfer Cortez Webb, with Jones fighting to be the first safety off the bench. Webb is one of two JUCO additions who could factor into the starting mix, joining cornerback Kelton Brackett, who won’t arrive on campus until the summer. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation: U.A.B. lacks proven experience, which could make this secondary prone to giving up big numbers during conference play.
So what are the Blazers’ overriding concerns? It’s either the chicken or the egg: either the pass rush needs to improve to offset a weak secondary, or the secondary must hit the ground running to offset what again looks like a paltry pass rush. Throw in an annual inability to stop the run and you get one of the worst defenses in Conference USA, barring a one-year turnaround. It’s more likely the offense, despite line woes, is farther ahead than the defense in McGee’s first season. However, unless the Blazers’ issues on offense resolve themselves – which should take some time – this team is not going to roll out and simply outscore the opposition.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line U.A.B. brought 118 career starts along the offensive line into last season, the third-most of any team in the country. Not that this experience did a lot of good: the offensive front did a mediocre job protecting the quarterback and opening up holes on the ground, though the offense did not make enough of a commitment to the running game. Heading into this season, U.A.B. must replace 162 career starts – you know, 118 plus the starts linemen like Terence Edge, Matt McCants and others earned last fall. That’s a lot of starts to replace; in the span of one year, U.A.B. has gone from having an extremely experienced line to having one of the greenest offensive fronts in college football.
Peterson has his hands full. The lone returning starter is right tackle Chris Hubbard, a 12-game starter last fall. That was Hubbard’s first year in the starting lineup, so he’s undergoing his own transformation: from new face to steady hand. He’ll also likely undergo a position change, from right tackle to left tackle, where he’ll be tasked with replacing McCants, a first-team all-conference pick as a senior. While McGee and Peterson are still a week or so away from issuing a two-deep, senior Cody Payne – who has played five different positions since arriving in Birmingham two years ago – seems to leading the pack in the competition to replace Caleb Thomas at left guard. Sophomore Brian O’Leary, who backed up Edge last fall, should slide into the starting lineup at right guard. It’s going to be hard for U.A.B. to replace center Darion Smith, a former JUCO transfer who solidified the center the of the Blazers’ line over the last two years. For now, U.A.B. is going forward with sophomore Kyle Hix, though he’s a bit undersized for the position.
Game(s) to watch
Troy is an absolute must-win. If the Blazers lose to the Trojans in the season opener, a 1-5 start is guaranteed. The impact a sour start could have on this team’s confidence could be disastrous. What the schedule doesn’t provide is any time for air: Troy is followed by South Carolina and Ohio State, Southeastern Louisiana is sandwiched by Tulsa and Houston, and Tulane is followed by Southern Mississippi.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell McGee has already started the process of rehabbing the Blazers’ mindset, instilling in this team a sort of energy and enthusiasm long missing over Callaway’s five seasons with the program. Eventually, the boost in self-confidence will yield dividends. And it’s conceivable that at some point in the future, the current staff will actually — yes, it’s possible — win games at a nice clip with the Blazers. What will it take? A commitment to starting from the bottom up, a dedication to finding under-the-radar talent on the recruiting trail and the patience to see this through. The latter falls also on the university, which should give McGee an extremely long leash as he works through Callaway’s mess. That’s the long-term goal: U.A.B. can win games, though it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s more likely that it takes McGee and the Blazers at least one full season to get on the same page. With a team in flux, a new coaching staff and this schedule, U.A.B. should be tickled by whatever comes — as long as it looks like the program is moving forward. Oh, and U.A.B. should hope that come Monday night, after Arkansas has announced its next head coach, Garrick McGee is still a Blazer.
Dream season McGee stays, of course, and leads U.A.B. to an improbable run through Conference USA play. While the Blazers start slow, they end the year 8-4, 6-2 in conference action, and atop the East division.
Nightmare season McGee stays, but the results are disheartening. A season-opening loss to Troy opens the floodgates on a one-win season, with that lone win coming over Southeastern Louisiana during non-conference play. U.A.B., not Memphis, finishes last in the East division.
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. Another is BlazerTV.com, which has editorial content in addition to videos and podcasts. 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.
U.A.B.’s all-name nominee DE Jose Casanova.
Through eight teams 25,934.
Who is No. 116? Tomorrow’s university is the only one in the country to have its own recording label.
Tags: Arkansas, Chris Hubbard, Conference USA, Connor Boyett, Cornelius Richards, Diaheem Watkins, Garrick McGee, Greg Franklin, Jackie Williams, Jamarcus Nelson, Jeff Brohm, John Peterson, Jonathan Perry, Josh Greer, Marvin Burdette, Mickey Jackson, Neil Callaway, Nick Adams, U.A.B.
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