No. 99: U.A.B.
By Paul Myerberg // May 21, 2011
Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., is recalled fondly as the site of several memorable college football affairs, most notably as the home of Iron Bowl from 1948-88. Unfortunately, not one meaningful game held at Legion Field has involved hometown U.A.B., which since establishing its football program in 1991 has garnered only the slightest of interest in this football-crazed state. Is it a matter of too much Alabama and Auburn, with too little a potential fan base remaining to strongly support a third team? Or is the dearth of interest due to the fact that since their inception, the Blazers have gone an uninspired 104-119-2? The former is most certainly the case, but the latter doesn’t help.
Conference USA, East
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
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. 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.
In a nutshell If you had told me in August that the Blazers would drop to 4-8, one win coming off the team’s 2009 mark, I’d have said there was little chance Neil Callaway returned in 2010. Yet the Blazers did, and here’s Callaway, back for year five. What gives? It’s not as if last fall presented the image of a program on the verge of a breakthrough: the defense was terrible, the special teams worse, and the Blazers still lacked the confidence needed to pull out games in the fourth quarter. Well, maybe there were some signs of life, if you looked close enough. Only two of the five Conference USA losses came by more than 14 points. Two losses came by a field goal or less. The offense clicked down the stretch following a quarterback change. So there was some good news. You just had to know where to look.
High point Two pretty nice wins. One came at home: U.A.B. 34, Troy 33. Another came on the road: U.A.B. 50, Southern Mississippi 49, in overtime. So those wins showed that the Blazers could have been good, though they were unable to bottle those victories and turn them into extended winning streaks.
Low point Oh, the agony. The Blazers went into Knoxville and head Tennessee on the ropes one, two, three, four, five times yet couldn’t nail down the win, falling by three points in two overtimes. What made the difference? Try five missed field goals, which made the loss one of the more painful of the 2010 season.
Tidbit U.A.B.’s .467 career winning percentage is the 17th-worst in the F.B.S., and ranks fourth among the five youngest programs in the country: U.S.F., U.C.F., Florida Atlantic, the Blazers and Florida International. The 16 teams with worse career winning percentages: F.I.U. (.295), Kent State (.388), Wake Forest (.410), UTEP (.413), Indiana (.422), New Mexico State (.426), Buffalo (.432), Louisiana-Monroe (.434), Kansas State (.435), Temple (.437), Northwestern (.438), Rice (.440), Idaho (.447), Eastern Michigan (.451), Iowa State (.457) and U.N.L.V. (.458).
Former players in the N.F.L.
4 LB Bryan Thomas (New York Jets), K Swayze Waters (Pittsburgh), QB Joe Webb (Minnesota), WR Roddy White (Atlanta).
Arbitrary top five list
Father-son men’s college basketball coaches (son active)
1. John and John Thompson III (Georgetown).
2. Eddie and Scott Sutton (Oral Roberts).
3. Gene and Murray Bartow (East Tennessee State).
4. Dick and Tony Bennett (Virginia).
5. Don and Dan Monson (Long Beach State.
Neil Callaway (Alabama ’78), 15-33 after four seasons with the Blazers. The program has yet to post a winning season under Callaway, though he has taken the Blazers from a low point to an average point — so he’s done something, just not enough. 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
So the Blazers have a quarterback. His name is Bryan Ellis, and if U.A.B. is going to head to bowl play in 2011, it will be on the strength of his arm. My only question: Why wasn’t he starting from day one? Ellis began the 2010 season behind David Isabelle, a running threat who has since transferred out of the program, and didn’t start until the third game of the season, when the Blazers knocked off Troy. He made the most of the rest of the year, throwing for at least 300 yards four times en route to 2,590 yards passing with 25 touchdowns. So he’s a player to watch, as well as the polar opposite of the quarterback who preceded him as the full-time starter, Joe Webb.
Speaking of Webb: without his dual-threat services, the Blazers went with a more traditional, running back-based ground game. And JUCO transfer Pat Shed delivered, breaking free of his August competition to lead the team with 847 yards rushing — the fourth-most in school history — with a team-leading 47 receptions, a school record for a back. He had a nice year, clearly, and will do even more with the type of touches he got down the stretch in 2010. After sitting out a year after transferring, former Georgia back Dontavious Jackson will get his shot at living up to his ballyhooed recruiting status.
The offensive line really came together last fall. For the first time under Callaway, the Blazers matched an in-pocket passing game with a nice rushing attack, which is a testament to this front. Four starters return from a year ago: Matt McCants, Terrence Edge, Greg Calhoun and Darion Smith. McCants (left tackle), Edge (right guard) and Smith (center) should retain their spots; Edge has since moved behind McCants at left tackle. The two other starters, as of today, have starting experience. Chris Hubbard, who started at guard a few times in 2010, moves out to right tackle, and junior Caleb Thomas brings double-digit career starts into the job at left guard.
The receiver corps needs to be rebuilt a bit, and U.A.B. faces a distinct hole at tight end after Jeffrey Anderson exhausted his eligibility. The Blazers will have a very hard time replacing his 32 catches for 407 yards, even with a by-committee approach. Frantrell Forrest is also gone at receiver, but the Blazers hope that junior Patrick Hearn (35 receptions for 536 yards, 4 scores) can stop up into the void as Ellis’s favorite target. Another player to watch is sophomore Jackie Williams, a conference all-freshman pick last fall, who will join Hearn in the starting lineup. What else would help? If Nick Adams can regain his 18.5-yard-per-catch form of 2009; he missed last season due to injury.
U.A.B. hired a new defensive coordinator to replace Eric Schumann, marking the first significant staff shake-up of Callaway’s tenure. You may know the new guy: Tommy West, formerly of Clemson and, most recently, Memphis. He’ll have his hands full from the start creating a competent defense, something the Blazers haven’t seen since the pre-Callaway days. The returning experience on the defense helps, but let’s keep in mind that these same players, one year younger, ranked near the bottom of Conference USA in each important statistical category.
At least there is experience, as noted. It’s the case in the secondary, where West will have three returning starters to work with. Four, actually, if you count cornerback Terrell Springs, who has made 22 career starts. He’s more a third corner now, sitting behind 2010 starters T.J. Ballou and Marquis Coleman, but all three will see significant time. It’s a similar story at safety, where U.A.B. brings back Jamie Bender (94 tackles, second on the team) and Chase Daniel, though the latter can’t seem to stay healthy. Two recent JUCO additions just add further depth. And that’s a good thing, though U.A.B.’s pass defense with these same contributors was only slightly better than that found at Memphis and Rice — in other words, it was pretty bad.
Marvin Burdette (113 tackles) lead the way at linebacker. A second returning starter, Daniel White (55 stops), has the desired experience but might still start the year behind Lamanski Ware in the middle, though much remains to be decided. Greg Irvin and Drew Luker have also started in the past, but as with White and Lamanski, it’s difficult to project which pair will join Burdette in the starting lineup. Burdette’s a sure thing, but you can’t really say the same about the rest of the linebacker corps.
Position battle(s) to watch
Defensive ends The youth up front is troubling. At least the Blazers have tackle Elliot Henigan, a second-team all-Conference USA pick in 2010 after making 55 tackles (15.5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks. He’ll be joined in the middle by junior Cody Payne, a part-time starter in the past, and sophomores Deric Scott and Adam Arthur. Sadly, Henigan will be hard-pressed to duplicate those numbers with an cast of unknowns surrounding him. The Blazers need these youngsters to grow up fast: ends Chris Walton and Jamie Omufrak are redshirt freshman, one of which will start; Connor Boyett and Andrew Mahan are competing to start on the other side, and while Boyett played a nice amount last fall he’s far from a known commodity. So this is a problem, potentially one that could derail the U.A.B. defense for another year. Then again, if the line can come together, playing up to its athleticism, maybe the Blazers can take a step forward defensively.
Game(s) to watch
That non-conference slate is intimidating: Florida and Troy on the road, Mississippi State at home. The Blazers also can’t afford to lose to the weaker teams in Conference USA, as it did with Rice last fall, so wins against Tulane and Memphis are mandatory.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell So it doesn’t look at all that bad for U.A.B., at least on paper. No, even on their best day these Blazers won’t be great, thanks to an offense that still needs to prove itself over a full season and a defense that remains a giant question mark. But looking at what’s there, one could conceivable convince themselves that the Blazers will win six games: there’s Ellis at quarterback, Shed at running back and an experience offensive line; there is an all-conference caliber linebacker and a secondary with options. 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 — and a new coordinator — so 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.
Dream season A winning season.
Nightmare season Another losing season.
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.
Through 22 teams 57,272.
Who is No. 98? The first of a few summer days off for the Countdown tomorrow, more than likely, so for Monday: The next program on the Countdown has outscored the opposition by more than 100 points over the span of a season only 10 times in its history, most recently in the last half-decade, but has done so over successive seasons only once, in the late 1970s.
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Tags: Bryan Ellis, Conference USA, Elliot Henigan, Marvin Burdette, Neil Callaway, Pat Shed, Patrick Hearn, Tommy West, U.A.B.
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