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#116 Old Dominion Monarchs





HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 46-14 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kermit Buggs, Rich Nagy

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 116 Old Dominion.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2014: 

As it moves into its second season in FBS and its first in Conference USA, Old Dominion has the luxury of a proven quarterback in senior Taylor Heinicke. He begins this season with a string of 33 straight starts and the 2012 Walter Payton Award — the FCS equivalent of a Heisman — on his résumé. Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder says Heinicke’s decision-making is critical for his young team. Last year, the Atlanta native completed 70.0 percent of his passes for 4,022 yards with 33 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

He’ll have some options in the passing game as Antonio Vaughan and Zach Pascal return after catching 40 or more passes last year. There’s also a wave of young talent at receiver behind them that has the Monarchs’ staff excited.

The running backs will be young — the more established trio of Gerard Johnson, Cam Boyd and Malik Moseley might have to share time with newcomers. After losing some key contributors on the offensive line, the Monarchs are looking for answers there, too, although coaches believe there’s enough raw talent on hand to form a solid group.
Old Dominion as a program is still in the process of adjusting to the FBS level, but the Monarchs’ offense — which averaged 42.3 points per game as Heinicke torched opposing defenses — is ready to compete in Conference USA.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2014:

All but two of the Monarchs’ defensive starters from the end of the 2013 season are back, but that may not mean much. After the Old Dominion defense gave up 34 points and more than 450 yards per game last season, every spot is up for grabs.
The main culprit for the struggles was inexperience. The Monarchs were painfully young on the defensive line in 2013, starting six first-year players at various points. All of them are back, and the coaches hope they’ll be able to build on that experience.

After strong springs, junior college transfers Reece Schmidt and Martez Simpson will provide a boost for the linebacker corps. Andre Simmons should help too after moving down from the safety spot.

The secondary returns two starters, including last season’s leading tackler Fellonte Misher.

For a unit that had its share of low moments last season, most notably giving up a head-spinning 80 points at North Carolina, improvement is mandatory if the Monarchs plan on making any noise in their new league.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2014:

Ricky Segers will handle the kicking duties after redshirting last season. Sophomore Joe Pulisic and freshman Jarrett Cervi will likely battle in preseason for the punter job. All of them should benefit from experienced long snapper Rick Lovato. In addition to being key cogs on offense, Vaughan and Moseley will figure prominently in the return game as well.

Final Analysis 

Since the program restarted in 2009, the Monarchs have shown that they can adapt. In their second year in the powerful CAA, they won a league title and reached the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. In their first season as an FBS program, they knocked off Idaho and hung with bowl teams East Carolina and Pittsburgh. In five seasons, all under Wilder, the Monarchs are 46–14.

The challenge will be steeper this season as there’s only one FCS school on the schedule as opposed to the seven that the Monarchs played in 2013.

But with Heinicke as the face of the program and last season’s young talent maturing, Old Dominion appears to have what it needs to keep that steady upward trajectory in place.


#109 UAB Blazers





HEAD COACH: Bill Clark, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryant Vincent | DEF. COORDINATOR: Duwan Walker

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 109 UAB. 

Previewing UAB’s Offense for 2014

Finding playmakers shouldn’t be a problem for the Blazers. Finding someone to get the football to the playmakers could be a bit trickier. UAB has several quarterback candidates but none with any significant FBS experience. Junior college transfer Cody Clements moved to the front during spring practice, but redshirt freshman Jeremiah Briscoe, who had shoulder surgery last season, is not far behind. Four other quarterbacks are on the roster, including a pair of true freshmen, but it looks like the job will go to either Clements or Briscoe.

The good news is, they can spread it around to some quality playmakers. Sophomore running back Jordan Howard was a Freshman All-Conference USA selection after sharing the position with departed standout Darrin Reaves. If junior Bashr Coles stays healthy, then the Blazers have a pair of rugged runners.
Senior receiver Jamarcus Nelson was one of the most dynamic receivers in the conference last season — averaging 20.1 per catch on his 42 receptions and scoring eight touchdowns — and sophomore Jamari Staples is also a big-play threat. They are just the start of a deep and talented corps of pass-catchers that also features the top C-USA tight end in veteran Kennard Backman.

UAB should be solid up front, even though there could be a bunch of interchangeable parts. The Blazers have four returning regulars, including a pair of solid tackles in Cameron Blankenship and Victor Salako, and plenty of incoming help. Redshirt freshman center Zach Sims could be a future star.

Previewing UAB’s Defense for 2014

UAB fans are accustomed to bad defense. New head coach Bill Clark, a defensive coach by trade, looks to change that quickly. The Blazers appear to be deep on the defensive side and possibly more talented than in the recent past. Time will tell if that translates into more defensive success.

The secondary should be a strength after a disastrous 2013 when injuries decimated the defensive backfield. Calvin Jones and Jay Davis, who started at safety in last year’s opener, return after missing most of the season with injuries. They are part of a deep group of safeties, including intriguing junior college transfer Kalen Jackson, who also could play linebacker. Cornerback is well manned with Kelton Brackett, Lamarcus Farmer and Jimmy Jean leading the way.

UAB has to get better up front. Defensive ends Diaheem Watkins and undersized Chris Rabb give UAB speed on the edge, but the Blazers need to shore up the inside. Junior Jontavious Morris is solid at nose tackle, and junior college transfers Parrish Huddleston and Robert Mondie will contribute. Health is not an issue, and the numbers are good if some first-year players can fit in right away.

Jake Ganus, last year’s leading tackler, returns at linebacker but is not guaranteed a starting spot. Truth is, no one had a starting spot secured heading into fall camp. Destin Challenger played well in a short stint before getting injured last season, and Shaq Jones is impressive physically. Perhaps the most important thing is finding someone to win the job in the middle.

Previewing UAB’s Specialists for 2014

The Blazers have one of the top pairs of specialists in the league in kicker Ty Long and punter Hunter Mullins. Nelson is a dynamic kick returner.

Final Analysis

Don’t expect miracles from Clark in his first season, but do expect improvement from Garrick McGee’s short tenure as the program’s head coach. Defensive improvement is a must, and someone needs to secure the quarterback job. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see UAB double its win total from last season, which was two, but they are probably a couple of years away from turning things completely in the right direction.


#127 FIU Panthers





HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 1-11 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 127 FIU.

Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2014:

Coming off arguably the worst offensive season the Football Bowl Subdivision has seen since 2005, further regression seems impossible for FIU. The team will be based around an offensive line that returns five starters from last season, including left guard Jordan Budwig, a local product who started as a true freshman last season and was the team’s best run-blocker.

In all, FIU returns offensive linemen with a combined 69 career starts. The hope of FIU coach Ron Turner and his staff is that experience will help the Panthers improve a rushing offense that averaged 2.1 yards per carry last season (last in the nation, and it wasn’t even close) and a passing game that was forced into quick dump passes on nearly every down.

The big question for FIU in 2014 is who will be under center (and that idiom still applies to the pro-style Panthers). Jake Medlock, the Panthers’ starting quarterback last year, transferred to D-II Valdosta State for his senior season, leaving the man he beat out last year, E.J. Hilliard, and a promising pair of early enrollee freshmen to battle for the job. Hilliard, a scrambling quarterback from nearby Miami Northwestern, has never looked comfortable in Turner’s anti-spread scheme. His competition for the starting job comes from Tampa product Alex McGough. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, McGough is as prototypical of a pocket passer as FIU is going to find, and he stole the show in the Panthers’ spring game. He’ll be pushed by fellow freshman Bud Martin, who has the best arm strength of the three.

Regardless of which quarterback plays, he’ll be handing the ball off to junior running back Lamarq Caldwell, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season. For a team based in South Florida, FIU has a surprising dearth of playmakers at wide receiver. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith picked up many of those dump passes.

Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2014: 

FIU didn’t exactly pair a strong defense with its anemic offense last year, and the defense could devolve further in 2014.

Finding two defensive tackles who can replace Greg Hickman and Isame Faciane is priority No. 1 in West Miami. The two tackles were the reason FIU’s 5.28 yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt wasn’t a bigger number and that the FIU pass rush had any numbers at all. With both gone to graduation, the Panthers will give first dibs on their jobs to junior Lars Koht and sophomore Imarjaye Albury.

There’s depth at defensive end, with Giovani Francois and Denzell Perine standing out. Wonderful Monds II should provide quality snaps as well. Darrian Dyson can play multiple positions and could be the D-line’s X-factor.

The return of cornerback Richard Leonard from academic ineligibility should boost an already solid secondary, which is anchored by free safety and male model (seriously) Justin Halley.

Linebacker is another position of concern. Middle backer Luis Rosado is the group’s top returning tackler (35). He’ll be flanked by Davison Colimon and Patrick Jean, who combined for 39 tackles.

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2014:

The Panthers are young on special teams. Austin Taylor returns after a decent freshman season in which he made 8-of-12 field goals. True freshman Luke Medlock is likely to win the starting punting job.

Final Analysis

While the natural progression of players and the return of Leonard at cornerback provide hope that FIU can improve, holes in the defensive front seven and the possibility that a true freshman will start at quarterback extinguish those small bits of positivity. Games against Louisville, Pitt, Marshall and even rival FAU are likely to be embarrassingly lopsided. The Panthers have a better chance of going winless than making a bowl game. 


#117 UTEP Miners





HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Patrick Higgins | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Stoker

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 117 UTEP.

Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2014: 

When UTEP’s skill position players were healthy and whole in the first half of the season, the Miners’ run-oriented attack was humming.

Most of the key pieces are back, led by quarterback Jameill Showers, who transfered from Texas A&M after finding himself behind Johnny Manziel. Showers played well before separating his shoulder in the seventh game. He completed 57 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions despite playing behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him.

Showers has to find a new No. 1 receiver after Jordan Leslie, who was on track to make a run at every school receiving record, transferred to BYU. Senior Ian Hamilton is the likely new top target after catching 25 passes a year ago. Malcolm Trail and Jarrad Shaw, along with tight end Eric Tomlinson, will also be a big part of the passing attack.

A Sean Kugler offense, however, starts with the running game, and Aaron Jones returns after a spectacular freshman debut — 90.1 yards per game, first among freshmen nationally — that was cut short by injury after nine games. Senior Nathan Jeffery has been productive when healthy.

The line returns three starters, but they are all changing positions as the Miners look to get bigger. Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown, athletic but smallish for what UTEP is trying to do in the middle, are moving from guard to tackle, and center Paulo Melendez is moving to guard. UTEP should be 10 pounds heavier per man on the line than it was last year, but this is still the area of concern.

Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2014:

UTEP’s been bad on defense for a decade, and last year may have been a new low point. Last spring, the Miners switched to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Jeff Choate, but he left the program in April. They then made the move to a 4-2-5 under Scott Stoker, who was hired away from Sam Houston State.

They spent most of the fall looking confused. UTEP ranked 12th in Conference USA in total defense (468.3 ypg) and was especially bad against the run. The Miners gave up 6.2 yards per rushing attempt (119th in the nation) and allowed 18 rushes of 30 yards or more. They also tied for last the league with only 13 sacks. There wasn’t much that this defense did well.

End Roy Robertson-Harris, perhaps the best athlete on the team, will lead an otherwise young line. The back seven is far more experienced. Linebacker Anthony Puente and several defensive backs with starting experience in last year’s revolving door are back, led by corners Adrian James and Ishmael Harrison and safeties Dashone Smith, Devin Cockrell and Wesley Miller.

Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Miners weren’t very good at kicking last year, but they still felt good enough about Jay Mattox (7-of-15 on field goals) that they didn’t recruit another placekicker. Punter Mike Ruggles (40.0 yards per attempt) was solid enough, but the star of the special teams is kick returner Autrey Golden, who was among the national leaders in both return average (27.6) and touchdowns (two).

Final Analysis 

As long as the Miners stay healthy at the offensive skill positions, they should score enough points to keep them in most games. That happened for the first part of last season, but they didn’t win many games because the defense was so porous.

A combination of a second year in the system and a host of experience in the back seven should lead to improvement on defense, but it will have to be dramatic for UTEP to win six games and challenge for a bowl.