Conference USA


#123 UTSA Roadrunners





HEAD COACH: Larry Coker, 23-23 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Brown | DEF. COORDINATOR: Neal Neathery

UTSA was a pleasant surprise last season — for about two weeks. The Roadrunners upset Houston and came close to doing the same to Arizona in the first two games of the season. Larry Coker’s veteran team couldn’t keep it up and finished 4-8. Now, all those veterans are gone — no, really. UTSA returns three starters, all on defense.

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Previewing UTSA’s Offense for 2015

The biggest reason UTSA saw its scoring output drop by 8.5 points per game in 2014 was the play at quarterback, where four players labored through injuries and inexperience to compile a combined passer rating that ranked No. 119 in the nation. 

The position was open during the spring, but the smart money is on Blake Bogenschutz to win the job in the fall. Bogenschutz was the No. 2 quarterback last season and filled in for injured starter Tucker Carter early before breaking his hand and seeing his season end in September. Bogenschutz appeared in three games (starting one) and completed 56 percent of his passes with no touchdown passes and two interceptions. Michigan transfer Russell Bellomy is eligible immediately after seeing little playing time in four years in Ann Arbor and is a wild card candidate who will compete for the job. 

Whoever plays quarterback will at least have some help at running back, where the explosive Jarveon Williams should own the job after sharing it in his first two seasons. The offensive line, however, is undergoing a complete makeover and is expected to take its lumps.  

Tight end David Morgan II might be the Roadrunners’ most talented offensive player and will be a focal point of the passing game if he can stay healthy, which has been an issue. Wide receiver Kenny Bias appears to have his off-field issues resolved and could have a big season as a senior alongside dependable slot receiver Aaron Grubb.

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Previewing UTSA’s Defense for 2015  

The inexperience on the defensive side isn’t quite as bad as on offense, but only three starters return to a unit that ranked 54th nationally in points allowed. The front four will have to be replaced, though three players who were in the two-deep rotation will step into starting roles. Senior Jason Neill will be a leader at defensive end and should be stronger another year removed from ACL surgery. Defensive tackle Brian Price sat out the spring as a precaution but will be counted on as he assumes a larger role. 

Linebacker Drew Douglas is the defense’s best player and will be an All-C-USA candidate. He was third on the team in tackles a year ago and plays a vital role in the Roadrunners’ 4-2-5 scheme. 

The secondary struggled at times, but the hope is that improvement will be made in this area. Former Oklahoma transfer Bennett Okotcha is the No. 1 corner and looks primed for a breakout senior season. At safety, Michael Egwuagu beat out Chase Dahlquist, although both should play. At the other two safety slots, athletic Nate Gaines, Baylor transfer Austin Jupe and returning starter Mauricio Sanchez will battle for time and solidify the back line.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UTSA’s Specialists for 2015  

The question marks that run rampant throughout the Roadrunners’ two-deep don’t stop when it comes to the specialists. Kicker Daniel Portillo and punter Yannis Routsas, a freshman, are both untested. Aaron Grubb is slated to handle both kickoff and punt return duties.

Final Analysis 

UTSA fell far short of expectations in 2014 when it welcomed back 19 starters from a 7–5 team. This year, the Roadrunners will not have to worry about the bar being set too high. With inexperience up and down the depth chart, serious questions at quarterback and a brutal non-conference slate that includes four bowl teams, coach Larry Coker is facing a steep challenge. UTSA is in only its fifth season as a Division-I program, but this could feel like Year 1 all over again unless several players step up and make big strides.


#116 Southern Miss Golden Eagles





HEAD COACH: Todd Monken, 4-20 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chip Lindsey | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Duggan

Todd Monken saw improvement at Southern Miss in his second season. However, the talent level for the Eagles simply wasn't good enough for Monken to compete in Conference USA. However, seven starters are back on offense and he is slowly beginning to restock the roster with depth. But is it enough for Southern Miss to reach a bowl game or compete in the C-USA West Division?

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Previewing Southern Miss’ Offense for 2015  

Todd Monken begins his third season at Southern Miss hoping to keep the Golden Eagles trending back toward their successful past. USM enters the fall having improved from a disastrous 0–12 in 2012 to 1–11 in 2013 and 3–9 in 2014. The last time Southern Miss endured three straight losing seasons was 1929-31. Monken may get the Golden Eagles winning again by creating healthy competition at the quarterback position. He returns Nick Mullens, who has started 16 games, and adds TCU transfer Tyler Matthews, who was recruited by Monken to Oklahoma State when he was the Big 12 school’s offensive coordinator. Matthews, a better runner than Mullens, will be familiar with the USM offense. Mullens passed for 2,470 yards and 12 touchdowns last year despite missing several games with a foot injury.

At running back, 5'9" Ito Smith is back after leading the Golden Eagles with 536 rushing yards. George Payne, solid in short-yardage situations, has scored most of the team’s rushing touchdowns the past two seasons, while sophomore Tez Parks is USM’s most powerful back and averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year. Southern Miss needs much more production from its backs after the rushing offense ranked last in Conference USA.

Monken beefed up the Golden Eagles’ offensive line in his latest recruiting class, including four mid-year transfers who participated in spring workouts. USM finds itself with its best depth up front since Monken arrived, as four starters return.

Sure-handed Casey Martin is a possession receiver who led the Golden Eagles with 55 catches a year ago. Outside receiver Michael Thomas also was one of Mullens’ top targets with 592 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

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Previewing Southern Miss’ Defense for 2015 

Known for their stout defensive reputation, the Golden Eagles have fallen in recent seasons. They ranked ninth in the league in total defense, 10th in rushing defense and 11th in scoring defense. USM also ranked last in the league in turnover margin, losing 26 and gaining only 16.

It doesn’t help the Golden Eagles that defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches left after his junior season to make himself eligible for the NFL Draft or that the top three tacklers — safeties Jacorius Cotton and Emmanuel Johnson and linebacker Alan Howze — completed their eligibility.

Senior linebacker Brian Anderson, the top returning tackler, is back to provide leadership along with Elijah Parker. D’Nerius Antoine, a midyear signee, quickly established himself at a hybrid linebacker/defensive back spot in the spring.

In the secondary, there’s not a better name in the league than Picasso Nelson Jr., who may move from cornerback to safety this fall. Junior college transfers Deshadrick Truly and Devonta Foster could step in and be factors, too.  

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Southern Miss’ Specialists for 2015  

The Golden Eagles must find a replacement for kicker Corey Acosta, who made 19-of-25 attempts last year, including a 52-yarder. Among those competing for the spot is UAB transfer Nick Vogel, who redshirted last fall, and Parker Shaunfield. Punter Tyler Sarrazin is back after averaging 39.5 yards on 66 kicks. 

Final Analysis

With September games against Mississippi State and Nebraska, the early season schedule will be daunting for a rebuilding program that has only four wins the past three years. But Monken is moving toward opening up his offense as he adds depth. Matthews, the TCU transfer at quarterback, could be an interesting addition on offense if he beats out Mullens. Regardless, the offense must improve. The Golden Eagles scored only 23 touchdowns, which ranked 12th among the league’s 13 schools, and averaged only 19.0 points per game. 


#117 North Texas Mean Green





HEAD COACH: Dan McCarney, 22-27 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Canales | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Cosh

Dan McCarney has a bit of a roller coaster ride at North Texas, posting nine wins two years ago but just four last fall. He's got a new coordinator and will increase the tempo on offense in an effort to rebuild his squad in the C-USA West Division. With only nine starters back, McCarney has his work is cut out for him in 2015.

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Previewing North Texas’ Offense for 2015  

North Texas ranked 114th nationally in total offense last season. There are still quarterback questions, and the previous strength, a veteran offensive line, has mostly graduated. Four new starters will be up front. “It’s a major void,” coach Dan McCarney says. “Those new guys have come together and developed, but four new starters is still four new starters.”

UNT has settled on Andrew McNulty as its quarterback after other contenders did not impress. McNulty started six games last season, passing for 1,295 yards, six TDs and seven interceptions. McCarney says McNulty’s offseason progress reminds him of the same growth former standout Derek Thompson made heading into his senior season. UNT should be so fortunate.

Wideout Carlos Harris, already with 136 career catches, enters his senior season on pace to finish as one of the program’s most productive receivers. Tight end Marcus Smith led the team with six TD catches last season. But Harris and Smith are possession receivers in need of a big-play partner. Redshirt freshman Tee Goree, one of the team’s top recruits a year ago, could fill that role.

UNT should remain a run-first team with the return of leading rusher Antoinne Jimmerson (589 yards), but look for Jeffrey Wilson (224 yards) to get more carries.

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Previewing North Texas’ Defense for 2015 

The defensive line was completely rebuilt a year ago, and now it must be a strength as other units break in new starters. Defensive ends Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson accounted for 10.5 of the team’s 33 sacks last season and are part of a rotation at end. Also, Jareid Combs, who had 17 sacks in junior college last season, joins the mix. But the line needs more than a pass rush. “I think we can get into a nine to 10-man rotation of quality players on the line,” McCarney says. “So I feel a lot better about that than I did a year ago.”

In the back seven, two all-league players must be replaced, including linebacker Derek Akunne, Conference USA’s leader in tackles per game last season. To shake up the group, returning starter Fred Scott moves from middle to outside linebacker, and Buffalo transfer Blake Bean steps into the middle.

Kenny Buyers is a team captain and dependable cornerback, but the other cornerback spot may be fluid. Free safety Kishawn McClain returns after earning C-USA All-Freshman honors, but he must move into a leading role amid an inexperienced secondary. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing North Texas’ Specialists for 2015  

Placekicker Trevor Moore is back after a Freshman All-America season in which he made 15-of-17 field goals. Eric Keena ranked second in C-USA in punting average (44.8), and UNT returns key parts of a unit that ranked fifth nationally in kick return coverage.

Final Analysis

In 2013, McCarney finished a three-year plan with a senior-laden squad that went 9–4. After going 4–8 last season and still carrying several concerns, this team looks to be in the middle of that three-year cycle, at best. The offense will try to go more up-tempo to mask inexperience on the line. The defense will attempt to reload under new coordinator Chris Cosh. And McCarney will throw some young talent on the field in hopes of finding the next wave of standout players.

UNT’s quirky schedule offers no favors. After a Week 1 off date, it plays 12 straight weeks with no bye and only five home games. Trips to Tennessee and Iowa highlight the non-conference slate. And C-USA cross-division opponents include Marshall (13–1 in 2014), Western Kentucky (8–5) and Middle Tennessee (6–6).

“That schedule is why everyone has so much urgency around here,” McCarney says. “We want to win and not just show up, but we are a team in development right now.” 


#128 Charlotte 49ers





HEAD COACH: Brad Lambert, 10-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Mullen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt Wallerstedt

Charlotte is the newest member of the FBS ranks, and the 49ers join Conference USA after winning 10 games over the last two seasons under coach Brad Lambert. Charlotte has a ways to go before competing for a bowl game or a conference title, but the 49ers should score plenty of points in 2015 behind running back Kalif Phillips and receiver Austin Duke.

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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2015 

The master plan for Charlotte’s young football program was to have its first generation of players come of age at the same time. As the 49ers enter their third season of existence and first in Conference USA, that plan should start paying off as most key offensive players return to a quick-strike offense that had 22 touchdown drives of 90 seconds or less last season.

Junior running back Kalif Phillips is coming off a 1,436-yard season and should again have a prominent role. He’ll have the luxury of an offensive line that brings back plenty of experience. Charlotte’s top two receivers, Austin Duke and Trent Bostick, also return, headlining a talented group that also includes Georgia transfer and former four-star recruit Uriah LeMay.

While much of the offense is settled, things should be interesting at quarterback. Matt Johnson started eight games last season before tearing his MCL. After he went out, Lee McNeill stepped in and helped lead the 49ers to two victories. Both players will be juniors this season and should be pushed by redshirt freshman Brooks Barden.

“I just feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces,” says Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, who served on Jim Grobe’s staff at Wake Forest for 10 years.

Previewing Charlotte’s Defense for 2015

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After giving up 31.6 points per game last season, Lambert turned to former Texas Tech defensive coordinator — and his old college roommate — Matt Wallerstedt to fix a shaky defense. Wallerstedt, who says he’ll keep the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, inherits a defense that has some talent but little depth.

Lambert says he’s happy with the options along the defensive front. After missing last season, Devon Johnson will join last season’s sack leader Larry Ogunjobi on the line. Syracuse transfer Josh Manley should also be a factor.

Elsewhere on defense, there are questions. Nick Cook and Caleb Clayton-Molby will anchor the linebacking corps after both missed chunks of last season due to injury. Branden Dozier, last season’s leading tackler, and Devin Pearson will be proven options in the defensive backfield. But Lambert says that developing talent to put around these standouts will be the top priority heading into the preseason.

Related: Athlon’s 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2015 

Kicker Blake Brewer and punter Arthur Hart are back and should keep their spots. Chris Montgomery, Corey Nesmith, Damarrell Alexander and Ardy Holmes all had roles in the return game last season and should be in the mix again.

Final Analysis

Charlotte football has gone from an idea to a fully operational FBS program at warp speed. After two seasons as an FCS competitor, the enormity of the challenge it faces this season could show. This will be the 49ers’ first season with the full complement of 85 scholarship players. So while they’ll have talent, much of it will be young and untested against the level of competition it’s getting ready to face.

Also, up until now, Charlotte has eased into things with regard to scheduling. Previous slates were made up of FCS and Division II schools. This season, 11 of the team’s 12 games will be against FBS competition. In addition to Conference USA foes, the 49ers will face Temple and Kentucky.

Coming off of back-to-back 5–6 seasons, Charlotte has shown that, while it has room to improve, it’s not that far behind the learning curve. With the competition ratcheted up significantly this season, the 49ers hope to continue to show gradual improvement. Being competitive with Conference USA’s middle tier would be a sign that, despite the accelerated pace of progress, the program is right on schedule.


#113 Old Dominion Monarchs





HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 52-20 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rich Nagy

Bobby Wilder proved in short order that Old Dominion can compete in the FBS ranks after a six-win 2014 campaign. Replacing a superstar like Taylor Heinicke will be nearly impossible but seven other offensive starters are back. In C-USA's tougher division (East), the Monarchs were nice story a year ago, and Wilder has some equity built up heading into what appears to be a tougher sophomore campaign.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2015  

For four seasons, quarterback Taylor Heinicke was the face of Old Dominion football. Heinicke won the Walter Payton Award — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — and threw for nearly 15,000 yards, giving the Monarchs the luxury of predictably solid quarterback play as they navigated the transition to the FBS level. With Heinicke gone, Old Dominion’s offense faces the kind of questions it hasn’t dealt with in a several years.

Redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley will be the player most likely to fill Heinicke’s shoes. The 6'1" Shuler threw a South Carolina state-record 71 touchdown passes as a senior in high school and spent last season as the backup Heinicke never needed. Junior college transfer Joey Verhaegh will also have a shot at the starting gig. Whoever ends up with the job will have tools with which to work.

Sophomore running back Ray Lawry will again have a big role after rushing for 947 yards and being named Conference USA’s top freshman. He leads a stable of solid backs that also includes promising sophomore Vincent Lowe and speedy freshman Jeremy Cox. After the loss of standout receiver Antonio Vaughan to graduation, Zach Pascal, David Washington and Melvin Vaughn become the prime targets in the passing game.

The Monarchs lost an all-conference center in Josh Mann but return 10 linemen who have significant playing experience, leading coach Bobby Wilder to be optimistic about the offense in the post-Heinicke era.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2015 

The Monarchs’ defense took its lumps last season, giving up 38 points per game, including 56 to Marshall and 66 to Western Kentucky. But that wasn’t a surprise as Old Dominion’s defense relied heavily on young players. However, the result is that, with much of the unit back, Wilder expects to see improvement.

“This is going to be a young, developing, growing football team that’s only going to get better,” Wilder says.

Senior Poncho Barnwell, who led the team in sacks last season, will be the most experienced member of the defensive line.

TJ Ricks and Martez Simpson, two of the team’s top tacklers last season, will team up with junior college transfers Richard Thomas and Shadow Williams to give the Monarchs a solid group of linebackers. Senior safety Fellonte Misher and junior cornerback Devon Brown, a UAB transfer, will be worth watching in the secondary.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2015  

Junior Ricky Segers was an effective kicker before tearing his ACL seven games into last season. In his place, Satchel Ziffer, now a junior, handled the job, kicking two game-winning field goals. Wilder expects them to compete for the job in the preseason. Ziffer will also be in a battle with Joe Pulisic and Jarrett Cervi for punting duties. Pascal, Nick England and Isaiah Harper will all be in the mix to become the Monarchs’ primary return man.

Final Analysis

Old Dominion’s first season as a full-fledged FBS school was a pleasant surprise. The Monarchs weren’t eligible to go to a bowl given their status as a first-year member of Conference USA, but their 6–6 overall record — including a 4–4 league mark in C-USA’s tougher East division — would have been good enough to get them there.

“It was a really good first step for our program,” Wilder says.

This season, with the loss of Heinicke, repeating that success could prove tricky. To his credit, Wilder is realistic. He pegs a reasonable goal for this team at contending for the division and earning a bowl trip. For a school that only restarted its football program seven seasons ago, pulling off such feats would be cause to celebrate.


#112 FIU Panthers





HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 5-19 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House

The Panthers only won four times last year, and Ron Turner's squad is picked fifth in the East Division of Conference USA. But FIU has a young quarterback and 14 starters back for a team that was better in the final few weeks of the season. Can Turner continue the improvement and get FIU to a bowl game?

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Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2015  

Early enrollee freshman Alex McGough won the starting quarterback job quickly in spring camp 2014 and never looked back. And while the offense struggled statistically, McGough never lost his handle on the job. He enters the 2015 season with high expectations stemming from a couple of strong games in conference (Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee).

Coach Ron Turner runs a single-back, run-first offense, and he has a strong competition for playing time shaping up at tailback this season. Alex Gardner had an impressive start to the 2014 season, but a late-season shoulder injury opened the door for Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the final four games. They will be options one and two in 2015, with the order likely to flip frequently.

The Panthers return their best offensive player in tight end Jonnu Smith, who has caught 100 passes and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Smith was McGough’s safety valve in 2014 — he was targeted on 27 percent of the Panthers’ passing plays and caught 72 percent of those balls. With significant attrition at wide receiver, Smith might see those numbers rise again in 2015.

Sophomore Dennis Turner, once a Miami commitment, is the top returning wide receiver after being targeted 21 times in 2014. A year of progression for McGough should mean more utilization of Turner’s speed in 2015. But finding viable options beyond Tuner and Smith is priority No. 1 for the Panthers.

McGough will operate behind a line that’s best in run situations, led by left guard Jordan Budwig and right tackle Aaron Nielsen. Finding a replacement for center Donald Senat, who started 26 games in his career, will be another key in fall camp.

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Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2015 

Pat Narduzzi is one of the finest defensive minds in football, and when he took the Pittsburgh head coaching job, he tabbed FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin to run his defense. It was a deserved promotion for Conklin, as FIU had a surprisingly stout defense under him in 2014. The Panthers allowed only 148 big gains (of 10-plus yards) in 2014 — third-fewest in C-USA — thanks in part to standout years from defensive ends Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks) and Michael Wakefield (8.0), and cornerback Richard Leonard.

FIU returns plenty of defensive production in 2015. Only Giovani Francois has departed from an impressive defensive line, and the Panthers return all their top linebackers. Replacing safeties Demarkus Perkins and Justin Halley will be tough, as they were the linchpins of last season’s defense. Safety play could dictate how strong FIU’s high-potential defense can be in 2015.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2015  

Leonard is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, though he was able to break through for only one touchdown last season. The Panthers used two punters regularly, and the platoon should return in 2015. Jose Laphitzondo is the long-distance field-flipper, while Chris Ayers is used in close-range situations. Austin Taylor is both the kickoff specialist and placekicker, and he performed decently in both roles. He made 29-of-30 PATs and 4-of-6 field goals from 40-plus yards, while netting six touchbacks. 

Final Analysis

A young offense should improve, thanks to an elite tight end in Smith and a backfield that has a year of experience under its belt. With a stout defense that should more than hold up its end of the bargain, the Panthers’ quest to reach a bowl game in 2015 will ultimately rest on McGough’s evolution. FIU will be tested early, but winnable early-season games against UCF and Indiana could be a springboard to a surprising year for the Panthers. 


#107 FAU Owls





HEAD COACH: Charlie Partridge, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Wright | DEF. COORDINATOR: Roc Bellantoni

There are some things to get excited about at FAU for second-year coach Charlie Partridge. His offense has an identity and it should give them a chance to compete in most games in Conference USA. Quarterback Jaquez Johnson also returns for his senior campaign. But the Owls will have to overcome significant losses on defense if FAU wants to reach a bowl game.

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Previewing FAU’s Offense for 2015  

FAU did something strange last season: Despite hiring Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge as head coach, they retained offensive coordinator and one-time interim head coach Brian Wright. So it wasn’t that surprising that the offense showed many of the same poor traits from Wright’s first two seasons.

The Owls were inconsistent last year, never quite figuring out what kind of spread offense they wanted to be. That indecision likely stemmed from the fact that for the second straight fall camp, the Owls had a quarterback battle. Jaquez Johnson beat out Greg Hankerson for the starting gig last summer, and for better or worse, he should win the battle a third time in 2015.

The Owls will be forced to run more frequently as more than half of their receiving production has departed. That shouldn’t be a problem with Johnson under center running the read-option game with backs Jay Warren and Greg “Buddy” Howell. Despite poor blocking at times last season, Warren and Howell were dependable (combined 1,084 yards on 241 carries) and should have plenty left in the tank for 2015.

Top receivers Lucky Whitehead and William Dukes have graduated, as has tight end Alex DeLeon, meaning that one-time walk-on Jenson Stoshak will be the Owls’ top receiving target in 2015. Sophomore scatback Henry Bussey should take on Whitehead’s starting slot receiver job after catching just four passes for 88 yards last season.

Partridge revamped the Owls’ offensive line last season, setting it up for a big 2015. FAU’s front had a better 2014 season than the statistics show, but with experience and a better understanding of scheme, it should be even better in 2015. 


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Previewing FAU’s Defense for 2015 

The Owls lost their three best defensive players to graduation in linebacker Andrae Kirk, cornerback D’Joun Smith and safety Damian Parms. Senior tackle Brandin Bryant missed a big part of the 2014 season and is set to return, which could have a trickle-down effect. A healthy Bryant next to the steady Trevon Coley will close up some of the holes in a line that was atrocious against the run in 2014. If that duo can return to 2013 form, it could free up end Trey Hendrickson to have a breakout year.

FAU’s base defense is the nickel, putting more pressure on the two linebackers on the field. With Kirk gone, all eyes are on Robert Relf to improve his play and get into the backfield more often.

The Owls enter 2015 with plenty of faith in their corners — the physical Cre’von LeBlanc and crafty Raekwon Williams, who made a strong contribution as a true freshman. FAU has recruited defensive backs as well as anyone in Conference USA, but with the loss of both safeties, Parms and Christian Milstead, that recruiting will be put to the test. Top prospect Rodrick Archer and redshirt freshman Marquese Dudley-Gordon could see major playing time at the safety positions.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing FAU’s Specialists for 2015  

The loss of Whitehead as a returner will be huge. LeBlanc, Bussey and corner Reggie Brown will likely get a crack at replacing him. The Owls can expect another strong year from the kicking specialists, though. Placekicker Greg Joseph returns after making 14-of-20 field goals and all but one PAT. Punter Dalton Schomp brings back his impressive 45.4-yard average. 

Final Analysis

Losing the team’s three best defensive players and the offense’s top big-play threat will make improvement difficult for FAU in 2015. The Owls’ running game is strong enough that they should be able to play with Conference USA opponents and expect to win at home. That would keep bowl hopes on the table, but Partridge will need to have his young squad ready to impress out of the gate.  

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#100 UTEP Miners





HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 9-16 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Patrick Higgins | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Stoker

UTEP got to a bowl game in Sean Kugler's second season at his alma mater, finishing the campaign with seven wins. With Kugler's imprint fully established on the program, the Miners loo to replicate last season's success behind one of Conference USA's most productive running games and an opportunistic defense.

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Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2015

The one big question that surrounds a UTEP team that returns key personnel on both sides of the ball is what it will do in the passing game, particularly at quarterback.

Sophomore Mack Leftwich, the son of offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, redshirted last season after starting at the end of the 2013 season and will likely emerge from a three-way battle to take over from the graduated Jameill Showers. It will be new group of receivers as well, but UTEP wasn’t particularly good in the passing game last season and still went 7–6.

The good news is that four returning offensive linemen, led by C-USA All-Freshman guards Derek Elmendorff and Will Hernandez, and fullback Darrin Laufasa will be protecting Leftwich. More important, they will be opening holes for star running back Aaron Jones in an attack that starts and ends with power rushing. Jones was second-team all-conference last year after rushing for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 237 in the opener against New Mexico and also had 144 against Big 12 opponent Texas Tech.

When UTEP does throw, the big targets will be Autrey Golden, who switched from tailback to featured receiver in the middle of last year, and tight end M.J. McFarland, who started four games for Texas in 2014 before graduating and transferring. Beyond that, UTEP has virtually no pass-catching experience. Tyler Batson, Donovan Walker and Jaquan White lead the chase for the second receiver role, while transfer Hayden Plinke also figures to be a big target as a backup tight end.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2015

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After struggling horribly on the this side of the ball for most of a decade, UTEP built its surprising winning season in 2014 around its defense. Five key members of the front six in the 4-2-5 defense return — linemen Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Usher and Gino Bresolin as well as linebackers Jimmy Musgrave and Alvin Jones. Safeties Da’Shone Smith and Devin Cockrell are also back.

Even at corner, where UTEP lost both starters from last year, there is a deep group of players with significant experience, led by Ishmael Harrison and Traun Roberson.

After a brief midseason swoon last year, the defense rallied and played better down the stretch to help the Miners get to a bowl. This group only figures to get better in the third year of defensive coordinator Scott Stoker’s system. After forcing just 12 turnovers in 2013, the Miners got 21 last season and ranked third in the league in turnover margin (+0.69 per game).

Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2015

Golden is a player to watch, as his six career kickoff return touchdowns are one short of the NCAA record. Junior college transfer Terry Juniel was brought in to address an anemic punt return game. UTEP had all sorts of gaffes when it was punting the ball last year but largely fixed the issue at midseason when placekicker Jay Mattox took over the punting duties. UTEP’s net improved by almost 10 yards per punt after the move, and Mattox should again handle all kicking duties. 

Final Analysis

In just three springs, coach Sean Kugler has built exactly the team he wants at his alma mater: An offense that pounds the ball up the middle, a stout defense that makes plays and a squad that avoids penalties and turnovers. UTEP’s problems have come when it runs into teams with a similar mentality and better personnel, which happened in four of the six losses last season and figures to happen in the first game of the season at Arkansas. These Miners, though, should be better than last year, and for the first time since 2006, they’re building off a winning season.