Ranking Conference USA's signal-callers for 2019
Conference USA features plenty of question marks under center among its 14 teams, but there’s no debate about the No. 1 signal-caller returning for 2019. North Texas’ Mason Fine easily takes the top spot in the league once again, followed by FIU’s James Morgan and UAB’s Tyler Johnston in the top three.
Ranking the quarterbacks by conference or nationally is no easy task. To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2019. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2019 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the Conference USA for 2019.
Ranking C-USA's Quarterbacks for 2019
14. Tom Stewart, Rice
Coach Mike Bloomgren is tapping into the transfer market for help in his second year at Rice. Stewart arrives in Houston after spending the previous four seasons at Harvard. Stewart did not record a snap in 2015 or ’17 with the Crimson and played in three games in ’16. However, he played in nine games in 2018, throwing for 1,614 yards and 14 touchdowns to just two picks.
13. Frank Harris, UTSA
UTSA’s offense struggled mightily in 2018. The Roadrunners were held to 24 points or less in 10 contests and finished the season by averaging 14.2 points a game and 3.9 yards a play. In an effort to spark this unit, coach Frank Wilson handed play-calling duties to Jeff Kastl and landed junior college (and former LSU) signal-caller Lowell Narcisse in the 2019 recruiting class. While Narcisse was a big catch on the recruiting trail, Harris is the frontrunner to start exiting spring practice. This will be his first opportunity for extended action after redshirting in his first year on campus and suffering a torn ACL in spring practice last season.
12. Asher O’Hara, MTSU
Brent Stockstill won’t be easy to replace this season. The Blue Raiders have four candidates in the mix to replace the four-year starter, with O’Hara, redshirt freshman Chance Nolan, sophomore Chase Cunningham and junior college recruit Randall Johnson set to battle in fall practice. In his first year on campus, O’Hara played in two games last fall, completing 9 of 20 passes for 114 yards and one pick. He also added 85 yards and a score on the ground.
11. Kai Locksley, UTEP
Locksley was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail for coach Dana Dimel last season. However, the former Texas signal-caller battled injuries for a good chunk of his first year in El Paso. Locksley ended 2018 with 937 passing yards and three touchdowns to nine picks but ranked second on the team with 340 rushing yards and six scores. With a return to full strength, Locksley could easily climb this list in 2019.
10. Steven Williams, Old Dominion
With Blake LaRussa foregoing his senior year, the Monarchs will have a wide-open battle under center this offseason. Coach Bobby Wilder added two junior college prospects in Messiah deWeaver and Stone Smartt to compete with Williams and redshirt freshman Jonah Fitzgerald. Williams was named to Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team in 2017, throwing for 1,528 yards and six touchdowns to 11 picks on 147 completions. He also added 263 yards and three scores on the ground that year. Williams was expected to build on his promising freshman season in 2018, but after starting the first four games, he was relegated to a redshirt year with Blake LaRussa entrenched as the starter following the win over Virginia Tech.
9. Chris Reynolds, Charlotte
Improving the offense is a top offseason priority for new coach Will Healy and coordinator Alex Atkins. Charlotte ranked 10th in Conference USA in scoring (21.7 ppg) last fall and averaged just 5.0 yards per play. Reynolds is the frontrunner to start under center after a promising stint in 2018. The North Carolina native started the first six games of the year before suffering a season-ending injury. During his six-game stint, Reynolds threw for 1,173 yards and six touchdowns to just two picks and connected on 65 percent of his throws. USF graduate transfer Brett Kean will arrive this summer to compete for the starting job.
8. Steven Duncan, WKU
New coach Tyson Helton worked under Jeff Brohm during his successful stint at WKU, so there’s plenty of optimism the offense will return to its high-scoring ways in 2019. Duncan led the team with 1,071 passing yards and nine touchdowns last season but completed 57.8 percent of his passes and tossed seven picks. Additionally, he averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt. Duncan will be pushed in fall practice by Arkansas transfer Ty Storey, redshirt freshman Kevaris Thomas and sophomore Davis Shanley.
7. Chris Robison, FAU
Uncertainty surrounds FAU’s quarterback situation following spring practice. Robison was suspended indefinitely during spring ball by coach Lane Kiffin, and it’s uncertain if or when he will return to the team. If he’s back for fall practice, Robison is likely the best option on FAU’s roster. The Oklahoma transfer threw for 2,533 yards and 12 touchdowns to 12 picks and rushed for 211 yards and three scores in his first chance for snaps in Boca Raton. If Robison doesn’t return, Nick Tronti, Cordel Littlejohn or Justin Agner will battle for the starting job.
6. Jack Abraham, Southern Miss
Abraham started his career at Louisiana Tech and spent time at the JUCO level before returning to Conference USA at Southern Miss. Abraham started nine games and missed two due to injury for the Golden Eagles last fall. He connected on 73.1 percent of his passes for 2,347 yards and 15 scores. However, 10 of his touchdown passes came over the first three games.
5. J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Smith enters his third year as Louisiana Tech’s starter, looking to improve off last year’s career-high 3,160 passing yards. The Mississippi native has tossed 31 touchdowns and rushed for 530 yards and nine scores over the last two years. He also led all Conference USA quarterbacks by completing 12 passes of 40 or more yards in 2018. Helping Smith’s case for All-Conference USA honors in 2019 is a solid receiving corps, featuring likely first-team all-conference pick Adrian Hardy.
4. Isaiah Green, Marshall
Green edged Wagner transfer Alex Thomson for the starting job last season and pieced together a solid debut for the Thundering Herd. The Georgia native threw for 2,459 yards and 15 touchdowns to 10 picks, while adding 116 yards and a score on the ground. Green missed three games due to injury but still claimed a spot on Conference USA’s All-Freshman Team. The sophomore has to find a new No. 1 receiver after Tyre Brady finished his eligibility following the 2018 campaign.
3. Tyler Johnston, UAB
The reigning Conference USA champions return only eight starters, but despite the hefty turnover on both sides of the ball, coach Bill Clark’s team will be in the mix for a repeat. A big reason for that is an expected breakout campaign by Johnston. After a redshirt year in 2017, the Alabama native was expected to work as the backup to A.J. Erdely in ’18. However, Erdely played in nine games due to injury, allowing Johnston to showcase his potential. Over 13 appearances, Johnston threw for 1,323 yards and 11 touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 359 yards and four rushing scores. He also capped 2018 with a monster performance in the Boca Raton Bowl, gashing Northern Illinois’ defense for 401 total yards and four passing touchdowns.
2. James Morgan, FIU
Morgan was an impact addition via the graduate transfer ranks for coach Butch Davis last fall. Under Morgan’s direction, the Panthers’ scoring average jumped from 25.6 in 2017 to 34.6 in ’18. The former Bowling Green quarterback did not play in the Bahamas Bowl due to injury but still finished 2018 with 2,727 passing yards and 26 touchdowns to seven picks. Morgan tossed only three interceptions over his last eight appearances and connected on 65.3 percent of his passes.
1. Mason Fine, North Texas
Fine’s 9,417 passing yards ranks as the most in North Texas history and also leads all active FBS quarterbacks for career yardage prior to the 2019 season. After a prolific sophomore season (4,052 yards and 31 TDs) in 2017, Fine was even better last fall. He cut his interceptions from 15 to five, completed 65 percent of his passes and ended the year with 3,793 yards and 27 touchdown tosses. Fine will easily eclipse the 10,000-yard mark for his career and is a big reason why North Texas could be the preseason favorite to win Conference USA in 2019.
(Top photo courtesy of meangreensports.com)