COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
Sun Belt PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Joey Jones, 25-15 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Robert Matthews | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Sherrer
USA lacked explosion last season, ranking last in the Sun Belt in scoring and total offense. So despite returning eight starters, USA signed plenty of potential playmakers to add spice to a bland offense. Top high school recruit Kaleb Blanchard and junior college transfers Jay Jones and Cristobal Dinham will add speed to the backfield, and sprinter Dejon Funderburk will do likewise at wide receiver.
“You can’t just rely on four- and five-yard plays all game. You’ve got to have some 30- and 40-yard plays,” coach Joey Jones says. “We didn’t create enough of those last year. That was a key factor in our recruiting this year. But the No. 1 thing is that we’re settled at quarterback now.”
Senior quarterback Ross Metheny is now the undisputed starter after sharing time in 2012. He must improve his completion percentage (54.8) and TD-to-interception ratio (12-to-12). But Jones believes Matheny can help the offense turn the corner, along with a strong pool of tailbacks, the team’s top five receivers, a deeper offensive line and the aforementioned newcomers.
In a transitional year to the FBS level, USA already looked well-seasoned on defense, ranking among the best in the Sun Belt last season. Seven starters return, including three defensive backs in a stingy secondary. Kevin Sherrer, who has spent the past three seasons as Alabama’s director of player development, will return to coaching as USA’s new defensive coordinator. He will transition USA from a 3-4 scheme to a mostly four-man front, and nine junior college transfers will be added to bolster the experience and size of the defense.
“We were smaller than everybody last year. Opponents were three or four inches taller and 20 to 30 pounds heavier,” Jones says. “We really helped ourselves by adding bigger players at every position, and we had to get older guys in there, too. I anticipate several of those (junior college transfers) starting.”
Linebacker Tony Johnson, twin safeties Steffon and Steven Fuller, and numerous new defensive linemen should contribute immediately as junior college transfers.
USA also must replace graduated linebacker Jake Johnson, the Sun Belt’s top tackler last season. All-conference defensive end Alex Page and linebacker Enrique Williams are among the best at their position in the league.
Scott Garber is back at punter, but placekicker is wide open after the graduation of standout Michael Chapuseaux. Redshirt freshmen Aleem Sunanon and Logan Gunn will battle true freshman signee Brandon McKee for the placekicking role. All three could get their shot during the season.
The USA program, which played its first game in 2009, is now eligible for the for the Sun Belt title and a bowl bid. But it will be difficult to compete for either, unless the newcomers are fast starters. A 2–11 record last season included five losses of 10 points or less, but Jones warns that USA must move beyond moral victories.
“If our players think those close losses are suddenly going to flip into wins the next year, they are sadly mistaken,” Jones says. “We have Sun Belt experience now. We’ve been competitive, and that’s good. But now we need to win.”
USA has one win over a full-fledged FBS member in its two seasons of transition to the highest division, but it could be aided by turnover in Sun Belt membership. Texas State and Georgia State will be the newcomers, instantly promoting USA’s status in the league. Most teams making the FBS transition suffer during roster turnover. USA’s evolution will be determined by how much the junior college transfers contribute.