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March 6, 2008

Conference USA spring preview

Central Florida was the surprise winner of Conference USA last season, but the Knights have some holes to fill this spring - not the least of which is finding someone to replace rushing leader Kevin Smith. Tulsa was the other division champ last season, and all the Golden Hurricane need to do this spring is find a new quarterback and three new starting linebackers. Here's a look at C-USA as spring football begins.

SPRING DATES
East Carolina: Feb. 27-April 12.
Houston: March 8-April 12.
Marshall: April 1-April 26.
Memphis: March 18-April 12.
Rice: March 10-April 2.
SMU: March 3-April 5.
Southern Miss: March 18-April 12.
Tulane: March 26-April 19.
Tulsa: March 11-April 19.
UAB: March 19-April 12.
UCF: March 19-April 12.
UTEP: March 9-April 18.

NEW COACHES

Kevin Sumlin, Houston: He was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma last season and takes over for Art Briles, who left for Baylor. Briles' teams were known for their offense but frequently struggled on defense. Sumlin's first priority will be to tweak the offense to his liking, then find some toughness on defense. Veteran assistant John Skladany, who was the defensive coordinator at league rival UCF, was hired to be defensive coordinator for the Cougars.

June Jones, SMU: Jones' hiring was one of the biggest of the offseason, as numerous Mustangs boosters ponied up to get Jones to leave Hawaii. SMU has had just one winning season since it reinstated football in 1989 following the NCAA "death penalty," but Jones is confident his pass-happy run-and-shoot offense can help lead to a turnaround. QB Justin Willis has thrown 51 TD passes in the past two seasons, and it'll be interesting to see how quickly he adapts to Jones' system. Willis won't be able to adapt too quickly, because Jones suspended the quarterback indefinitely for violation of team rules.

Larry Fedora, Southern Miss: School officials forced out Jeff Bower after 17 seasons - despite the fact he took the Golden Eagles to bowls in 10 of his final 11 years at the school. Enter Fedora, who had been offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Fedora has been successful as a coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State, and he has been adept at tweaking his offense to best fit his personnel. Look for Southern Miss to be more high-powered offensively under Fedora. Bower's Southern Miss teams always played good defense, so Fedora and his staff will be under pressure to follow suit.

BIGGEST POSITION BATTLES THIS SPRING

East Carolina: Pirates coaches have to find a new offensive go-to guy after do-everything TB Chris Johnson ran out of eligibility. Jonathan Williams and Dominique Lindsay look to be the main contenders.

Houston: To keep the Cougars' offense humming, Sumlin and his new staff have to find a new tailback and two new wide receivers. Justin Johnson is the likely top candidate at tailback.

Marshall: Herd coaches know finding a new quarterback is priority No. 1 for the offense. Brian Anderson, who will be a sophomore, was the No. 2 guy last season. Anderson was a big-time passer in high school in Louisville.

Memphis: The Tigers have to find a new starting quarterback, though junior college transfer Arkelon Hall would seem to be a good fit. Holdovers Matt Malouf and Will Hudgens also will be in the mix. Finding a new starting tailback is important, as well, with T.J. Pitts the leading contender.

Rice: The Owls' defense was horrible last season, and coaches need to find some guys who can run and make plays on that side of the ball. In essence, the defense has to be overhauled.

SMU: Look for Jones to be heavily involved in developing some wide receivers. Willis should thrive in the new pass-happy attack assuming more receivers step to the fore.

Southern Miss: Fedora is an offensive-minded guy, so finding a new starting quarterback is imperative. The Golden Eagles have some solid tailbacks, so the new quarterback knows he'll be able to count on his running game. The battle for the quarterback job should be a free-for-all. The previous staff liked Martevious Young's athleticism, but will he fit what Fedora wants to do?

Tulane: TB Matt Forte was the nation's No. 2 rusher last season and the focal point of the offense. Uh-oh: He was a senior. Finding a replacement for Forte obviously is important. Andre Anderson, who had 14 carries as a true freshman last season, is the most experienced tailback on the roster.

Tulsa: Tulsa needs to find a new starting quarterback to replace the ultra-productive Paul Smith. David Johnson and Jacob Bower are the top candidates. Coaches also have to replace all three starting linebackers, with Mike Bryan the only guy who has the for-sure look of a new starter.

UAB: The Blazers were last in the nation in rush defense last season, so rebuilding the defensive line will be a focal point of spring ball. Coaches also need to decide if Joseph Webb can get the job done at quarterback.

UCF: Kevin Smith led the nation in rushing last season and turned in the second-best single-season mark of all time. There likely will be another Smith (Phillip, no relation) at tailback this season, but developing depth is vital this spring. Coaches also have to decide on a new quarterback. The competition will be between Michael Greco and Joe Weatherford.

UTEP: New offensive coordinator Aaron Price the son of coach Mike Price has to find a new starting tailback to replace 1,000-yard rusher Marcus Thomas. Terrell Jackson, who began his college career at Oregon, looks like the front-runner for the job.

FIVE PLAYERS WHO SHOULD EMERGE THIS SPRING

Memphis SS Tony Bell: Bell, a senior who originally signed with Auburn after a celebrated high school career, should be one of the best safeties in the league this season. He had two interceptions and a forced fumble last season.

Tulsa LB Mike Bryan: Tulsa lost all three of its starting linebackers (a trio that combined for 418 tackles, by the way), and Bryan a junior who made 25 tackles last season is the most experienced linebacker among those looking for a starting job.

Houston TE Mark Hafner: Hafner, a senior, has 50-catch potential for the Cougars. He is Houston's leading returning receiver and should be a prime target in the passing game.

Southern Miss FS Eddie Hicks: Hicks was solid as a sophomore in 2007 in his first season as a starter and should be one of the league's best safeties this fall. Hicks is instinctive and has good size, and should be more of a big-play guy this season.

SMU WR Aldrick Robinson: Robinson had 10 receptions last season as a true freshman, but is expected to blossom this season in June Jones' run-and-shoot attack. Robinson has the speed to be a top-flight deep threat.

FIVE IMPACT NEWCOMERS THIS SPRING

SMU FS Rock Dennis: He redshirted last season after transferring from junior college. He probably would have started last season but broke his shoulder during spring practice. He has the potential to be an impact player for a revamped defense.

Memphis QB Arkelon Hall: Hall, a junior college transfer who already is enrolled, has an excellent shot at winning the quarterback job left vacant by the graduation of Martin Hankins. Hall, who originally signed with Washington State before going to junior college, has good size (6 feet 3, 220 pounds) and a strong arm.

Houston RB Justin Johnson: Houston is looking for a replacement for standout tailback Anthony Alridge, and Johnson a redshirt freshman is going to get a long look. He's a big guy (6-1/230) who would give the Cougars a physical between-the-tackles runner.

Tulsa WR Slick Shelley: Shelley, from Fort Smith, Ark., was considered one of the nation's best high school wide receivers in 2005. He signed with Tennessee, then redshirted in 2006 before transferring to Tulsa. He's eligible this season and should become another threat in the Golden Hurricane's high-powered passing offense.

UCF QB Joe Weatherford: Weatherford, a redshirt freshman who is the brother of Florida State starting quarterback Drew Weatherford, is expected to battle junior Michael Greco for the starting job. Greco is a good athlete and the better runner, but Weatherford is the better passer and probably has more upside.

SPRING BREAKDOWNS BY CONFERENCE:
ACC | Big East | Big Ten | Big 12 | Pac-10 | SEC | MAC | C-USA | Sun Belt | Mountain West | WAC

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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