Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
A conference game against Rice, a team that won 10 games a year ago, is not exactly the way UAB coach Neil Callaway wanted to open up the 2009 season, but he hopes it’s a good wake-up call for his Blazers as they enter a pivotal year.
“It’s a concern,” Callaway said of opening the season with a conference game. “We are playing at home, which is good. With the choices we had in scheduling, I think we did the right thing, but the fact that you open up with a conference game gets you a little nervous. But we’ve had a good camp. We’ve known our schedule since about mid-March, so we’ve been preparing for it, and hopefully we’ll be successful at it.”
The Blazers are 6-18 since Callaway took over in 2007. He’s been hampered by scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA for APR violations.
Last year, the Blazers showed flashes of being decent with wins over Marshall, Tulane and Central Florida and near wins against Houston and East Carolina. Much of that success was because of quarterback Joe Webb, who provided almost all of the offense for the Blazers.
Webb finished the year with 2,367 yards passing, 10 passing touchdowns, 1,021 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He accounted for 77 percent of the Blazers' offense in 2008. And because he had the ball so much, he also accounted for several of the team’s mistakes, including 16 interceptions, which was the third highest total in the conference.
Callaway acknowledged after last season that he needed to get more production out of other players if the team was going to be successful, and he challenged players in the spring to fill that void.
“Joe is by far our best playmaker offensively, and we’ve asked him to do an awful lot,” Callaway said. “For us to be a very good offense, we have to find people to go around him. I feel good about our receiving corps. I think we have a couple tight ends that can do some things to help. My biggest concern right now is our running back spot. We need to find a running back or two or three that we feel comfortable giving the ball to them 30 times a game and we can come out somewhere between 100-150 yards from the running back spot.”
One of those running backs is senior Rashaud Slaughter, who was second on the team in total offense with 690 total yards. But he’s been inconsistent in his tenure often yielding the ground game to Webb. Four times last season he rushed for 21 or fewer yards and eight times he rushed for fewer than 50.
But Callaway is confident his team has the talent to be better than last year’s 4-8 mark and perhaps make some waves in Conference USA’s East Division. But it won’t be easy with one of the more daunting schedules in the league. Not only do the Blazers have nonconference games at Troy, Texas A&M and No. 8 Mississippi, it has conference road games against UTEP, Memphis and East Carolina.
“I remember when we played Michigan State  the first game our staff was here, I asked our guys to stand up if they had ever played in a college football game, and there may have been about a dozen of them,” Callaway said. “We are certainly past that point now. We’re gaining on it, and we’re heading in the right direction.”