What to watch in Conference USA this spring

Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Central Florida Knights

Spring practice starts: March 19

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The Knights will need to develop offensive line talent after allowing 2.54 sacks per game and failing to block for a rushing offense that ranked 82nd in the country. The Knights return all but two offensive linemen and have one coming in the spring.

  • The quarterback battle will heat up with early enrollee Jeffrey Godfrey, who already has impressed coach George O’Leary. Godfrey will compete against Rob Calabrese for the starting role.

  • The Knights will have to find replacements for three key members of the defensive line -- DE Jarvis Geathers, RT Torrell Troup, LT Travis Timmons. The defense was the main reason the Knights finished 8-5 and won their final five games.

East Carolina Pirates

Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • With a new coach, a new system, and a crop of new starters, East Carolina will have its work cut out for it this spring. New head coach Ruffin McNeill needs to replace 15 players with starting experience, which won’t be easy with just a month to work.

  • The most underrated positions the Pirates have to fill are punter and kicker. All-American Matt Dodge is gone as is kicker Ben Hartman, who set the school record for career scoring. Finding replacements for those two is a top priority.

  • New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will be implement Texas Tech’s offensive system with just two scholarship quarterbacks and a team that relied on its running game. Riley is confident he can install all of his spread offense this fall, but there’s no telling how quickly the Pirates will pick it up.

Houston Cougars

Spring practice starts: March 27

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The one thing that really kept Houston from an undefeated season was its defense. Brian Stewart, who was named the defensive coordinator in January, inherits a young team with a lot of talent, but he has some work to do to catch the defense up to the offense by September.

  • Quarterback Case Keenum returns for his senior season, but his center, Carl Barnett, does not. Barnett started 39 games, so Keenum will have to establish a good rapport with his new center this spring. Blake Sargent, who was the backup last year, appears to be the front-runner.

  • Even though the Cougars did not lose many starters on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin will look for more athletic players to rotate into the mix. Last season, 19 players had at least one catch and 12 had double-digit catches.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • New head coach Doc Holliday said his immediate concern is the kicking game after Craig Ratanamorn graduated and with backup Tyler Warner struggling. Warner will have a chance to win the job in the spring, but freshman Justin Haig will be the favorite when he arrives in the fall.

  • When Darius Marshall left early for the NFL, it opened up the running back competition between Martin Ward and Terrell Edwards. Former coach Mark Snyder was high on both players, but they’ll have to impress their new coach with a star running back coming in August.

  • After Cody Slate went down with injury, Antavious Wilson emerged as the Thundering Herd’s go-to receiver. He should see plenty of action in Marshall’s stretch offense, but the Herd will need to develop more options, including Aaron Dobson, Lee Smith and Charles Walker.

Memphis Tigers

Spring practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The biggest question for the Tigers this spring will be at quarterback. The Tigers have five scholarship quarterbacks, but only Tyler Bass has taken a snap. Bass will compete against Will Gilchrist, a transfer from Miami, Cannon Smith and two early enrollees in true freshman Ryan Williams and junior college transfer Andy Summerlin.

  • The Tigers must replace its top three offensive producers -- running back Curtis Steele and receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton. Sophomore receiver Marcus Rucker showed promise and could be a go-to guy this year, but it will be tough to find a running back as dominant as Steele.

  • The secondary will be a priority after ranking 117th in pass defense and 116th in total defense. Strong safety Darius Davis and cornerback Bryan Wright return, but new head coach Larry Porter said every position will be open this spring.

Rice Owls

Spring practice starts: March 8

Spring game: March 27

What to watch:

  • Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie will be available at running back and is the favorite for the job. McGuffie was a top running threat for the Wolverines as a true freshman and can help a rushing offense that averaged 109.25 yards per game.

  • Former Miami quarterback Taylor Cook will compete for the starting quarterback position with Nick Fanuzzi and redshirt freshman Taylor McHargue. Fanuzzi is the only one with playing experience and he spent some of last season injured.

  • The Owls are learning under a new offensive coordinator this year after Ed Zaunbrecher left the team to pursue other opportunities. David Beatty, who was the wide receivers coach at Kansas, will take over the offense and likely will keep the up-tempo spread style the Owls have been playing.

SMU Mustangs

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: No spring game

What to watch:

  • The Mustangs will have to replace starting strong safety Rock Dennis, who led the team with four interceptions and had 57 tackles. This year’s backup Tyler Jones will be the leading candidate to start.

  • With the loss of Emmanuel Sanders, SMU will be searching for a new go-to receiver and playmaker. Coach June Jones said senior Aldrick Robinson could be the top receiver and Terrance Wilkerson will challenge for more looks after being the team’s third receiver last season.

  • Kyle Padron goes into the spring as the top quarterback, but New Mexico State transfer J.J. McDermott will be eligible this spring and should present a good challenge. Then both players will be fighting for their position with highly touted recruit Stephen Kaiser in the fall.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Spring practice starts: March 3

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

  • The Golden Eagles top priority is to replace four offensive line starters. Southern Miss has two junior college offensive linemen enrolled for spring football in Lamar Holmes and Jason Weaver and has several backups from 2009.

  • Martevious Young can solidify himself as the starting quarterback with Austin Davis recovering from a foot injury. Young went 4-4 as a starter.

  • The Golden Eagles will be replacing their top two running backs and might not find them until the fall. Tracy Lampley was the team’s fourth-best rusher, but he’ll have some competition from players such as V.J. Floyd, Desmond Johnson and perhaps Kendrick Hardy.

Tulane Green Wave

Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Sophomore Ryan Griffin took over the starting duties at quarterback midway through the season and never relinquished them. He only managed one win during his six starts, but with a spring to work as the starter, he’ll be able to generate some better chemistry with his teammates.

  • Replacing receiver Jeremy Williams will be a huge chore for the Green Wave. Williams had more than 1,100 yards receiving -- almost half of Tulane’s overall receiving yards. Casey Robottom had some big games with Griffin and will likely assume the premier receiver role.

  • The rushing offense didn’t perform as well as Tulane hoped, but Andre Anderson still managed a 1,000-yard season. The Green Wave didn’t have a lot of rushing production behind Anderson, so the field will be wide open this spring.

Tulsa Golden Hurricanes

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Tulsa’s youth really held it back last year, especially on the offensive line. Four of the five starters were either sophomores or freshman and this spring the Golden Hurricanes will be looking for a replacement for lone senior Curt Puckett. Tulsa ranked 118th in the country with 3.83 sacks allowed.

  • The offense fell well below coach Todd Graham’s standards this year, so he hired Lake Travis High coach Chad Morris to help Herb Hand as a co-offensive coordinator. Morris also will coach quarterbacks to try to make starter G.J. Kinne as efficient as past Tulsa quarterbacks.

  • Passing defense continues to concern the Golden Hurricane. For the second consecutive season they ranked in the 100s nationally in pass defense. Unfortunately for Tulsa, two of the best players on defense came from that secondary -- safety James Lockett, a second team all-conference selection and cornerback Kenny Sims, who started the past 33 games.

UAB Blazers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • All eyes will be on David Isabelle, the heir apparent to do-it-all quarterback Joe Webb. Isabelle is a dual threat and played a little in every game this season. There will be high expectations for him to make UAB’s offense more balanced.

  • With Webb gone, the Blazers have to find a new source on offense. Webb led the team in passing, rushing and total offense and was just short of leading it in scoring. Webb accounted for 32 of the team's 39 touchdowns. The Blazers return four of their top five receivers, but need to find some balance in the running game.

  • The Blazers lose just two starters from last year’s defense, but the defense struggled mightily in all areas, especially against the pass where it ranked last in the country with 311.50 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Eric Schumann will have his work cut out for him as he tries to catch the Blazers’ defense up with the rest of the league.

Texas-El Paso Miners

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • UTEP fired defensive coordinator Osia Lewis after the Miners had one of the worst defenses in the country for the past two seasons. Former UNLV defensive line coach Andre Patterson takes over, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence since UNLV wasn’t a defensive juggernaut. Some fresh blood and a simpler defense might do the Miners some good.

  • UTEP returns several key players on offense, but needs to use this spring to gel and develop some consistency. The offensive line should shoulder some of that blame. The line loses two starters from 2009, but returns some players with experience. Their goal will be to continue opening holes for running back Donald Buckram.

  • Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe was hit and miss in his junior season and part of that was because of line play and drops by receivers. The Miners will look for some playmakers and replacements for receivers Jeff Moturi and Tufick Shadrawy. Kris Adams could be in line for a big senior year.