Sun Belt spring recap

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Antonio Warren* (1,036 yds)
Passing: Nick Noce* (2,115 yds)
Receiving: Chuck Walker (589 yds)
Tackles: Josh Williams (110)
Sacks: Williams and Jamarrow James* (3 each)
Interceptions: Tyrell Johnson* (4)

Spring Answers: The most important one came after drills were over. Antonio Warren, a Prop 48 casualty his freshman season, applied for and was granted another year of eligibility. He followed up a 1,000-yard season with a phenomenal spring, and his return was crucial for the Indians. His kick returns – Warren ranked second in the conference in all-purpose yards in '04 – are also invaluable to the offense. … Speaking of threats on special teams, good luck trying to tackle 5-foot-8, 200-pound Chris James on punt returns. … On paper, wide receiver looks like a concern. On the field, it is not. Arkansas State loses its top three pass-catchers, but actually feels a lot better about its depth situation. Levi Dejohnette is the leader of the group; Patrick Higgins is steady; and Gary Vincent was unquestionably the star of the spring. Vincent, a skinny, 5-8 jitterbug who often gets lost in traffic, completely tore apart the ASU secondary. The Indians are also excited about a pair of incoming freshman tight ends who can both catch and block. A-State's offense is set up perfectly for that kind of weapon, but that position has fired nothing but blanks the last few years.

Fall Questions: If you take out the two-year starter at center, the offensive line is reduced to a combined five career starts. It appears there is some talent in this group, but it still has to be considered an unknown entity at this point. … One could argue the same could be said of senior QB Nick Noce. At times last fall, he was phenomenal (see: 418 yards and 4 TDs in near win vs. Memphis). At other times, though, he was phenomenally frustrating (see: late INT in near win vs. Ole Miss). The latter happened all too often, as the interceptions piled up and always seemed to come at absolutely awful times. Noce didn't seem to force the ball as much this spring, and that has to continue. … The recent dismissal of LB Josh Williams was a crushing blow. Last season, he led the country's freshmen in tackles (110), was named to almost every frosh All-American team and was having another great spring. It couldn't have come at a worst time, either, with the Indians moving from a 4-2-5 scheme to a 4-3. Some shuffling of the deck is in order, and the staff seems quite anxious to get true freshman Ben Owens into the mix in August. … The ASU checklist also has to include: 1) scoring more than 19.5 ppg; 2) giving up fewer than 33 ppg; 3) trimming down the minus-9 turnover margin and 4) really trimming down the opponents' absurd 91 percent success rate in the red zone.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Doug Parker (896 yds)
Passing: Jared Allen (2,554 yds)
Receiving: Anthony Crissinger-Hill (746 yds)
Tackles: Shomari Earls* (81)
Sacks: Earls* (4)
Interceptions: Willie Hughley* (6)

Spring Answers: Jared Allen leaves some large shoes to fill, but senior Danny Embick has waited his turn and looks ready to be an effective starter. He does have some decent experience as a backup at West Virginia as well as at FAU. And while he needs to watch his knack for interceptions, Embick does offer a mobility Allen did not have. He also has the chance to learn from quarterbacks coach Gary Nord, a former UTEP head coach and offensive coordinator during Howard Schnellenberger's stops at Louisville and Oklahoma. … In a rather deep secondary, the Owls have a good cornerback in Lawrence Gordon and an excellent one in Willie Hughley. The latter is a true cover corner Sun Belt quarterbacks will come to fear.

Fall Questions: Moving into Division I-A right after your skill positions have been decimated is not ideal. A year after posting road wins against bowl teams Hawaii and North Texas, the Owls have to fill several holes. … The top three tailbacks are gone; the top seven receivers are gone; and the offensive line is small in stature and in numbers. Yikes. … Over on the defensive line, three starters have graduated from a group that became fairly effective at pressuring the quarterback and stuffing the run last year. It will take awhile for this inexperienced group to get to that level. … Actually, that sounds like the predicament of the team as a whole. FAU won nine games last season, but more than half of those were against foes below Division I-A. Will the team lose all confidence if it starts out with ugly losses to Kansas, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Louisville? If not, the Owls could still be respectable in the Sun Belt.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:
I-AA member

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rashod Smith (1,133 yds)
Passing: Josh Padrick* (2,269 yds)
Receiving: Cory McKinney* (675 yds)
Tackles: Josh Haritan* (92)
Sacks: Antwan Barnes* (3)
Interceptions: Nick Turnbull* (5)

Spring Answers: If Josh Padrick can cut down on his interceptions, he has the potential to be a pretty good one. He racked up 2,200 passing yards and a 57 percent completion rate in 2004, and followed that up with a solid spring. Padrick has an asset in coach Don Strock, the former Ravens quarterbacks coach who helped turn around Vinny Testaverde's career in the mid-1990s. It also can't hurt the offense to have former NFL players Bruce Hardy and Leon Searcy helping out as assistant coaches. … Padrick has a pair of legitimate weapons in Cory McKinney and TE Samuel Smith. McKinney has caught at least one pass in every game of FIU's three-year football history, and Smith (6 foot 3, 253 pounds) blocks and catches and might develop into an NFL prospect. … The O-line is a strength. All five starters return from a group that gave up just nine sacks last season. … Free safety Nick Turnbull is moving to cornerback as part of an effort to turn around a secondary that was absolutely torched last fall. Turnbull, who can help shut down big receivers with his 6-3, 211-pound build, has all-conference potential.

Fall Questions: Is this program really ready for Division I-A football? The defense certainly doesn't appear to be up to the task. It was one of the worst in all of I-AA last season, giving up 34 points and nearly 500 yards per game. During one 0-5 stretch, the Panthers yielded an average of 40 points a contest to the murderer's row of Louisiana-Monroe, McNeese State, New Mexico State, Georgia Southern and Western Kentucky. Not good. … Moving Turnbull to corner should help, but it's going to take a lot more than that to turn around a secondary that finished 115th among I-AA teams in '04. CB Matt Castillo and the safeties have to show some signs of improvement. A decent pass-rush would help, too. … Will FIU have any confidence left after starting its season at Kansas State and at Texas Tech? The Panthers' defense versus the Red Raiders' offense might be the college football mismatch of the year.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jerry Babb* (498 yds)
Passing: Babb* (2,345 yds)
Receiving: Bill Sampy* (776 yds)
Tackles: C.C. Brown (101)
Sacks: Tony Hills* and Travis Bass (2 each)
Interceptions: Antwain Spann (4)

Spring Answers: Jerry Babb is back, and that's a good enough answer for Ragin' Cajuns fans. Using both his arm and his legs, the dual-threat quarterback tallied more than 2,800 yards of total offense while connecting on a school-record 58 percent of his passes. The coaching staff also loves his backup, equally versatile redshirt freshman Michael Desormeaux. … Babb can't run every down. A true tailback has to emerge one of these years, and redshirt freshman Caleb Rubin appeared to make some headway in that department this spring. Senior Chester Johnson is also right in the mix, but the one to really keep an eye on might be freshman Deon Wallace, whom Kansas State wanted badly. … A strong linebacking corps is led by senior Tyler Norman, who looks headed for a monster season after being named defensive MVP of the spring.

Fall Questions: Will Bill Sampy graduate by the end of summer, thus rendering him eligible to play this fall? It's not an exaggeration to say the fate of the Cajuns' offense rests on Sampy's work in the classroom. Take him out and the team's three top receivers will have a grand total of five career catches entering 2005. If you're coach Rickey Bustle, that's the stuff that keeps you up at night. … Will another year of experience help the beleaguered defensive line? Giving up 210 yards a game on the ground can't happen again. Neither can sacking the opposing quarterback just nine times. And while one never knows what to take out of a spring game, the final score in Lafayette this year was 3-0. So maybe there's hope after all. … The secondary took some major hits with the graduation of C.C. Brown, who led the team in tackles, and Antwain Spann, who led the team in picks. ULL better hope moving starting corner Tyrell Fenton to safety pays off. If adequate replacements aren't found, opponents won't even need to run all over the Cajuns' defense. … By the way, who scheduled the opener?

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 2

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Steven Jyles* (587 yds)
Passing: Jyles* (2,322 yds)
Receiving: Drouzo Quillen* (758 yds)
Tackles: John Winchester (105)
Sacks: Brandon Guillory* (5.5)
Interceptions: Chris Harris (7)

Spring Answers: Junior Kevin Payne moved from tailback to linebacker and looked good doing it. Depending on the situation in the backfield, Payne might even play some on both sides. … He might not be needed on offense if Mason Denham plays the way he's capable of playing. The senior was nicked up all of last autumn and never really got on track, often forcing Steven Jyles to carry the load on the ground. Denham looks healthy now, though, and should average more than 48 yards a game. … Some thought he was a goner, but DE Brandon Guillory was granted a fifth year of eligibility and that's huge for the team's pass-rush. He can be a terror in the opponent's backfield, as he showed last year by recording 5½ sacks and 18 tackles for loss. … Now entering his third year, former Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie appears to have this struggling program on the right track. Last season's five wins matched ULM's highest total since entering Division I football in 1994. The nonconference schedule is brutal, as always, but at least there are some signs of hope in Monroe.

Fall Questions: The Indians didn't lose many starters, but the ones they did lose are going to be extremely tough to replace. OT Bruce Hampton was named to the All-Sun Belt first team twice, and free safety Chris Harris was a three-time selection. From a leadership standpoint, the loss of Harris and linebacker John Winchester, a member of the Sun Belt second team, leaves a huge void for the entire team. Anyone ready to step into those roles? … With the offense returning most of its key players, will the Indians score a little more this season? Racking up yards wasn't really a problem last fall. Turning all those yards into points was (just 19 ppg). If a few receivers not named Drouzo Quillen gave the passing game an assist, that would certainly help.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 10, Kicker/punter: 2

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Eugene Gross* (412 yds)
Passing: Clint Marks* (2,749 yds)
Receiving: Kerry Wright (1,048 yds)
Tackles: Marcel Horne* (66)
Sacks: Erik Walden* (6)
Interceptions: Bradley Robinson* (2)

Spring Answers: It's not easy for a program like MTSU to quickly replace a player such as Kerry Wright (76 catches and 11 TDs in '04). The staff does like this group's depth, though. While a true go-to guy has yet to be found, Cleannord Saintil and sure-handed Chris Henry are steady and Pierre Ingram might be a real gem. Finally healthy, the 6-4 track star was brilliant this spring and reminded some coaches of former Blue Raiders standout Tyrone Calico, now with the Tennessee Titans. … Defense has been the program's crutch ever since it joined Division I. That could slowly start to change this year. The secondary is a year older; the linebackers are as good as they've been in years; and the line recruited All-Sun Belt guard Quenton Staton from the Raiders' offense. Strong and tenacious Staton will provide immediate assistance. … So will former starter Justin Rainey, who has returned to the secondary after being suspended in 2003 and sent to purgatory at a Kansas junior college last season. Praised by his coaches for a newfound maturity, he's a nasty hitter and should breathe some life into what was an abysmal defensive backfield last year.

Fall Questions: Who, if anyone, is going to run the ball? Sure, the Blue Raiders pass to set up the run, but they still need some production from the ground game – more than the 3.3 yards a carry it gave them last year. Incumbent Eugene Cross is in a battle right now with redshirt sophomore DeMarco McNair. … MTSU is set at center and tackle, but Staton switching sides left a messy situation at guard. That position needs to improve if the team wants to actually run the ball effectively this year. … If this team wants to win the Sun Belt, a minus-6 turnover margin is not going to cut it. The onus is on both sides to improve. … Actually, if this team wants to win the Sun Belt, it has to beat North Texas – period. The Mean Green have been especially mean to their conference opponents, winning the league in all four years of Sun Belt football. If the Raiders want to be the David who ends that streak, there's no better time to start than Sept. 10 in Murfreesboro. An early win over NTU would let Middle play the role of front-runner.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jamario Thomas* (1,801 yds)
Passing: Scott Hall (1,806 yds)
Receiving: Johnny Quinn* (773 yds)
Tackles: Markeith Knowlton (89)
Sacks: Adrian Awasom and Evan Cardwell (6 each)
Interceptions: Knowlton (4)

Spring Answers: In Patrick Cobbs (2003) and Jamario Thomas (2004), NTU will have the nation's leading rushers from the last two seasons in the same backfield. When Cobbs went down early last fall, all Thomas did was step in and score 17 TDs while setting the NCAA freshman record for 200-yard games with five. He was also one of only three freshmen in history to reach 1,800 yards. It appears the Mean Green might have a decent rushing attack in 2005. … Johnny Quinn not only put on some needed weight but also added some speed by competing in track during the spring. Already the conference's best punt returner, Quinn looks as though he's ready to increase his big-play ability at receiver. … The secondary was wrecked by graduation, but was surprisingly effective during the spring under the direction of new assistant coach Van Malone. T.J. Covington leads a unit that includes former WR Ja'Mel Branch. In addition, the team received an April commitment from Coffeyville (Kan.) JC transfer Aaron Weathers, who will join the team in August.

Fall Questions: One has to wonder whether the Mean Green's terror of the Sun Belt will ever end. They fielded their worst defense in years last season and still went undefeated, extending their league winning streak to 25 games and winning the conference for the fourth straight time. Nevertheless, NTU does lose several starters in both the front and the back of the D, and a somewhat-improved Sun Belt is sure to take advantage this time. Um, right? … With the pair of teammates he has in the backfield, new 250-pound quarterback Joey Byerly doesn't have to do much. Still, it remains to be seen how the team's offense – rebuilt line and all – will respond without the steady hand of forever-starter Scott Hall. … The defensive line also is being rebuilt after the loss of all four starters. The group of replacements is extremely young and fairly untested. … To accommodate Arkansas State, North Texas moved the ASU game to Oct. 8, which was scheduled to be the team's only bye week. Eleven straight weeks without a break? The Indians could've at least thrown in a trainer or two in return.

2004 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 1, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 2

2004 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: DeWhitt Betterson (1,286 yds)
Passing: Aaron Leak (756 yds)
Receiving: Jason Samples (687 yds)
Tackles: Bernard Davis* (108)
Sacks: Demarcus Ware (10.5)
Interceptions: Johnny Faulk* and Derrick Ansley (5)

Spring Answers: Keep in mind, this is a team that went to a bowl game last year with basically no offense to speak of. It was a testament to the Troy defense, which will now have to make do without first-round pick Demarcus Ware at end. In fact, four Trojan D-linemen are on NFL teams this spring and depth is going to be a problem there. However, the coaching staff really likes Ware's replacement, Kenny Mainor. At 6-5, the redshirt freshman has a similar build to his mentor and looks as though he could make up for at least some of the pass-rush that was lost. … The coaches also feel good about their back seven on defense. Bernard Davis and Leverne Johnson are a bit undersized at linebacker, but were 1-2 in tackles last season and provide some much-needed leadership. Senior Johnny Faulk is a stud at cornerback, and nice-looking prospect Leodis McKelvin will be starting at strong safety before long. … Junior Rob Austin, who moved from tight end to offensive tackle, is also one to keep an eye on. Some inside the Troy camp believe he has a serious shot at the NFL. … Without a doubt, the offense's biggest weapon of last season was punter Thomas Olmsted. Yes, the punter. Anyone who can place 30 kicks inside the 20 and still average more than 43 yards a punt is dangerous. Anyone who can do that on an offense that is expected to struggle for the second straight year is invaluable.

Fall Questions: Let's see here … the offense, maybe? The Trojans lose 10 starters off a team that ranked next-to-last in the country in total offense. And don't try that "addition by subtraction" thing. Sorry, but losing 10 starters off one side of the ball can never be a good thing. In fact, the one returnee is an O-lineman who didn't even start until the second half of the year. … The quarterback play was truly abysmal in 2004. True freshman D.T. McDowell provided some signs of hope late, but academic troubles are likely to sideline him for the '05 season. Atop the depth chart at the moment is Carl Meadows, who transferred to Troy when East Tennessee State decided it didn't want to play football anymore. Meadows seems to keep his mistakes to a minimum, but he won't exactly wow anyone with his talent. … At tailback, the Trojans lose their all-time leading rusher in DeWhitt Betterson. Joel Whinghter is the current No. 1 but has hardly any carries to his name. Kenny Cattouse was a high school legend in New Jersey, but his blocking skills and other intangibles are nonexistent. … Over at receiver, the departure of Jason Samples leaves no deep threat and a world of trouble. James Earl Cray is decent, but really nothing more than a possession guy. Suffice to say, Troy has some to work to do on the offensive side.

Brett Edgerton is a researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at Brett.M.Edgerton.-ND@espn.com.