Here’s a look at the top impact offensive players from the new-look Conference USA:
- QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall (406-584, 4,201 yards, 37 TDs, 11 INTs) – The reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year returns with several of his favorite weapons intact. Of course, a dynamic offense didn’t translate into a good win-loss record, with the Thundering Herd finishing 5-7. Cato threw for at least 2 TDs in every game and threw for 300-plus yards in nine of 12, including against West Virginia and Purdue.
- QB Shane Carden, East Carolina (273-413, 3,116 yards, 23 TDs, 10 INTs, 8 rushing TDs) – After starting slow, Carden threw for 300-plus yards in four of his last six games. Through the first five games of the season, Carden threw for 693 yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs. He finished with 2,423 yards, 20 TDs and 6 INTs in his final eight games.
- QB Eric Soza, UTSA (166-282, 2,085 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs, 6 rushing TDs) – The Roadrunners step up in competition this season, but there is reason to believe Soza is up to the challenge. He lit up Louisiana Tech for 314 yards and 4 TDs last year. He also engineered wins over Idaho, New Mexico State and Texas State.
- RB Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (200 carries, 1,194 yards, 27 TDs) – It’s difficult to imagine any offensive player in the league being more apprehensive about a coaching change than Dixon, who thrived under former coach Sonny Dykes and coordinator Tony Franklin. Despite sharing the offensive spotlight with QB Colby Cameron and WR Quinton Patton, Dixon compiled beastly numbers. He topped the 100-yard mark six times and scored TDs in 10 of 12 games. He scored three or more times on five occasions, including a 6-TD outburst Idaho.
- RB Trey Watts, Tulsa (186 carries, 1,108 yards, 3 TDs) – Now that professional TD vulture Alex Singleton is gone, Watts might actually reach the end-zone more than three times. Watts was the leading rusher in 2012 but Singleton scored 24 TDs to Watt’s three.
- RB Vintavious Cooper, East Carolina (200 carries, 1,049 yards, 7 TDs) – Cooper showed big-play ability and workhorse capacity last season for the Pirates. With a consistent passing game, there’s no reason to expect Cooper’s production to drop in 2013.
- RB Darrin Reaves, UAB (215 carries, 1,037 yards, 13 TDs, 302 receiving yards, 3 TDs) – One of the few bright spots for an otherwise erratic offense, Reaves found the end-zone more than once in five games. Then again, he failed to score in six games.
- RB Kevin Grooms, Marshall (121 carries, 737 yards, 8 TDs) – Grooms enjoyed a strong freshman season with a few key performances. He could be primed for a bigger season, especially with QB Rakeem Cato keeping defenses honest.
- WR Ryan Grant, Tulane (76 catches, 1,149 yards, 6 TDs) – Grant saved his best play for last, going for 100 yards in five of his last six games and hauling in nine-plus passes in his last three. Arguably the best returning WR in CUSA, Grant went over the 100-yard mark seven times last year.
- WR Tommy Shuler, Marshall (110 catches, 1,138 yards, 6 TDs) – Cato did a great job spreading the ball around last year, but Shuler was his favorite target. The junior finished with 110 catches and topped the 100-yard mark five times. His season low was five receptions, meaning he stayed a consistent part of the offense all season.
- WR Justin Hardy, East Carolina (88 catches, 1,105 yards, 11 TDs) – Even before QB Shane Carden truly came on, Hardy was posting big numbers. He had five games of 100 yards or more and scored TDs in 10 of 13 games.
- WR Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa (67 catches, 845 yards, 9 TDs) – Garrett enjoyed a few huge games during his breakout season, but was largely a trusty threat to catch around four passes and clear the 50-yard barrier.
- WR Jordan Leslie, UTEP (51 catches, 820 yards, 8 TDs) – Leslie was unstoppable at times, going over 140 yards thrice. However, he also failed to show up in several games, finishing with fewer than 50 yards four times.
- WR William Dukes, Florida Atlantic (63 catches, 979 yards, 4 TDs) – Dukes was inconsistent at times in 2012, but finished with three consecutive 100-yard performances. His new goal should be finding the end-zone with more regularity.
Topics: Conference USA, East Carolina Pirates, Florida Atlantic Owls, Florida International Panthers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Marshall Thundering Herd, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, North Texas Mean Green, Rice Owls, Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Tulane Green Wave, Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, UAB Blazers, UTEP Miners, UTSA Roadrunners