Nov 2, 2013; Birmingham, AL, USA; UAB Blazers running back Jordan Howard (7) hurdles Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders defensive end Steven Rhodes (49) at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

A to Z season preview: Can a new coach bring different results to UAB?

It was a tough 2 years for head coach Garrick McGee, winning just 5 games and struggling to even compete on many other occasions. The result? When Bobby Petrino came calling to offer him the position of offensive coordinator at Louisville, McGee didn’t need to give it a lot of thought. The administration refusing a much-needed upgrade to the school’s athletic facilities did not help matters either.

Last season was rough, as the young team learned some harsh lessons in the competitive Conference USA. The offense did okay, but the passing game was inconsistent at best. The defense, hampered by both youth and injury, took the brunt of the punishment, allowing nearly 6000 yards in total offense and 525 points.

New head coach Bill Clark, fresh off a playoff year in his only season at Jacksonville State, is taking over and saying all the right things. However, can he make the most of the experience the team gained last season and turn around a team that has had just one bowl appearance in its 18 years in the FBS?

 

Offense

Nov 30, 2013; Birmingham, AL, USA; UAB Blazers wide receiver Jamarcus Nelson (1) is grabbed by Southern Miss Eagles defensive back Alexander Walters (31) at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The passing attack was a concern and couldn’t be counted on when the run bogged down. This was a particular problem in the red zone, even when teams loaded up against the run. Senior Jonathan Perry took over for sophomore Austin Brown at midseason, but there was little improvement, despite the presence of all-conference receiver Jamarcus Nelson (42-846-8). The offensive line certainly can’t be held responsible, as they paved the way for the running game and had allowed only 17 sacks, until a rash of injuries allowed the Blazers’ last 2 opponents to rack up 9 combined. Darrin Reaves led the rushing attack again, racking up 928 yards and 12 TDs, while freshman Jordan Howard added 881 yards and 2 scores.

Clark will have some talent to work with this coming season, as the Blazers return a bunch of guys with significant starting experience. Reaves is gone, jumping ship to the NFL early, but Howard was dynamite at times last season and should be more than capable of carrying the load. At 228 pounds, he should see more action around the goal line too. The offensive line is taking a hit with left tackle Kaycee Ike and center Billy Autrey moving on, but freshman starter Cameron Blankenship started at every spot except center last season, while Dominic Sylvester started 3 games as an injury fill-in for Roscoe Byrd. Jonathan Perry and Austin Brown may be gone, but the Blazers look deep at quarterback. Jeremiah Briscoe was one of UAB’s top recruits of last year, and is the heir apparent, but expect a stiff battle from JUCO Cody Clements. There are other options in a diverse quarterback group. Whoever wins the job will have the pleasure of throwing to Nelson again, while Jamari Staples should only get better after a solid freshman campaign (31-458-4). Tight end Kennard Backman (28-302-2) has been a key member of the passing game for a couple of years, and has the size and skills to play on Sundays when he graduates. Offense hasn’t really been the problem at UAB lately, and next season should continue that trend.

 

Defense

November 16 , 2013; Greenville, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates quarterback Shane Carden (5) gets off the pass attempt as he is hit by the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers defensive back Jake Ganus (4) during the 1st quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Defense, on the other hand, has been mostly problematic for the Blazers, and while playing in the offensively prolific CUSA is a part of that, UAB still hasn’t shown the ability to stop opponents regularly. Last season’s statistics were bad, and inexperience and injury played a key role in that, but if the Blazers can parlay hard-earned experienced into better play, improvement won’t be far away.

There were some good performers on the defense, starting with defensive end Diaheem Watkins. He missed substantial time in 2012 due to injury, but came back to lead the team with 5.5 sacks. Back opposite him is Chris Rabb, who makes up for in effort what he lacks in size. Expect redshirt freshman Andra Smith to make an impact at nose, although a switch to a 4-3 may suit an otherwise smallish line. Clark addressed the need for size by signing up a couple of big JUCO tackles this season, either (or both) of whom could contribute straight away. The linebackers lack size too, hence the need for a 40 front. Jake Ganus, UAB’s other defensive all-conference player, played both linebacker and safety last season, seemingly at the same time on occasion, and led the team with 93 tackles, 8 for loss. Settling on a spot for him should help his game though. Derek Slaughter started 8 games last season, which should help him earn a spot in 2014, but he has to play better. Destin Challenger only made it 5 games into the season before a shoulder injury cut it short, but he should be ready to go this season. The secondary definitely needs to be reworked, but could be decent. Cornerback Jimmy Jean is 1 of just 2 players to start every game (Autrey), and will return. The other corner, Lamarcus Farmer, also missed substantial time, but should be in shape for camp. The safety position was a mishmash of different players, but some were playing out of position. Expect plenty of competition in the spring and fall.

Special Teams

This was a strong unit last season, with both specialists getting all-conference nods. Punter Hunter Mullins was the 1st team choice, averaging 43.1 yards per punt. Kicker Ty Long hit 16 of 24 field goals, but 6 of his 8 misses were from over 47 yards, including 2 from 59. He also made 3 50-yard efforts. Nelson was a good returner, taking back both a kick and a punt for scores, while the coverage units were decent. The special teams also blocked 4 kicks.

Everyone who was anyone last season is back on special teams, giving the new coaching staff a degree of comfort. They could add a few yards to their returns to help out the offense, but the rest of the unit seems sound.

 

Prediction

A new coach means new expectations, but UAB is a traditionally tough place to win at. Clark did well at Jacksonville State last year, but that doesn’t guarantee success here. His defensive background should be beneficial, although he has to fit the right pieces into a very big puzzle. The offense should be solid, assuming they can steer clear of the injury bug, but any improvement on the defense could see them at 4 wins, which is a good start. Recruiting will be the key here, not the easiest task with the Blazers.

 

Tags: Alabama-Birmingham Blazers Bill Clark Chris Rabb Conference USA Football CUSA Football Derek Slaughter Destin Challenger Diaheem Watkins Hunter Mullins Jake Ganus Jamarcus Nelson Jimmy Jean Jordan Howard Kennard Backman Ty Long UAB Blazers

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