Spring Football Roster Breakdown and Surprises

The spring football roster was released recently, and it contains a lot that was expected, along with some surprising position changes and reshuffles.

Running back rotation full of new faces
The rotation of backs heavily vaunted in last year’s preseason has been cut down to just one of the original members. Obviously that member is star Spencer Brown, who returns for his junior year with a chance to cement his legacy as one of the greatest Blazers ever and break the remaining school rushing records. In an interesting move, former backfield mate Jarrion Street have been moved to safety. It may be because of the hype about redshirt freshman Werlean Pollock, an agile, speedy runner who had an offer from UCF. Hopefully he can reduce Spencer’s overall workload, along with the returning Lucious Stanley and former wide receiver/special teams player Jonathan Haden, who is experimenting at RB. The other listed running backs are Rashad Mosley, Larry Wooden, and Isaiah Montgomery. I can’t find much on Mosley, but Wooden is an Arkansas State transfer who was rated the 118th best RB in the country when he was originally recruited, and Montgomery transferred from a NAIA school. Their role will be similar to those of Donnie Lee (graduated), Carlos Stephens (transferred), and James Noble III (graduated) the last couple of years.
The RB depth chart will probably look something like:
Spencer Brown
Lucious Stanley/Werlean Pollock
Larry Wooden
Isaiah Montgomery
Rashad Mosley
although that could change as we learn more about the newcomers.

QBs led by Johnston
It started in Legion against UTSA last year, but with the graduation of AJ Erdely, this is completely TJ3’s team for the first time in his career. With multiple promising performances coming in the last half of 2018, it looks like the QB play will not take much of a hit. Johnston is more of a known commodity, in contrast to his backups, who are X-factors. Behind him on the depth chart will be Dylan Hopkins from Maryville, Bryson Lucero (carved up Hoover on national television), and David Hendrick. Hopkins was the 54th best quarterback in the country and the 2nd best dual threat QB in Tennessee, so he might continue the trend of UAB QBs running well. Lucero, on the other hand, is a three star from powerhouse IMG that put on a show in front of the whole country. Lucero is more of a throwing quarterback compared to Hopkins and Erdely. Because of Johnston’s strong play, Hopkins and Lucero will have to show out to win the starting role this season, but last season showed us that anything can happen.

Offensive line takes hit
The fantastic offensive line from last season lost four of its members, along with its coach. First-team all-conference lineman Justice Powers graduated, along with second-team members Rishard Cook, Malique Johnson, and James Davis. O-line coach Jody Wright left for the Browns as well, and was replaced by Richard Owens. The only returning starter is center Lee Dufour, who is a solid anchor. Dufour said about the line in Evan Dudley’s AL.com article:

“Obviously, we lost four starting guys, a lot of those guys with a chance at the next level, but the guys who came in behind them all got a lot of experience last year. For example, I broke my arm in the middle of the season and Greg Fecanin came in right behind me, didn’t miss a beat and had a great year. Andrew Smith had a great year, David Galten has come in and got a lot of reps. Guys that are coming in now may not have started last year but they all definitely got some valuable reps. We’ve been communicating with each other, and obviously our communication needs to improve a little bit, but for starting off a foundation and starting off on day one, I think we did pretty good.”

Dufour sounds confident about the line, which is good, but no one really knows how it will perform this year with 4 2-year starters gone. Almost everything, including the depth chart, will be unknown until later in the summer. The closest thing to a guarantee we have is that Dufour will start and the aforementioned Fecanin, Smith, and Galten will get playing time as well.

Top five wide receivers gone
As with the offensive line, the starting WR unit has graduated. With Andre Wilson, Xavier Ubosi, Collin Lisa, and Kailon Carter gone, new faces are going to have to step up to replace them. One of those new faces will be Myron Mitchell, a three-star recruit from Butler CC. Mitchell has showcased his extensive abilities as a wideout, picking up an offer from Texas Tech before going to community college. He is the most likely player to take on the role as main receiver, but that title could go to any of the following:
Austin Watkins, solid receiver in JUCO
Kendall Parham, agile wideout that had a solid season last year
Sederian Copeland, back at the WR position and healthy from injuries
Demetrius Davis, former 3-star with offers from Mississippi State and Indiana
Kevin Davis
Stone Dorough
Conner Howell, had FCS offers
Alec Marsch, Homewood product
Tyler Pye
Tevin Sharpe
Xavier Coleman
TD Marshall, Samford transfer, played QB in high school

I don’t think we’ll know much about this offense as a whole until the season begins. So much depends on if Johnston keeps up his production, if the new WRs produce, if the new offensive line is solid, and if Spencer Brown is his same old self.

Defensive line and linebackers still look to be intimidating
It is no secret that the UAB defense was one of the best in the country last year, and they want to keep that trend going in year three of The Return. That task will be difficult with the loss of multiple key defenders, but the Blazers retain some of their core pieces. Garrett Marino, Thomas Johnston (who is looking to take a step up this year), Kris Moll, Dy’jonn Turner, Fitz Mofor (someone the team will need to replicate the leadership of Broderick Thomas and AJ Erdely), and others return for the Blazers. Not only that, but some very exciting new pieces are being thrown into the mix as well, including some recruits that UAB would never dream of getting 7 years ago. Those include LBs Deshaun Oliver, Jr. and Jalen Rayam, two hyped up player being recruited by Power 5 schools. If they can come in and replace major contributors such as Chris Woolbright, the defense is in good shape. On the defensive line side of things, former Nebraska commit Tony Fair, Fish McWilliams, and Michael Fairbanks will cause havoc and help replace players like Anthony Rush. If all of the new pieces can step in immediately, then the D-line and linebackers should have no problems getting back to their level last year.

Exciting talent in defensive backfield
Like many other units on this team, the safeties and corners lost a lot of production, but have freshman and sophomores that are read to take over. D.A. Williams finished his college career in a bad way with a scary neck injury, while Duke Culver, Broderick Thomas, and Mar’Sean Diggs also graduated. That clears the way for Starling Thomas V and CD Daniels to pave their own roles. Both had high-major offers and have shown promise in the little playing time they have had. The Miller twins, Damien and Damon, will also get opportunities this season. Damien especially is a player I am excited to see, simply because of his special teams talents.

I think every unit on the team will depend on the ability of players that are not very experienced in game situations to come in and play at a high level immediately. So many players were lost that it is very hard to project the depth charts and production that each unit will produce this upcoming season. It’ll be up to all the players mentioned above plus any I missed to defend the title.

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POD SEASON

Now that all of the teams in our conference have played fourteen games, it’s time for the first annual POD SEASON™, which will last four games. Each team will be placed in one of three pods, which are divided by teams 1-5, 6-10, and 11-14. The top twelve teams after pod play will make the conference tournament and have a chance to play for a spot in March Madness, while the bottom two will go home disappointed. Teams will be seeded in the conference tournament within their group. For example, a team in the 6-10 group will have a tournament seed of no higher than six and no lower than 10. With the earlier win at Western, UAB is guaranteed at worst a five seed, and could get a first round bye.

Final POD SEASON™ Standings:

Top pod:
Old Dominion (21-6, 11-3)
Western Kentucky (16-11, 9-5)
UTSA (15-12, 9-5)
Southern Miss (17-9, 9-5)
UAB (16-11, 8-6)

Middle pod:
North Texas (20-7, 8-6)
FAU (16-11, 7-7)
Marshall (14-13, 7-7)
FIU (16-11, 7-7)
LA Tech (17-10, 7-7)

Bottom pod:
Rice (10-17, 5-9)
MTSU (8-19, 5-9)
UTEP (8-17, 3-11)
Charlotte (6-19, 3-11)

UAB’s Record Against Each Pod
Top: 2-2, .500
Middle: 4-1, .800
Bottom: 2-3, .400

We should have a good opportunity to get a two or three seed over the next four games. We have proven that we are able to handily beat UTSA and to play a solid game against WKU. The Old Dominion game was also promising until the second half, when the lack of depth really showed. The matchup in Hattiesburg was probably worse all-around than the one against ODU, but even that was close. What I’m trying to say is that UAB has shown they can at least put up a fight against all our podmates, especially with Lovan back and the emergence of McCoy. Hopefully, the team can keep up the strong road performances and the Bartow crowd will be energized by the Marshall and WKU wins. I don’t think we need to get the first seed to win the conference, but getting a bye and playing a weaker team at the beginning will not hurt.

POD SEASON™ Schedule:
Pod matchups, dates, and TV times will be released later tonight. Check back in a few hours to see them.

Game Preview: 1/24/19 at North Texas

Tomorrow night the Blazers head down to Denton to battle the North Texas Mean Green. UNT has feasted on a weak schedule so far and comes into this pivotal matchup 17-2, 5-1, tied for first in the conference with Marshall. UAB could jump into that tie with a win, a Marshall loss, and an Old Dominion loss.

UNT Offense
The Mean Green offense presents a significant change of pace. Unlike previous opponent UTSA, which is the 22nd fastest team in the country, UNT runs a slow offense, the 259th fastest. They keep the ball about 18 seconds per offensive possession, so they will get good shots. They run their offense mostly through guards Ryan Woolridge, Michael Miller, and Roosevelt Smart, and forward Zachary Simmons. North Texas is a good shooting team all-around and rely on the 2-point game slightly more then they do the perimeter one, but can still hit open threes (especially Miller, who shoots 43.2% from outside the arc). Even if their shots miss, they get a lot of offensive rebounds, an area in which the UAB defense is strong. Not allowing second-chance buckets will be critical if the Blazers want to win this. One area they are weak in is getting their shots blocked. If Blazer defenders can get their hands up and contest every Mean Green attempt, they will be able to get blocks and deflections. They can also be pressured into turnovers at times, especially Woolridge, the primary ballhandler.

UNT Defense
North Texas has a strong interior defense, only allowing a 46.1% field goal percentage for 2s, 37th in the country. Their perimeter defense is worse, though, allowing 34% of threes to go in. The Blazers will need to make some threes and get space inside for good looks. Their defense also creates a lot of turnovers, ranking 94th in the country in turnover percentage, which means Blazer guards will have to be careful with the ball so UNT doesn’t get easy fast-break buckets. Once again, the offensive rebounding battle will be important here, as the Blazer offense is 35th in the country in offensive rebounding rate and the Mean Green defense is 47th in offensive rebounds allowed.

Keys
1. Try to disrupt Mean Green passes to shake up the flow of their offense.
2. Don’t leave shooters open around the arc.
3. Box out well as to not allow any second opportunities.
4. Contest and close out on all shots to get blocks which can lead to fast break opportunities.
5. Put pressure on opposing guards to try and pressure them into turnovers.
6. Create space for open looks on all three levels.
7. Be careful with the ball against a potent UNT defense.
8. Get second-chance points on offense to swing the balance of the game.

FINAL SCORE PREDICTION: UAB 79, UNT 78

Conference USA Recap: 1/23/19

The only game tonight came down to the wire in Boca Raton. FIU took down FAU behind Devon Andrews’ 19 points.

Scores
FIU 78, FAU 74: The Owls were up early but FIU came roaring back on a 14-0 run in the first half. The rivals battled back and forth down the stretch, but FIU was up two on FAU’s last possession. Xavian Stapleton drove but couldn’t hit, and then Simeon Lepichev missed a tip in. Heartbreaking loss for the once-promising Owls.
Standings

Current Pods:
Top Pod (1-5)
UNT
Marshall 
ODU
UAB
UTSA
Middle Pod (6-10)
FIU
WKU
LA Tech
USM
Rice
Bottom Pod (10-14)
MTSU
FAU
Charlotte (would not be included in tournament if season ended today)
UTEP (would not be included in tournament if season ended today)

Conference USA Recap: 1/21/19

There were only two games today because of a weird schedule, but they were both interesting.

Scores
Old Dominion 76, Charlotte 70: This game was expected to be a disgusting matchup between two disgustingly slow teams, and it was for a while, until it turned into normal basketball. ODU rallied from a double-digit deficit and overcame Jon Davis’s 30 to win in Charlotte.
Western Kentucky 68, Marshall 59: The first half of the marquee matchup was incredibly sloppy, filled with turnovers and missed shots. The Herd were 0-13 from three at one point. Jon Elmore and Jarrod West (who was shoeless) hit threes before the half to take the lead, and it looked like Marshall had momentum going into the break. Elmore heated up early in the second period, and it seemed as if Marshall would pull away for good, but WKU battled back. Bassey took over late in the game and Josh Anderson dominated all-around to net the Toppers a solid home win.

Current Standings


Notes:
North Texas and Marshall are now tied for first.
UAB is in the first pod and is 1 game back from first.
Current Pods:
Top Pod (1-5)
UNT
Marshall
ODU
UAB
UTSA
Middle Pod (6-10)
FIU
WKU
LA Tech
USM
FAU
Bottom Pod (10-14)
Rice
MTSU
Charlotte (would not be included in tournament if season ended today)
UTEP (would not be included in tournament if season ended today)

Conference USA Recap 1/19/19

A weird day for the conference concluded with UAB’s double-digit domination of formerly unbeaten UTSA. Today had everything, from the worst shooting performance you’ll ever see, a buzzer-beater, and a game in which the teams combined for 202 points.

Scores
Old Dominion 78, Southern Miss 60: All-around domination by the Monarchs in this one. ODU had four in double-digits and put up another great defensive effort.
Charlotte 55, LA Tech 40: hahaha go niners

how does 4.3% from three even happen
jon davis didn’t even score double digits and they still lost by 15
even on the road, how do you lose by 15 to CHARLOTTE

(I think this is one of the first games that the Tony Bennett/UVA pack line defense implemented by Ron Sanchez had worked to this extent)
North Texas 76, Rice 75: Very exciting game that came down to the wire. North Texas came back from a big deficit early and won on a last-second shot. You can read a better recap on MGN. With 1:03 left in the game and the score 73-70 in the Owls’ favor, Rice turned it over on a questionable charge call. UNT marched down the floor and got within 1 on a Jordan Duffy basket off an offensive rebound. Chris Mullins then turned it over again, leading to two Michael Miller free throws, giving the Mean Green a one-point lead, 74-73. Rice came down the floor and called a timeout. Mullins then almost turned it over, which would have been the third Owl turnover in the last 40 seconds, but Rice retained possession. Mullins then immediately redeemed himself by putting the Owls back on top with a driving layup with the game clock at 6.6. But the Mean Green weren’t done. They rolled the ball to halfcourt, then Michael Miller made a difficult layup, sending the crowd at the Super Pit wild. Rice wasn’t able to do anything with .6 seconds remaining, and North Texas won their 17th.
WKU 72, FAU 66: For a little while, it looked like the Toppers were going to lose another game to a team that is worse than them. The Owls led early behind a nice performance from Xavian Stapleton, but Western came back to win by six in Diddle.
MTSU 75, UTEP 72: Middle has now won two in a row, bringing their record to an impressive 5-14. I think they’ll return to where they were in the last couple of years soon. There are some good pieces there. UTEP has had a tough road trip, coming up winless after this game and their loss at Bartow.
Marshall 105, FIU 97: The matchup between two of the most offensive-minded teams in the conference did not disappoint. For the second consecutive game, CJ Burks and Jon Elmore combined for 59 in a track meet in Huntington. Devon Andrews had a solid game in the FIU loss.


Balanced Blazer Attack Takes Down UTSA, 83-73

After struggling early, UAB came back and beat Keaton Wallace and the UTSA Roadrunners by ten. For the first time since a game against Newberry College on January 4, 2014, all five Blazer starters scored in double figures.

As expected, UTSA came out firing. The Blazers were able to match the pace for a few possessions, but fell behind by six after a Sullivan turnover lead to a Jackson basket. Coach then called a timeout to talk it over. Nothing much changed for a couple of minutes, and the teams kept exchanging threes. UAB was able to claw back in it after a nice shot from Makhtar and a Bryant three, making the score 12-14, UTSA. Then, Jalen Perry missed a contested shot from the perimeter. Sullivan got the rebound, with some help from Tamell Pearson, and gave it to Tavin Lovan, who put in an acrobatic layup to tie it up with about 13 minutes to go in the first. For the first time, UAB had some momentum. But it would swing back the other way soon. After Sullivan and Giovanni de Nicolao exchanged free throws, Keaton Wallace began to have a career night. He made two straight threes and stretched the Runner lead back up to six. Jhivvan Jackson soon made another and it looked like the Roadrunners were going on a… run. Tavin Lovan and Gueye soon got the Blazers back into it, though, bookending a Wallace jumper with baskets of their own. Then, Jalen Perry changed the momentum for good. Down by three with about 6:30 left in the first half, Perry drove to the free throw line and jumped up, changed positions mid-air, nailed the shot, and drew a foul. After Jalen completed the and-one, the game was tied again. Perry’s old-fashioned three point played energized the team, and they took an eight point lead into the break. It looked like UTSA might get back in it at the beginning of the second, bringing the lead down to 2 at one point, but it was a lost cause. Everyone started hitting their shots and the Blazer lead stretched out to 20 at one point as the clock wound down on a great win for UAB.

Three Best Players for Us:
Mahktar Gueye – Had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and made shots that stopped the UTSA lead from growing too big in the first half.
Lewis Sullivan – 
Another great game for the senior, grabbing some important rebounds, scoring 16, and hitting two threes while shooting 71%.
Jalen Perry – Led the team in scoring, shot 54% from the field, and completely changed the momentum of the game with his athletic and-one in the first half.
Three Best Players for Them:
Keaton Wallace – Obviously the best player for them, Wallace made some impossible NBA-range shots and finished with 33 points and 9 rebounds. Shot 46% even with the crazy shots he jacked up at the end to try and get back in it.
Giovanni de Nicolao – Lost in Wallace’s performance, de Nicolao had a solid night outside of scoring, with 14 rebound and 4 assists.
Jhivvan Jackson – Although it was a below-average game for him, Jackson improved his play in the second half and finished with 22.

Keys from before the game
1. Shut down Jackson and Wallace and force them to give the ball up.
This worked for one of the two. Jhivvan Jackson finished the game 7-23 from the field with 22 points, a solid portion of which came in garbage time. He also turned it over twice and had four fouls in a poor all-around game for the sophomore. The other…not so much.
2. Slow UTSA’s high tempo and make them play at the pace we want. 
This worked in the second half. At first, I felt like UAB tried to answer the opponent’s quick pace by settling for threes they didn’t need to take. But as the game went on, the Blazers found their rhythm and played the game like they wanted to.
3. Get defensive rebounds, not allowing the Roadrunners many second opportunities.

In a good game in almost every way, I feel like this is the one big thing that could use some work. UTSA got second chances in both halves, with 8 offensive boards in the first 20 minutes and 6 in the second. Although they didn’t amount to that much, allowing 14 second chances could be harmful against a different team.
4. Force them to take contested looks, as they don’t turn the ball over much.
I think UAB did this well on all three levels, and that shows with a 35.6% shooting percentage for UTSA in total. The only place the Runners shot really well was from three, from where they made 36.6% of their shots. It’s not that the perimeter defense was that bad; a good amount of UTSA’s 3s were contested. It’s just that Keaton Wallace can’t miss.
5. Make accurate passes, and don’t let them get easy buckets off turnovers.
The whole team did this very well. There were only eight UAB turnovers in the game.
6. Get penetration and shots near the rim.
After the opening run, the penetration and shot selection was great. UAB shot 24/34 on two-pointers, a 71% clip.
7. Don’t start taking many threes unless the inside game isn’t working well.
At the beginning, the Blazers didn’t even try to establish the interior game. They got caught up in UTSA’s pace and tried to match them. But Coach Ehsan did a good job of getting everyone to realize that they could easily get back in it if they got better looks from the inside.

My final score prediction:
79-77, UAB
Actual final score:
83-73, UAB