A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about UAB...
3-9 (2-6 C-USA, 5th/East)
Past Five Years
25-34 (18-22 C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
7 (2 Offense, 5 Defense)
With such massive departures and nothing remotely resembling a star – the only players on last year’s all-C-USA team were departed defensive end Larry McSwain and returner Marculus Elliott on the first and third units, respectively – once can find stability, at least, on the offensive line, where ex-Hoover High star Adam Truitt has rocked his borderline Bama bangs at center, right guard and most recently right tackle over his career. He’ll be the only three-year starter on the team, and as such takes this honor more or less by default until receiver Nick Coon (36.2 avg., 3 TDs on 10 catches way back in 2003) plays to form after missing basically all of the last three seasons for myriad calamities.
UAB is admirable for managing a winning record (89-86-2) to date during a fast rise to the Bowl Subdivision since it began playing D-III ball in 1991, but, you know, it just adopted its alma mater a little less than four years ago. One notable rivalry, albeit a short-lived one at nine games: the "Battle For the Bones," in which the Blazers hook up with Memphis for a trophy shaped like a rack of ribs. UAB’s won seven straight in what should be a more equitable series.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Cornerback Carnell Williams expected to start last year but wound up contributing very little until the finale at Central Florida. Whether or not he can wrest the position from fellow senior Zach Britten, though, Williams has parlayed his status as doppelganger to a certain former Auburn and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer star into one inspired nickname: "Escalade."
Summation of his skills from Williams’ team bio: "Can play." Good to know.
Tellin’ boys he’s not afraid to let the iron sing out, let the ring out, no doubt.
What's Changed: The leading passer graduated with the three top runners, both starting receivers left the team early, three offensive linemen are gone and the bookend pass rushers that anchored the defense the last three years graduated. The coach will be new, too, first time boss Neil Callaway, and this is the only reason for optimism:
"Last year, if you gave good effort, it was enough," cornerback Kevin Sanders told the Birmingham News. "If you made a mistake but you were giving good effort, they were OK with that. This staff wants good effort, but they don't stand for mistakes. It's a tremendous change of attitude. I've been here three years, and been doing things a certain way every day. This is way tougher.
"But we needed different. We needed new ideas. I want to be the best. Coach was saying someone's got to be the best, why not me? And I said to myself, 'You know, he's right. Why not me?'
Get out there and be a drip!
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The Blazers need this kind of perspective badly, off consecutive losing seasons in years they could have reasonably competed for the division title going in, and off a six-game losing streak to close last season, the longest skid in the history of the program. Already bereft of playmakers, the offense is bereft now of playmakers and experience, when at least it could rely the last three years on the consistent mediocrity of running backs Dan Burks and Corey White, and indeed the combo was rarely bad - the running game averaged a respectable 134 yards against C-USA opponents behind five returning line starters last year, only slightly down from the days when the hulking untackleability of deep-slinging quarterback Darrell Hackney drew most of the attention.
But that end of the deal, the passing game, regressed, was inconsistent and unproductive with departed all-purpose type Chris Williams taking most of the snaps in an offense that never had much of an identity under the long-time guidance of Watson Brown and Pat Sullivan and wound up last in Conference USA in total yards and next-to-last in passing and scoring. Sam Hunt is an athletic type who was far more efficient in part-time work in the first five games than in brief appearances at the end of the year (4 picks in just 27 attempts against UTEP and Southern Miss), and still has to beat another part-timer, sophomore Joseph Webb. If either of them or any other individual turns out better than "just a guy," it will be a surprise, but that's what optimism is about.
What's the Same: Outside of obvious generalities - talent level, school colors - virtually nothing is the same. The offense, as we've seen, is totally new, and although five starters return on defense, none of them began last season in that position; leading tacklers Will Dunbar, Joe Henderson and Kris Guyton all supplanted or just filled in for veteran, now-departed first-line guys, and the results, not surprisingly, were bad. Over the second half of the season, the Blazers gave up 230, 317, 212 and 205 rushing in losses to Rice, Marshall, Southern Miss and Central Florida and 303 and 455 passing to Memphis and UTEP in between. Personnel-wise, there is no reason to expect this to improve, though new defensive coordinator Eric Schumann probably begs to differ.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: New offensive coordinator Kim Helton, who's been around the pro and college blocks and back again, was once Callaway's boss at Houston, which has always liked to throw it around, and won the C-USA championship last year throwing it around. Helton, obviously, doesn't have anyone like Kevin Kolb at quarterback, and Callaway is "concerned" about the receivers, but hell, why not UAB? The offense appeared determined to throw it around more in the Spring.
The problem: dropped passes, for one, and five interceptions by the two quarterbacks, and the fact that each the two guys drawing the most attention as receivers is, to quote the Birmingham News, "mostly unnoticed by fans" as well as, to quote Callaway, "not a speed guy." But as far as "being physical and being tough," fullback/tight end/H-back types David Sigler and Jeffrey Anderson showed promise, which in context apparently indicates a basic ability to hang on to the ball. Sigler caught five passes as a backup tight end last year, never more than one in any game, and though redshirt freshman Anderson is "not as far along as David as a player," according to his coach, he has already looked inside himself and asked, "why not me?"
"My first thought when I came in was I was going to be a tight end," Anderson said. "In the first couple of days they gave me the wide-receiver playbook. They said I wasn't big enough to play the tight end yet. When the season was over, I said, `Let me eat a little bit because I think I want to be a tight end.'"
Now if he can drop another five pounds and get to 250, his wish might come true.
UAB on YouTube: Alabama-Birmingham only existed for its first 25 years as the medical branch of the main campus in Tuscaloosa, and is still home to the only Level 1 trauma center in the state. Clearly, though, the docs have branched out a little:
Room Four can't poo poo. That is hardcore shit. Literally.
However ugly it gets on the field, Blazers may find balance in Miss UAB - though not in Playboy, disturbingly.*
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Best-Case: September's going to be ugly - at Michigan State, Florida State and presumptive conference favorite Tulsa, with only Alcorn State as a reprieve, and then at Mississippi State the first week of October - but that could mean the youngsters find their rhythm more quickly in games even better Blazer teams wouldn't be likely to win anyway. Conference USA has been a pretty wide open league the last two years, often from week to week, so although this is in no way a division title contender, there is some room with Tulane, gutted Houston and Central Florida coming to Birmingham and Memphis and Marshall on the schedule period to creep back around .500 and bowl eligibility. The most likely route to this unlikely destination is 4-4 in the conference, twice last year's in-league wins, and a low level, quasi-upset in Starkville.
Worst-Case: With the exception of Alcorn State (which is nearly hopeless even by Championship Subdivision standards), every team on the schedule is licking their chops, circling the date, etc., generally bobbing in their cubicles with the assurance it will at least beat the hapless, inexperienced Blazers. Last year was the worst in UAB history by two full games, but could be in danger of being topped already while Callaway gets his ducks in a row. Or, uh, bottomed, that is. I mean...they could be 2-10, is the point.
Non-Binding Forecast: It's tempting with the abject lack of any sort of returning productivity to project a truly awful immediate future at the rockiest depths, but it's just as enticing to look at the Blazers' history of perpetual hovering around .500 - they finished between five and seven wins for 11 years under Watson Brown, even back in the I-AA days, up until his last - and guess a new coach infusion might bump them back up around that mean. The best answer, as usual, is in between, probably at 4-8. A bowl game at this point is a distant, almost certainly hollow hope.
- - - * - The Playboy link is safe for work, if you're worried. Sorry to get your hopes up if not. Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...