2016 Conference USA spring football storylines: What’s the big deal, what to worry about, and what’s all set.
6. Florida International Eyes Next Step
The Panthers have improved in each of the last two years for Ron Turner. Maintaining that trajectory will mean a first postseason invite in five years.
One step at a time, Turner is laying a foundation at FIU. And the offense, led by the trio of QB Alex McGough, RB Alex Gardner and tight end Jonnu Smith, loses no one. It’s on defense where the Panthers will sink or swim this season. To reach .500 in 2016, the staff must bolster a D that collapsed down the stretch and must now replace four of last season’s five All-Conference USA performers.
5. Part 2 of Brent Stockstill to Richie James
Stockstill to James was the most prolific rookie pitch-and-catch combo of 2015. However, Middle Tennessee will need more than just a dynamite passing game to deliver another winning season in Murfreesboro.
While Stockstill and James, both Freshman All-Americans, will serve as the Blue Raider identity for the next few seasons, success in 2016 will hinge on the development of the defense. Middle Tennessee is going to score routinely. Losing all-league defenders Kevin Byard, T.T. Barber, Cavellis Luckett and Patrick McNeil, though, could mean more shootouts than head coach Rick Stockstill prefers.
4. Jay Hopson Takes Baton In Hattiesburg
Todd Monken succeeded in turning around Southern Miss. But then he surprisingly left in late January to coordinate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The task of continuing what Monken started now belongs to Hopson.
Hopson got a late start, far later than most first-year head coaches, increasing the importance of this spring for the entire program. He inherits a team that played in last year’s league title game and returns prolific quarterback Nick Mullens. Hopson is a defensive guy, so the job of keeping the offense moving in the right direction belongs to coordinator Shannon Dawson. With Mullens and RB Ito Smith in the backfield, excessive tinkering won’t be necessary.
3. La Tech Will Likely Drift Back, But How Far?
Skip Holtz has done good work in Ruston, winning nine games in consecutive years. Now, the heavy lifting begins.
It’ll be a busy—and interesting—offseason for the Bulldogs, which will be without quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Kenneth Dixon and defensive tackle Vernon Butler, three cornerstone players. There’s no doubt talent on hand, such as left tackle Darrell Brown and safety Xavier Woods. However, on offense, Holtz could wind up giving the ball to Ryan Higgins, a journeyman who was unable to beat successive graduate transfers, Cody Sokol (Iowa) and Driskel (Florida).
2. Title or Bust For Marshall
The Thundering Herd has won at least 10 games in three straight years, but it has just a single C-USA crown to show for it.
Although Doc Holliday has done a tremendous job in Huntington, raising expectations and the overall talent level, no one is about to rest on laurels. After being trumped by Western Kentucky in 2015, Marshall is hungry to recapture the league hardware. And once the jockeying for jobs is complete this spring and summer, the program feels it houses the requisite skill—on both sides of the ball—to once again be the team at which everyone else is looking.
1. Get To Know Nelson Fishback
Last season was a memorable one for Western Kentucky, which won 12 games and the C-USA championship. Can the Hilltoppers defend their crown without Brandon Doughty behind center?
Doughty was the centerpiece of Western Kentucky’s offense, tossing 48 touchdown passes. Good quarterback, but the system and the coach, Jeff Brohm, are terrific as well. Enter Fishback, a senior itching to be this year’s Seth Doege or Nick Florence. Fishback will have the weapons as well as a line that returns all five starters. If the Toppers don’t skip a beat with a first-time starting quarterback, Brohm’s ask will continue soaring through November and December.