NCAA Football Preview - UAB Blazers

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The UAB Blazers were one of three teams in the Conference USA East Division to finish the conference slate 1-7, and were one of four teams overall to do it in the league. The Blazers finished with a dismal 2-10 record, which included a 1-4 mark on their home turf.

Garrick McGee's squad struggled to contain opposing offenses, allowing just under 498 offensive yards per game and a season total of 525 first downs. Quarterbacks that faced UAB enjoyed an average completion rate of 65.4 percent and 276.5 passing yards per game. McGee was replaced in the offseason by Bill Clark, who led FCS program Jacksonville State to a record-breaking 11-4 season and a berth into the national quarterfinals.

The Blazers played a relatively tough non-conference schedule in 2013. UAB began the season with a 34-31 overtime loss to Troy, and then was beat up pretty bad by LSU, 56-17. The Blazers picked up their first win of the season with a 52-28 win over FCS program Northwestern State. A loss to Vanderbilt closed out the team's non-conference portion of the slate.

UAB only managed one more win the rest of the way in C-USA - a tight 27-24 edging of FIU. The Blazers closed out the season on a six-game losing streak, but managed to force overtime against the eventual conference champion Rice Owls.


OFFENSE: Prior to Jacksonville State, Clark had spent some time as the defensive coordinator at South Alabama in the Sun Belt Conference. But despite his defensive background (which will certainly help the Blazers this season), he managed to help transform a Jacksonville State offense that was an injury away from potentially reaching the FCS semifinals.

He might need a bit of time before UAB can be in the same type of position however, considering the Blazers are losing both quarterbacks that saw the field a year ago. Jonathan Perry, who threw for 10 touchdowns to lead the team, is gone. So is Austin Brown (nine touchdown passes). That leaves Clark with some big decisions this offseason, and he'll be keeping an eye on Cody Clements and Jeremiah Briscoe very closely.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting gig will at least have an arsenal of weapons to which he can throw. Nine of the team's top 10 pass catchers are back from last season, including Jamarcus Nelson, who topped the squad with 42 catches for 846 yards and eight touchdowns. Then-freshman Jamari Staples was second on the team with four receiving scores, and he'll look to build on that total this year. Tight end Kennard Backman will provide another pass-catching outlet.

Perhaps the greatest loss on offense for UAB was running back Darrin Reaves. The productive back made the most of his 201 carries in 2013 by rushing for 980 yards and 12 touchdowns. His duties will likely fall primarily to Jordan Howard, who rushed for 905 yards and two touchdowns last season. He should have some lanes through which he can run since UAB is getting back three starting offensive linemen from 2013. Junior Cameron Blankenship (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) is the favorite to win one of the two vacant positions, while redshirt freshman Zach Sims is the other.

DEFENSE: UAB returns eight defensive starters from the 2013 season, including the top two tacklers from a year ago and four of the top five tacklers. Considering the abuse the defense took in 2013 (UAB allowed at least 30 points in a game to an opponent nine times during the season), having a healthy majority of experienced players back is an asset.

The success of the defense this upcoming season starts with linebacker Jake Ganus, who was the team's top tackler last year with 93. He also racked up eight tackles for loss, an interception and a quarterback hurry. His eight tackles for loss was a team high. Clark may change the defensive scheme in 2014, but he'll have Ganus along with veteran linebackers Derek Slaughter and multipurpose linebacker/defensive end Diaheem Watkins to use.

Up front, Watkins and Chris Rabb return to a defensive line looking for an anchor in the middle. Jontavious Morris is a candidate to fill the tackle position, but he could receive a push from fellow junior Robert Mondie.

"The biggest thing we have been able to do in the offseason is come together as a team," Watkins said. "Coach Clark has done a great job of creating a family atmosphere. We just have to stay hungry and stay together going into that first game against Troy."

A good problem for Clark to have in the defensive backfield is figuring out which one of his experienced backs should start. Between Kelton Brackett, Lamarcus Farmer, Jordan Petty and Jimmy Jean, all four have starting experience and will see plenty of shared time in 2014. Nick Jackson and Calvin Jones should earn the starting safety positions headed into the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Ty Long continues to climb up the UAB record books in terms of field goals made. Now as a senior, the 2013 preseason Groza Award candidate will have a chance to firmly implant himself into Blazers history. He hit 16- of-24 field goals last year with a long of 50 yards.

Hunter Mullins returns to handle the punting duties once again after accumulating an average of 43.1 yards per punt with a long of 63. He sent 14 boots inside the 20 in 2013.

OUTLOOK: UAB is yet another Conference USA victim of player turnover. A 2-10 record is certainly not ideal, and it will be tough for the new coach Clark to come into an FBS coaching situation and have to pick a brand new quarterback to lead his squad.

Still, there are plenty of pieces returning that now have playing experience, and the wide receiver position is loaded with veteran talent. That should make the new quarterback feel much more at ease when the season kicks off, and will hopefully help improve the 214.8 passing yards per game the Blazers accounted for last season.

Defensively, the large number of returning starters is a good foundation. But those same players from last year were the ones who surrendered so much offensive output to opponents. Clark may have his own schemes in mind as he gets set to make the jump from FCS to FBS.

"I told our guys that it is not fair to our seniors to say we are going to win in four years," Clark said. "That is not the climate we are in anymore. I think our players have already seen a difference in the way we train and the way we prepare. I hope they have already seen the kind of climate we want to create here."

The schedule for the Blazers is tough once again, as they'll start the season for the second year in a row with a matchup against Troy. Then UAB takes on Mississippi State, Alabama A&M, and kicks off conference play with FIU on Sept. 27. The Blazers will finish up the non-conference portion of the schedule on Oct. 25 at Arkansas. Key conference battles will be between the Blazers and North Texas (Oct. 11), Middle Tennessee (Oct. 18) and Marshall (Nov. 22).

The pieces are there for the Blazers as they start building back up. UAB hasn't won more than five games in a season in any of the last five years, and it will take some time to get back to that point again. But under the direction of Clark and with so many returning players, the Blazers are on the right path.