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May 19, 2007

BCS Crashers I: What we know, what we don't

Boise State proved last season that you don't have to play in a BCS conference to play meaningful games in January.

The Broncos' undefeated season that featured a stirring Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma has given hope to non-BCS teams across the country.

Boise State's chances of returning to a BCS game this season depend in large part on whether the Broncos can adequately replace three-year starting quarterback Jared Zabransky.

Because the Rivals.com network has so many sites representing schools outside BCS conferences, we're splitting this roundup into two chapters. Today's edition includes Boise State, Hawaii and nine other non-BCS schools. We'll close our spring practice wrapup Sunday by profiling 10 more programs, including Notre Dame.

Army Black Knights
Source: Rob O'Sullivan of GoBlackKnights.com
What we learned from spring practice: Army's spring practice solidified the fact that the Black Knights could have one of their best defensive units in the last 10 years. The defensive line is athletic and deep, with Brandon Thompson, Victor Ugenyi and Elliott Antoine manning the end positions and Tony Fusco, John Wright and Iowa transfer Ted Bentler closing up the inside. They lost starting linebackers Cason Shrode and Barrett Scruggs, but Charlie Rockwood returns on the outside and is complemented by Brian Chmura and Frank Scappaticci. The presence of new linebackers coach Robert Lyles has made a significant impact. The secondary is deep, though injuries kept SS Caleb Campbell out of action and limited FS Jordan Murray's play. FS Dennis Cooper and SS Ryan Brence got valuable reps with the first team and proved they're ready to fill in immediately. Corners John Laird and Kevin Opoku round out the Black Knight defense.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Will the offense be effective enough to score points and give the defense a rest? The offense is still way behind the defense, as evidenced by the defense's 55-18 victory in the Black-Gold spring game. However, three of Army's top running backs were out with injuries, and the changes put in by new offensive coordinator Tim Walsh have not taken hold. The offensive line is still not settled and will need to jell quickly. The receivers lack a pure speed threat, but Damion Hunter has shown that potential. Three-year starter Jeremy Trimble (an All-America punt returner) makes up for it with great moves after the catch.
Boise State Broncos
Source: Andrew Marden of BroncoBlue.com
What we learned from spring practice: The Broncos aren't resting on last year's accomplishments. While the Fiesta Bowl win was huge for the university and all non-BCS schools, for that matter Boise State fully expects to be in a similar position at the end of this year, even after graduating 22 seniors.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The biggest question - hands down - is who will be the team's starting quarterback. Three-year starter Jared Zabransky put together a 33-5 record as Boise State's starting quarterback. The four players competing to replace him have about one full game of experience combined during that span.
Brigham Young Cougars
Source: Rivals.com Mountain West producer Dean Williams for CougarNation.com
What we learned from spring practice: We learned who will replace John Beck. An unfortunate injury was the deciding factor in a very close race. Max Hall, a 6-foot-1, 200 pound transfer from Arizona State was named the starter after JUCO transfer Cade Cooper suffered a season-ending knee injury during the spring game. In the Blue-White Game, Hall completed 15 of 19 attempts for 139 yards.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Gone are quarterback John Beck, running back Curtis Brown, and tight end Jonny Harline. Now, the Cougars must replace their top two receivers, leading rusher and outstanding quarterback. Will Fui Vakapuna lock down the starting running back job, or will Harvey Unga steal carries? BYU has many options at tight end, including Dennis Pitta, Andrew George, and Vic So'oto. Freshman Devin Mahina could also make an impact at a position looking for a star.
Central Florida Knights
Source: Brandon Helwig of UCFSports.com.com
What we learned from spring practice: UCF may be turning the corner on defense. After the defense struggled last season, coach George O'Leary didn't waste time making changes. Three of the four defensive coaches including coordinator John Skladany are new. Skladany had spent the last decade in the same role at Iowa State. The new coaches seem to have brought a much-needed energy and enthusiasm to the defense. Many felt it was the best defensive showing in the spring since O'Leary arrived in 2004. The players also are excited about the new scheme, which is a more attacking version of the 4-3.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Is senior Kyle Israel ready to lead this football team at quarterback? All indications say yes, but he will face some competition during preseason camp with the arrival of Michael Greco, who comes to Orlando after a stint first at N.C. State and then at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi. Israel looked good in the last couple of games of 2006 and was solid in spring practice. He was clearly ahead of the other QBs on the spring roster. Greco, who will officially join the team later this summer, brings an element of mobility (he has speed in the 4.4 range) that UCF's offense hasn't seen in quite some time.
East Carolina Pirates
Source: Mark Lindsey of PirateIllustrated.com
What we learned from spring practice: I think the quarterback situation was a big question mark with James Pinkney graduating. Rob Kass was in a battle with two other quarterbacks (Brett Clay and Patrick Pinkney), but he pretty much came out on top. They didn't name him the starter automatically, but he did better than the other guys. He pretty much looked the part in there. At 6-4, he's able to see over the line pretty well. The other two guys could advance the football down the field, but I don't think they have the ability that Kass has.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The biggest question mark is probably the secondary. They lost three senior starters in Kasey Ross, Jamar Flournoy and Pierre Parker. And they also lost Kyle Chase and Markeith McQueen. They have some new guys coming in who are all talented, but they're young.
Florida Atlantic Owls
Source: Mark Stampini of FightingOwls.com
What we learned from spring practice: The improved play of quarterback Rusty Smith. He was a redshirt freshman last year and seemed to solidify himself (this spring) as the clear No. 1 quarterback. You could tell he was clearly the No. 1 based on the practices and the scrimmages throughout the spring in terms of his completion percentage and everything else.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The offensive line. It's the same story as every other year. They've got to get good play from their offensive line, and they've got to avoid injuries. They've always been small (on the line) and they've always had a rash of injuries, so they've never had the same starting five for an (extended) period of time. They had players nicked up who missed a week of practice here or two weeks of practice there. They've got to get a consistent starting five to step up and take control without the constant change.
Florida International Panthers
Source: Mark Stampini of PanthersBlitz.com
What we learned from spring practice: The freshmen are going to play a lot. Basically new coach Mario Cristobal's big thing is the mental aspect of turning it around after going 0-12. They just need to win. He's somehow got to figure out how to get a win. Those 15 days of spring practice were basically just trying to figure out what's going on and trying to get that winning mentality. To think you're going to win as opposed to hoping you're going to win. That's the No. 1 thing he's got to do before worrying about everything else.
The biggest question remaining for fall: They have to replace the linebackers they lost. Antwan Barnes was selected in the fourth round. Those guys played a long time Keyonvis Bouie and Barnes. How are they going to replace them on defense? Also, how many points are they going to score. They couldn't score last year. That was the big thing. Can they score?
Fresno State Bulldogs
Source: Brad Hoiseth of RedWaveReport.com
What we learned from spring practice: There were three basic things people wanted to find out this spring about Fresno State. Would new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain be given liberty to open up the offense? Will quarterback Tom Brandstater start to look like a leader on the field? Who is the favorite to start at running back?

Answer No. 1: It looks like McElwain is going away from the run-run-pass approach Fresno State fans have gotten used to in recent years. It wasn't uncommon to see four- and five-receiver sets with an empty backfield, leading us to believe Fresno State will be throwing more often in 2007.

Answer No. 2: Brandstater looks far more comfortable in the huddle and looks as if he has earned the respect of his teammates. With a fairly young receiving corps, it will be important for Brandstater and the receivers to spend a lot of time together over the next four months in order to develop some chemistry.

Answer No. 3: Sophomore Lonyae Miller looks like the front-runner to replace Dwayne Wright in the backfield. It was expected to be a two-way battle between Miller and Anthony Harding, but Harding lost ground during the spring due to some minor nagging injuries. Clifton Smith is back from an injury that cost him the 2006 season, but he's more of a change-of-pace back and will be called upon in obvious passing situations

The biggest question remaining for fall: Will Brandstater emerge as a consistent quarterback like past QBs David Carr, Trent Dilfer and Billy Volek?

Hawaii Warriors
Source: Hawaii sports information director Lois Manin
What we learned from spring practice: I learned that Hawaii may have the best quarterback tandem in the country with Colt Brennan and Tyler Graunke. If Brennan had decided to leave after his junior season, the numbers that Graunke put up with his opportunities last year were staggering. I also learned that C.J. Hawthorne can flat-out play receiver. He made the switch after starting at cornerback in 2006.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The defense has to be the biggest question mark since we have an old-but-new coordinator in Greg McMackin. McMackin was here (as defensive coordinator) for one season in 1999, and the defense got the job done. There is no question about the abilities and talents of the defense as a whole, but performance is still a question mark since the material is somewhat new to everyone.
Kent State Golden Flashes
Source: Steve Hare of KentSportsReport.com
What we learned from spring practice: The one thing last year is they had a five-game winning streak in the middle of the year and kind of collapsed at the end. They had the MAC title in their sights and (the finish) wasn't what they wanted. One thing they stressed in the spring was to come out and compete every practice and work harder than the team did last year. They got bigger, faster and stronger, and they're ecstatic with the progress they made in the offseason. The key thing is their strength coach (Toby Jacobi) who joined them in late July and didn't have a whole lot of time with them before the (2006) season. Once the offseason hit, they started lifting hard, working on their speed and conditioning. The results were remarkable. Jacobi had guys benching 475 pounds and had guys running 4.4 40s.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The secondary had to replace Andre Kirkland and Usama Young, who went to the NFL. There are two freshmen Brian Lainhart and Dan Hartman who really stepped up this spring and look like they have a lot of potential. One of the keys is Jack Williams, who ran a 4.29 40 for NFL scouting services that recommend players for the combine.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Source: Tensey Pricer of TechSportsUnleashed.com
What's the biggest thing you learned about Louisiana Tech's 2007 team during spring practice? "It was the first spring with Derek Dooley as head coach, so I think the biggest thing there was just the chemistry of the team - learning about Dooley and Dooley learning about the team. They established that the secondary is pretty strong and they want to continue to improve the defensive line and linebackers. They're making a switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. One of Dooley's big concerns was the defense in general, and specifically shoring up the defensive line and linebackers. I think they're going in a good direction."
What's the biggest question the team must answer before the start of the season? "I guess it's how they'll adjust to that new defense. Will everyone come together and click, and will Tech be able to stop opponents from scoring? That's something they haven't been able to do the past couple of years. Will this change actually work?"

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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