Season forecast good for offensive lineups
Players from Conference USA usually rank among the nation’s leaders in passing, rushing and receiving at the end of every year. That trend should continue this season.
Gone are standouts such as Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith (47 touchdown passes last season), 2,000-yard rushers Kevin Smith (Central Florida) and Matt Forte (Tulane), and speedy Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery (1,456 yards, seven TDs). But C-USA still has plenty of dynamic offensive players, such as Rice senior wide receiver Jarett Dillard, Tulsa senior wideout Brennan Marion and Southern Miss junior running back Damion Fletcher.
The last two C-USA Offensive Player of the Year awards have gone to quarterbacks (Smith’s last season and Houston’s Kevin Kolb in 2006), but there’s a good chance another position will take the spotlight this year. Here are the top candidates entering the season.
Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss RB
Fletcher hit the ground running as a freshman in 2006, and he hasn’t looked back since. He rushed for 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns that first season and followed up with an eye-popping 1,586 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He was the 13th-best rusher in the nation with 122 yards per game. With former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora having taken over the reigns for Jeff Bower, who was forced out last winter, there’s no reason to believe that Fletcher won’t be an even more dynamic rusher this season.
Jarett Dillard, Rice WR
The numbers that Dillard posted as a sophomore (1,247 yards, 21 TDs) probably would have won him C-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2006 – had it not been for Kolb. Dillard also proved he was not a one-year wonder by roaring back with another standout campaign last season (1,057 yards, 14 TDs), earning a second consecutive berth on the All C-USA first team. It took some time, but the Owls have surrounded Dillard with more talented wide receivers to take some of the heat off of him. Plus, Dillard has dynamic quarterback Chase Clement returning for another season. Speaking of Clement…
Chase Clement, Rice QB
The Owls’ gunslinger got off to a tough start last season (only five touchdowns and seven interceptions in the first five games) before rebounding to throw 24 touchdowns in the last seven games. Clement finished the season with 3,377 passing yards, completing 59.1 percent of his passes. He also did some damage with his legs, rushing for a team-high 535 yards and eight scores. Clement will have nice weapons to throw to this season in Dillard, sophomore tight end James Casey (585 yards, four TDs last season), junior Toren Dixon (448 yards, five TDs) and senior Tommy Henderson (348 yards, three TDs). If the Owls can support Clement with a half-decent rushing attack, he’ll pick apart defenses with ease this season.
Brennan Marion, Tulsa WR
The 2007 C-USA Newcomer of the Year racked up 1,244 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on just 39 catches last season, and he was a force for opposing cornerbacks. Marion might not have as big an impact this season with his former quarterback Paul Smith having moved on to the NFL and three-year backup senior David Johnson stepping into the starting role, but he could still put up nice-sized numbers playing in Tulsa’s explosive offense. It should especially help that he’ll have this guy lining up next to him:
Trae Johnson, Tulsa WR
Johnson got his college career off to a good start as a freshman, catching 70 passes for 1,088 yards and 13 touchdowns. He went more than 100 yards in three games last season and caught at least one touchdown pass in seven of Tulsa’s last eight games. Like his teammate, Marion, he’ll need to adjust to a new starting quarterback, but he’ll still thrive in Tulsa’s dynamic offense.
Case Keenum, Houston QB
Last season’s C-USA Freshman of the Year enters this season knowing he’ll be the starter after splitting time with junior Blake Joseph for much of last season and winning a battle for the job this year. Keenum’s biggest flaw is that he doesn’t have the world’s greatest arm, but he does almost everything else well. He is a sharp decision-maker, is mobile, has great pocket presence and can make plays with his feet when the pass rushers flush him out of the pocket. Last season, he threw for 2,259 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 68.5 completion percentage, and he rushed for 412 yards and nine touchdowns in a part-time starter role. Look for Keenum to raise his level of play this season.
Trevor Vittatoe, Texas-El Paso QB
Vittatoe was one of the few bright spots during the Miners’ dismal 4-8 campaign in 2007. He threw for 3,101 yards and 25 touchdowns while tossing only seven interceptions. Vittatoe’s completion percentage of 55 percent left a lot to be desired, but he’ll have plenty of time to improve in this area, as he is only a sophomore. The Miners, who have failed to reach a postseason bowl in the last two seasons, hope that he can improve in a hurry because heads will roll on the coaching staff if UTEP falters this year.
Tarrion Adams, Tulsa RB
This senior didn’t draw many headlines last season with former C-USA running backs Smith, Forte, Anthony Alridge (Houston) and Chris Johnson (East Carolina) stealing the spotlight, but he still put up very solid numbers. He rushed for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago, and he caught 30 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. With former dynamic Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith no longer in the fold, Adams could be called on to play an even bigger role in the Golden Hurricane’s offense this season.