Sun Belt Conference Preview

Troy heads the race for the New Orleans Bowl

> 2007 College Football Preview Index
> BCS Conference Previews: ACC | Big East | Big Ten | Big 12 | Pac-10 | SEC
> Non-BCS Conference Previews: C-USA | Independents | MAC | MWC | Sun Belt | WAC | DII | DIII
> Video Previews: ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big East | Big Ten | Big 12 North | Big 12 South
C-USA | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC East | SEC West

Aug. 1, 2007

By Drew Champlin

Special to


There's more optimism in the Sun Belt than ever this year, and there's a reason why.          


Several key players return, and the outlook is better for Sun Belt teams to win the "guarantee" games against out-of-conference opponents. Guys like Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook, Louisiana-Lafayette running back Tyrell Fenroy, Middle Tennessee State defensive end Erik Walden and Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson are legit players that could fit in almost anywhere.        




Inside the league, there's as many as seven teams - assuming North Texas can get its act together and gel on offense this year - that have a chance for the conference title and an automatic berth in the New Orleans Bowl. But it's entirely possible a second or third Sun Belt team could snatch up a berth in a bowl somewhere else where the other conferences don't have enough eligible tie-ins - like Middle Tennessee did last year in the Motor City Bowl.


Troy is the trendy pick. Last year's New Orleans Bowl winner (41-17 over Rice) has the league's best offense returning and a very good defense. But if the Trojans are beat up after three straight weeks against Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma State, the next two conference weeks (at Louisiana-Lafayette, home against Louisiana-Monroe) could be its undoing. Also, if Middle Tennessee, another popular pick, can't get its offense together before its Sept. 1 season opener at surging Florida Atlantic, dreams could be shattered there.


It should be a fun year in the Sun Belt.


Troy Trojans



Omar Haugabook did something for Troy that Hansell Bearden, Aaron Leak and Carl Meadows couldn't do in the three consecutive seasons before him. He started and finished the season as the team's starting quarterback.


Haugabook flourished in new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's spread, pass-happy system. He led the league in passing yards (2,401), touchdown passes (21) and completion percentage (61.3), as well as passing attempts and completions. Haugabook did throw a league-high 17 interceptions. With the amount of passes thrown in the system, Haugabook should throw some picks this year, but likely won't throw double digits. He was named Sun Belt Player of the Year last year and is the preseason favorite to win the award again.


Franklin was out of college coaching for six years and was brought in after former coordinator Mark Fleetwood led units that finished below 100th nationally in many offensive categories in his three years. Head coach Larry Blakeney had to fire good friend, Fleetwood, to bring in Franklin, who convinced Haugabook, a soft commit to Marshall, to sign with Troy. He enrolled in the spring and took over right away. Haugabook is the league's top dual-threat quarterback and he can put it down and run when necessary.


Haugabook's biggest problem won't be receivers, as starters Gary Banks and Mykeal Terry return, as well as key contributors Andrew Davis, Justin Bray and Cornelius Williams. Troy lost four of five starters on the offensive line to graduation and position coach Matt Moore left for Texas Tech after spring practice. John Schlarman was hired in his place.


Chris Jamison is a two-year starter at left guard. Danny Franks will likely start at center, with returnees Steven Merkel, Will Chambliss and Emeka Okosa as well as newcomers Windham Rotunda, Dion Small, Wes Potter, Tyrell Curtis, Micah Grimes and Jamarr Thompson battling for the other positions. Small took over at right tackle in the spring.


Top rusher Kenny Cattouse (810 yards) returns for his senior season. Sean Dawkins missed last year with a knee injury but he returns as a nice complement to Cattouse.



Eight starters return, but three who didn't suit up last year could have the biggest impact.

Sherrod Martin, a two-year starter at safety, missed last year after surgeries on both shoulders. He returns and could replace NFL Draft pick Brannon Condren. Chris Bradwell and Dion Gales are two former top-rated recruits who have found their way to the Troy defensive line. Bradwell missed last season after a preseason arrest and the former Florida State player has one year left. Gales de-committed from Ole Miss and signed with Troy in February. Both could start on the interior defensive line and will team with ends Kenny Mainor, Brandon Lang and Shawn Todd to give Troy one of the conference's best fronts.


The secondary is loaded with Martin, cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Elbert Mack and safeties Tavares Williams, Terence Moore and Trevor Ford (Florida State transfer). Troy is expected to use five defensive backs more often this season as the league shifts to more pass-happy offenses.


Marcus Richardson and Boris Lee are two of the league's best linebackers. The other starter will be senior Romanique Lewis or junior college transfer David McDowell.


The Skinny:

The pieces are in place for Troy to make another run to the New Orleans Bowl, except for a murderous early schedule that features Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks. There's no break as Sun Belt play opens with a tough road trip to UL-Lafayette followed by a home game against a tough UL-Monroe squad. But there's no substitute for experience, heart and leadership. Troy has all of that, including a lot of talent, and should be in the New Orleans Bowl again, barring injuries.



Florida Atlantic Owls



The Owls are led by quarterback Rusty Smith, a sophomore who can only get better. Smith started nine games last year and completed 56-percent of his passes before breaking his thumb late in the year. His best game came in a near-upset of Troy, when he threw for 312 yards in a 24-17 loss that was decided on the Owls' final possession.


Smith has plenty of targets to throw to, led by junior Frantz Simeon, one of the best in the Sun Belt. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Simeon can take a short pass and turn it into a long gain.  Sophomore Conshario Johnson caught 15 balls in his first year. Chris Bonner and Avery Holley also had productive freshman seasons, meaning the sky is the limit for the passing attack.


Charles Pierre established himself as a top Sun Belt back with 756 yards last year. DiIvory Edgecomb is back after he was academically ineligible last year but his return gives the Owls a good running punch. Watch out for true freshman Xavier Stinson from Miami at the position, a top recruit that slipped through the cracks.


The offensive line returns some experience, but this was a weak point last year. A big loss was left tackle Nello Faulk. Right guard Jarrid Smith is the only projected senior starter.



As good as the offense is projected to be, the defense is already there as ten starters return. Senior Josh Pinnick was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection last year and junior Jervonte Jackson was a second-team selection. Robert St. Clair returns at one end, but the other, Randy Hunter, is currently suspended.


The defense has a Frantz, too. Frantz Joseph mans the middle and was one of the top tacklers last year. Cergile Sincere, a senior, is probably the best linebacker of the bunch and Andre Clark is a returning starter. Kris Bartels and Taheem Acevedo are seniors who started at the safety positions last year. Corey Small is a returning starter at cornerback.


The Skinny:

Seventy-three year-old Howard Schnellenberger wants to prove that he's still got it. His players believe it. The rest of the country might find out this year, now that the Owls return a talented team. FAU has five tough non-conference games, but Minnesota and South Florida are at home and Kentucky and Oklahoma State aren't impossible road challenges. The biggest game will be the first one, a home game against conference foe Middle Tennessee. A win could propel FAU all the way to the finale, a Dec. 1 game at Troy that should determine who will represent the Sun Belt in the New Orleans Bowl.



Arkansas State Indians



The Indians (well, not for long thanks to the NCAA's nicknames mandate) have a bright, young offense that can get better next year and even the year after. It starts with quarterback Corey Leonard, just a sophomore, and running back Reggie Arnold, just a sophomore. He was named to the league's all-conference first team last year and was a big reason for the Indians' early success. While running for more than 1,000 yards a year ago, Arnold was also the league's Freshman of the Year. There's no reason to think he won't be better after a year of figuring out where the holes are. There might be some problems finding them, as the Indians return just two starters. One is all-conference selection Matt Mandich at left tackle. Cedric Wilkerson, another sophomore, is Arnold's backup and he also shined as a freshman. Junior David Johnson averaged 15.4 yards per catch at tight end last year and is an exceptional blocker. Levi Dejohnette is the team's top returning receiver, while wide receiver Jarriel Norman was named the team's most improved player following the spring.



Arkansas State, led by preseason Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Tyrell Johnson at safety, has one of the league's top defensive backfields. What will make or break this team is the play of the defensive line, which was stung by injuries last season. Brian Flagg missed last season with a knee injury, but returns at defensive end for his junior season. Brandon Rollins, a sixth-year senior, and Alex Carrington, are also capable defensive ends. Curtis Bonds and Prince Hickman should be the starters inside. Rob Ramage, a senior, saw extensive time last year. But it's the secondary where ASU shines. Besides Johnson at safety is Khayyam Burns, another experienced, hard-hitting safety. Darren Toney is back as a senior at cornerback and Montis Harrison is the other corner. At linebacker, ASU lost two of three, but return star Koby McKinnon, an all-conference selection. Ben Owens, a reserve last year, has a chance to start as does sophomore Matt Taylor.


The Skinny:

This team went to the New Orleans Bowl just two seasons ago and showed flashes of dominance at times last year. While Leonard is developing as one of the league's best and most athletic quarterbacks, he is still young. The defense is one of the conference's best and should have the Indians competing for a league title at the end of the year. Remember this - Arkansas State has yet to lose to Troy, predicted by many to win the Sun Belt title this year. Last year, ASU handed Troy its only conference loss and has the Trojans in Jonesboro this year.



Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks



As a sophomore, Kinsmon Lancaster showed flashes of brilliance when he threw for 377 yards against Kansas and was second in the Sun Belt with 2,122 total yards. But the first-year starter was inconsistent at many times during the year. In order for success this season, Lancaster must play to the level of his experience. He's a dangerous threat with his arm and his feet, but can't take too many hits with his 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame. Chance Payne, whom Lancaster split time with last year, was moved to linebacker in the spring. Perhaps the top running back in the Sun Belt - Calvin Dawson - is back for his senior season. The Sun Belt rushing champion a year ago has a great chance to build on his 1,210 yards a year ago and make a run for Sun Belt Player of the Year honors. LaGregory Sapp is one of the best wide receivers in the Sun Belt and Zeek Zacharie is the best tight end, if you look at the preseason voting. The offense took a big hit when receiver J.J. McCoy suffered an offseason Achilles injury and won't play this year, but sophomores Darrell McNeal and Aaron Stringfellow return. The Warhawks bring back all five offensive line starters, led by Kyle Cunningham and Adam Hill. Joseph Joseph is back for his senior season as a reserve offensive lineman.



The defense will be a big question mark for the Warhawks this season as three top linebackers and three starting defensive backs are gone. The defensive line does return some experience, led by sophomore Jameson Jordan at end and junior Kendall Mouton and senior David Cooper at the tackles. Cardia Jackson is the only sure thing in the back seven, but he is only a true sophomore. Jackson did start every game last season at linebacker. Chance Payne moved from quarterback in the spring and has a chance to be a player at the position. The rest of the linebackers are inexperienced sophomores or redshirt freshmen. Quintez Secka missed last season with a hamstring injury, but he and Darrius Battles bring experience to the cornerback position. Josh Thompson is the team's top returning tackler, but it's not good when that person is your safety. Thompson is the team's top defensive player returning, though.


The Skinny:

The pieces for a bright 2007 season were put into place late last year, when the Warhawks won three of the final four and lost a 42-40 decision to bowl-bound Kentucky. Lancaster and Dawson were dead on in the finale against rival UL-Lafayette, spoiling the Cajuns' chance for an at-large bowl bid. But the other two wins came against last year's Sun Belt doormats North Texas and Florida International. Dawson will have a great year, Lancaster will be a little bit more consistent than last year, but the Warhawks will be a middle of the pack Sun Belt team because the defense won't be up to par. Expect several 35-31 type games in Monroe.



Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns



The Michael Desormeaux era at UL-Lafayette begins as the athletic lefty officially takes over the reigns as starting quarterback. Desormeaux saw time as a redshirt freshman in 2005 when starter Jerry Babb was injured and played several positions on offense, defense and special teams last year while Babb remained healthy. While athletic, Desormeaux hit just 2-of-9 passes for 15 yards last year. He completed 53 percent of his passes as a redshirt freshman, but threw five interceptions. His next touchdown pass will be his first career one. Cajun fans are hoping new offensive coordinator Blake Anderson can maximize Desormeaux effectively. Two others -- John Hundley and Connor Morel, will challenge Desormeaux.


One certainty is Tyrell Fenroy at running back. He's the first player in ULL history to run for more than 1,000 yards in his first two seasons and with another year like that, he'll be the Cajuns' all-time leading rusher. Another Desormeaux -- redshirt freshman Matt -- could be the fullback. Juniors Derrick Smith and Jason Chery along with sophomores Phillip Nevels and Louis Lee give Desormeaux several established targets. Tight end is a question mark.


Jesse Newman, an all-conference selection and four-year starter at tackle, leads the offensive line, but the rest of the line has concerns.



The defense has a new look, or at least some new coaching as Kevin Fouquier is now the man in charge of the defense. There are plenty of question marks as several positions still had battles leaving spring practice. Rodney Hardeway and Greg Hathorn, both seniors, are leaders at defensive end. Korey Raymond, another senior, is the best returning lineman at defensive tackle. Linebacker Brenton Burkhalter was ULL's leading tackler last year, and he'll be helped by senior Mark Risher and junior Antwyne Zanders. At corner, five players are battling for a starting spot, but junior college transfer Scooter Rogers is a highly-touted recruit who may end up as the best of the bunch. Both projected starting safeties -- Lamar Morgan and Gerren Blount -- were sidelined with injuries during spring practice.


The Skinny:

Last year, ULL had the target on its back, being predicted to win the Sun Belt. It didn't happen, thanks to a slow start in league play and a bad ending, including a humiliating loss to in-state rival UL-Monroe. The key will be how Desormeaux develops as the full-time quarterback, because he's a great athlete but an inconsistent passer. ULL tends to start slow in conference play, but a win over Troy at home on Sept. 22 could propel the Cajuns to a high finish. If not, it could be another middle-of-the-pack year as there are several questions on defense.



Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders



This is the side with the most question marks for Middle Tennessee. Second-year head coach Rick Stockstill had MTSU claim a share of the Sun Belt title last year, but it could be tougher this year with a new quarterback, running back and offensive line. Joe Craddock, a junior, was far and away the best quarterback in the spring, but he recently had surgery to remove a floating screw from a previous surgery. Stockstill anticipates Craddock being ready for the season opener against FAU. If he can't go, senior Patrick Jackson or sophomore Gene Delle Donne are the two backups.


Senior Demarco McNair saw considerable action as a backup tailback last year and is ready to shine at the position. The most versatile player is Desmond Gee, a diminutive, 5-foot-8, 163-pound sophomore, was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection as an all-purpose player. Gee threw, ran for, and caught a touchdown pass last year.


Wide receiver will be MTSU's best position offensively, with Gee, Taron Henry, Jonathan Grigsby and Bobby Williams leading the way. Franklin Dunbar, Brandon Nix and Mark Thompson return as starters on the offensive line, but the other two spots could be filled by freshmen.


There are no question marks on the defensive line, as right now this unit ranks as the Sun Belt's best. All four starters and all four backups return. The best are all-conference ends Tavares Jones and Erik Walden, followed by Trevor Jenkins and Wes Hofacker at the tackles.


There's not as much experience at linebacker, as all three starters from last season are gone. Chance Dunleavy got a medical redshirt last year in what would have been his senior season. Lonnie Clemons III and Danny Carmichael are the best bets to contribute at this position.


Senior Damon Nickson is one of the best safeties in the nation and established himself as a premier kick returner as well. He'll be joined by Anthony Glover at safety. Bradley Robinson is one of the best cornerbacks in the Sun Belt and he and former running back Alex Suber shore up a defense that is strong up front and in the back, but questionable in the middle (at linebacker).


The Skinny:

The hiring of Stockstill as head coach prior to last season will go down as the best move in MTSU Athletics history before all is said and done. The big game will be the season opener at Florida Atlantic, where MTSU will have an inexperienced quarterback coming off an injury and an inexperienced offensive line. All the intangibles in that game point toward FAU, but if Stockstill can get his troops to overcome adversity like last year, it will be a good year. A loss against FAU, and it won't be looking good. Every team has rebuilding years every now and then, but MTSU will be competing for conference crowns every year that the Blue Raiders can hold on to Stockstill.



North Texas Mean Green



Once upon a time, Jamario Thomas led the nation in rushing when he was a true freshman (180.1 yards per game). That was three years and a Sun Belt title ago. Since then, Thomas has seen the Mean Green go from the penthouse to the outhouse in just two seasons. That led to the firing of Darrell Dickey and the hiring of Todd Dodge, who had great success as head coach at nearby Southlake-Carroll High School. His passing offense, known as "Dodge Ball," is sure to bring excitement back to Denton, but Dodge is adamant in saying Thomas will be a vital part of the offense. He'll need to be, as five quarterbacks will vie for the starting job, which Dodge will announce two weeks into fall camp. Daniel Meager, Matt Phillips and Woody Wilson all struggled last year, and Nathan Tune redshirted. Coaches are high on true freshman Giovanni Vizza, but Meager was the leader coming out of spring. 


Starters Adam Venegas and Chad Rose return as starters, but the offensive line is a question mark other than that. The receiving corps lost All-Sun Belt honoree Johnny Quinn, so Brandon Jackson must step up there. In this offense, many receivers are needed so plenty of youngsters will get a chance.



Dodge feels good about his defense, which could go a long way in setting up the offense. End Jeremiah Chapman is the top returner, while linebacker Maurice Holman and safety Aaron Weathers are stars in their own right. The defensive line returns three starters and the linebacking unit returns seven players who started at least one game last season. Roy Loren teams with Weathers to give the Mean Green a mean safety duo, and plenty of experience returns at the cornerback position with Antoine Bush, Dominique Green and Desmon Chatman.


The Skinny:

Say what you want about A.D. Rick Villarreal firing former head coach Darrell Dickey not long after he had a heart attack, but it was getting stagnant in Denton. That's why Dodge Ball was brought in to create some excitement. It will be interesting to see how the transition goes from successful high school coach to college head coach, but it should pay dividends, as recruiting for the 2008 class is already off to a great start. The headliner is quarterback Riley Dodge, son of the coach. This year will likely be a rough one again for the Mean Green, but one big early conference win -- just to get UNT over the hump -- can be enough to shock the Belt.



FIU Golden Panthers



New head coach Mario Cristobal's Florida International team can go nowhere but up, but going up will initially be tough. The offense has to replace six starters, including four-year starting quarterback Josh Padrick, All-Sun Belt tight end Samuel Smith, and top receiver Chandler Williams -- one of two FIU players who was selected in the recent NFL Draft (defensive end Antwan Barnes was the other).


Thankfully, running backs A'mod Ned, Julian Reams and Chance Attaway are something to build on, as are wide receivers Ashlyn Parker, Jeremy Dickens, Elliott Dix and John Houston Widdon.


But right now there's no one to throw or hand off the ball to them. Five quarterbacks have a chance, with sophomore Paul McCall having a leg up because he was Padrick's backup a year ago. Redshirt freshman Wayne Younger could pass McCall, and redshirt freshman John Paul Fraites has a chance as well.


The good thing is that all five starters on the offensive line return -- center Xavier Shannon, tackles Dustin Gibson and Andy Leavine, and guards Jeffrey Eugene and Joe Alajajian. Several backups return as well.

Six-foot-five Moses Hinton is expected to make his mark at tight end.



Names such as defensive end Antwan Barnes, linebacker Keyonvis Bouie and linebacker Alexander Bostic are gone. So is most of the rest of the defense that was a strong unit last year despite an 0-12 record.  There's a ton of question marks this year with 10 starters gone, but cornerback Lionell Singleton is the bright spot returning. He'll team with Robert Mitchell, who saw considerable action at cornerback last season, as the only proven unit on the squad.


Defensive linemen Roland Clarke, Reginald Jones and Jarvis Penerton started games last year and will be counted on to lead the front line of the defense.


The linebacking unit is young and inexperienced. Scott Bryant is the top returner and he played nine games last season as a true freshman.


Corey Fleming saw action last year at safety.


The Skinny:

Cristobal has his head on right, and will bring great things to the Florida International program in the future. Unfortunately, there's just not enough talent there, especially offensively. There's no quarterback, for one. A former Miami assistant, he made it clear that nothing will ever resemble last year's infamous brawl with Miami (the two teams play again this Sept. 15). Cristobal will be able to get some talent to South Beach, but FIU will struggle to win a game this year.