Previewing the Sun Belt

Aug. 23, 2006

By Jean Neuberger

Special to




The Ragin' Cajuns were struggling at 1-5 last season when a potent rushing attack sprung into action. They ended on a five-game winning streak, and with a multitude of talent returning, including QB Jerry Babb and RB Tyrell Fenroy, the Cajuns look to be the team to beat this year in the Sun Belt.


"We're appreciative of the support, but for now, it means nothing," said La.-Lafayette coach Ricky Bustle. "We've got to win it on the field, and not in the magazines. Otherwise we'll be known as the team who should've won it, instead of the team that won it."


Jerry Babb returns for his senior season at quarterback. Babb is a veteran quarterback who can run and has a good arm, but more importantly, is known as a leader on the ULL team. He'll be protected under a solid line, led by senior tackle Brandon Cox.


Although most of the attention centers on the Cajun running game, the season could be resting on the shoulders of WRs Derrick Smith and Jason Chery. The two sophomores are the returning leaders in catches and receiving yards for the team, and will have to step it up for the Cajuns in order to keep opposing teams from stacking their defensive lines to stop the running game.


Fenroy will lead the ground attack for La.-Lafayette, who finished seventh in the nation in rushing yards last season. The sophomore finished with over 1,000 yards in his freshman year, and looks to rush for even more this year. Bustle also sees redshirt freshman Deon Wallace as a potential breakthrough player this year for the Ragin' Cajuns.


Defensively, eight starters return from a solid defensive unit. CB Mike Adams is a dangerous corner that most opposing QBs will look to avoid, while DE Anthony Hills will head a speedy defensive line.


Bustle's goals are simple: keep injuries and penalties down, play strong defensively, while keeping the ball and holding the turnover ratio down. If those goals are met, expect a huge year from the Ragin' Cajuns, who will cause trouble to a lot of non-conference teams as much as they will to their fellow conference members.


2006 Louisiana-Lafayette Schedule




It's all about defense at Troy, as the Trojans have relied on their tough defensive play to win games. This year's defense will be just as strong, led by their defensive line. DE Kenny Mainor, along with NT Franklin Lloyd, will be players to watch for Troy. FS Sherrod Martin leads a solid secondary unit. Martin, who had two INTs and five tackles for loss last year, will serve as a leader with his aggressiveness and great speed on the field.


The offensive unit will need leadership immediately from a new quarterback. Omar Haugabook, a JUCO transfer from Dodge City, Kan. will set up a new wide open attack under the direction of new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Look for senior WRs Smokey Hampton and Toris Rutledge to have stellar years for the Trojans. Kenny Cattouse will lead the Trojan rushing attack.


Troy's defense will keep them in most every game they play. They'll be a strong contender to win the conference if their offense comes to life.


2006 Troy Schedule


Middle Tennessee


Academic problems plagued the Blue Raider football program, as the NCAA slashed scholarships, giving new coach Rick Stockstill only thirteen scholarships to recruit with this spring. However, Stockstill has cleaned the program, thanks in part to a new focus on discipline both on and off the field.


"The academic problems are over," Stockstill said "We're going to be a much more organized and disciplined football program."


Stockstill will rely on the leadership and arm of senior QB Clint Marks to guide the Blue Raider attack. Eugene Gross had a solid spring, and the shifty tailback should have a big year, thanks to a big offensive line. The receivers are young and inexperienced, but Bobby Williams will be a dangerous threat for defenses and the top target for Marks and the passing game.


Defensively, the Blue Raiders will have question marks at defensive end, as well as linebacker. They'll rely on their secondary, where CB Bradley Robinson and FS Johnathon Harris will be leading the unit. Erik Walden is the only returning starter on the defensive line, which must gel quickly to stop powerful Sun Belt ground games.


The Blue Raiders have a lot of question marks, but Stockstill is a very focused and organized coach, which is ideal for Middle Tennessee. If the players buy into the structure of the new program, the Blue Raiders will surprise a lot of people, and be a viable threat to win the conference.


2006 Middle Tennessee Schedule


Florida Atlantic


Florida Atlantic is one of the youngest teams in college football, but coach Howard Schnellenberger loves their youth and enthusiasm, and enjoys the challenge of building the FAU program.


The Owls have a two-man race at quarterback to replace Danny Embick. Junior Sean Clayton and redshirt freshman Rusty Smith will battle for the starting position.


"We'll decide on who the starter is probably ten days before the opening game," Schnellenberger said.


Dilvory Edgecomb will lead the ground game, while Frantz Simeon will be the top threat in the new passing attack. What makes the Owl offense tough to predict is the style of coaching Schnellenberger brings to the table.


"We run a Paul Brown type of offensive system," he said. "It allows us to play to our strengths, and stay as balanced as we can."


The defensive line, although young, all have experience, and sophomore DL Jervonte Jackson is a beast who will create havoc for offensive coordinators across the Sun Belt. SS Kris Bartels will be the leader on a secondary unit with great speed but inexperience at the cornerback position.


FAU is very young, but the expectations are still high for the Owls.


"We want to win the Sun Belt conference this year," Schnellenberger said.


The Owls though are blessed with the wisdom of a coach like Schnellenberger, who built Miami and Louisville into prominent national powers, and is more than ready to make Florida Atlantic a team to be reckoned with.


"We're a relatively new football team," Schnellenberger said. "Each year, though, gets better and better. The talent is going up every year."


On facing a non-conference slate featuring Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina, Schnellenberger embraces the challenge and sees it as `opportunistic' more than brutal.


"It allows us to have an advanced training program," Schnellenberger said.


With a young team and a proven coach that knows how to cultivate talent, expect the Owls to make some serious noise and be a contender in the Sun Belt this year, and for FAU to become a stronger threat in the years ahead.


2006 Florida Atlantic Schedule


North Texas


The Mean Green struggled last year, winning only two games last season. However, North Texas only lost nine letterman last season, and a veteran squad looks to bring the Sun Belt title back to Denton.


North Texas is a team that focuses on running the ball, and this year will be no exception. Jamario Thomas will try to become the next great back for the Mean Green, while WRs Johnny Quinn and Zach Muzzy will lead a receiving corps that must produce to keep the offense balanced. QB Daniel Meager struggled with passing last year, but looks to rebound thanks to a veteran offensive line.


The team struggled mightily against the run last year, giving up an average of 221 yards per game. This year, the defense returns most of its starters from a young defensive unit last year, and they should be able to improve from last year's woes. The star of the defense is SS Aaron Weathers, who led the team with 113 tackles last year. However, he'll have to lead an inexperienced secondary that will be tested all season.


Expect a great offense from the Mean Green, but their season will depend on how their defense performs. If they become a force, they will make some noise in the Sun Belt, but if they struggle like last year, it could be another long season.


2006 North Texas Schedule


Arkansas State


The Indians won their first Sun Belt title last year and gave Southern Miss a tight game in the New Orleans Bowl (played in Lafayette). However, ASU faces significant holes at quarterback and in their running game, as QB Nick Noce and RBs Shemar Bracey and Antonio Warren are gone from the team.


The Indians will look to Travis Hewitt to take over at quarterback, while redshirt freshman Reggie Arnold will try to fill the shoes of Bracey and Warren. Despite the inexperience, ASU will have one of the league's top offensive lines, led by center Tanner Jenkins.


The defense will be the strength of the ASU team this year. The linebacker corps is solid, led by Devrett Wade, and the secondary is loaded with talent, featuring SS Tyrell Johnson and FS Khayyam Burns. The question for the Indians will be on the defensive line, as Jamarrow James will anchor a young group.


There are a lot of holes on the Indians to believe they can repeat as conference champions, but Steve Roberts has the foundation set for the future in Jonesboro.


2006 Arkansas State Schedule


Florida International


The Panthers, like Florida Atlantic, are a very young squad, but should feature a good offensive attack. QB Josh Padrick returns, along with talented WR Chandler Williams and a veteran offensive line. FIU averaged 41.6 points on offense in the last three games of 2005, and this team will rely on their offense to carry them to success in 2006.


Defensively, the Panthers must look to DE Antwan Barnes to lead a young, small defensive line. With the powerful running programs in the Sun Belt, FIU will struggle unless their defensive line comes together and becomes a force. LB Keyonvis Bouie is a talented player who should garner all-conference honors, and SS Chris Smith will be the player to watch in the Panther secondary.


The schedule opens with conference foe Middle Tennessee, and actually is one of the more friendly schedules in the conference, featuring non-conference games with South Florida and Bowling Green before tougher games at Miami and Alabama. Nevertheless, to win in the Sun Belt, you need a good defensive line, and the Panthers will do well to win four games this season.


2006 Florida International Schedule




Goodbye, Indians. Hello, Warhawks.


As the NCAA has cracked down on Native American nicknames, Louisiana-Monroe decided to avoid any NCAA problems and changed their name to the Warhawks. As for the team, they will be significantly different as well this year.


Kinsmon Lancaster will have the big shoes to fill from the departure of Steven Jyles, whose elusiveness made Monroe's offense difficult to handle. The Warhawks were a pass-oriented team last year, but with last year's top receivers having left, the Warhawks should become more run-oriented this season, thanks to a strong offensive line and a quality RB in junior Calvin Dawson.


On defense, the struggle will be to create a new defensive line, as all five starters are gone from last year. The linebackers are undersized for the most part, but the secondary is solid and will make opposing teams turn to the run to beat ULM. FS Kevin Payne is a fast, aggressive player that will lead the Warhawks defensively.


The schedule gives no mercy to the Warhawks, as they travel to three SEC opponents (Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky). With key Sun Belt games on the road, this could be a very tough year for ULM.


2006 Louisiana-Monroe Schedule



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