In 2006, an average of 41,908 Miami fans attended the Orange Bowl to watch Larry Coker's Hurricanes, five years removed from the national title, take on a home slate of ACC squads. On September 3, 2011, 56,743 UT-San Antonio fans filled the AlamoDome to watch their Roadrunners, replete with zero all-time wins, play Northeastern State.
One has to wonder how long it took Carr Sports Associates, Inc., to complete the "Will football work at UTSA?" feasibility study it was assigned in 2006. One also has to wonder how much they charged for it.
The creation of the UTSA football program has defined "fast track." The Roadrunners will be playing a full WAC slate in just their second season in existence. They have hired a seasoned coach, they have scheduled aggressively, they kept their heads above water last fall, and they averaged well over 30,000 in attendance right out of the gates. They get bonus points for ambition, to be sure.
The question, of course, is … is this too much, too soon? They signed their first recruiting class just 25 months ago and played their first game six months ago. All the hubris and confidence in the world won't win you games, and even in the WAC, weaknesses will be ruthlessly exploited.
For all intents and purposes, it is difficult to imagine how a debut season against a lineup of solid FCS teams could have gone much better than it did for UTSA in 2011. And we're not even talking about the 56,000-plus people who showed up to watch the program debut, a 31-3 win over Northeastern State at the AlamoDome.
Ignoring wins over smaller programs like Northeastern State, Bacone and Minot State, the Roadrunners were largely competitive against solid FCS programs like national runner-up Sam Houston State (UTSA lost, 22-7), UC Davis (UTSA lost, 38-17), Georgia State (UTSA won, 17-14) and McNeese State (UTSA lost, 24-21). The defense, made up mostly of juniors and freshmen, was outstanding, all things considered, allowing 24 points or fewer in seven of 10 games and allowing just 338.5 yards per game. That would have ranked 31st in FCS. Opponents averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and the Roadrunners racked up 26 sacks and forced 21 turnovers.
These are solid numbers for anybody, but they are fantastic for a first-year program. It might not help UTSA make an immediate impact at the FBS level, but the Roadrunners will still face four FCS opponents in this transitional year, and they do return almost everybody.
Consider this another step in UTSA's general sprint to the big leagues: the Roadrunners' offense was just good enough last year that they have already had to replace an offensive coordinator who was hired away to a bigger job. Travis Bush took a job on Tony Levine's staff at Houston, and Coker promoted 32-year-old tight ends coach Kevin Brown to replace him. Welcome to life as a mid-major. Either you fail, or you succeed enough that you have to replace coaches.
The UTSA offense was not only reasonably proficient in 2011, but also quite balanced. Including sacks as pass attempts, the Roadrunners attempted 329 passes and 331 rushes last fall. Quarterback Eric Soza, now a junior, passed for 2,148 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 10 games. He returns, as does a deep receiving corps that produced three receivers with at least 28 catches -- Kam Jones, Brandon Freeman and slot man Kenny Harrison. Expectations are high for redshirt freshmen Sean Hesler and Kenny Bias, but these five receivers have an average build of just 5-foot-11, 165 pounds. Tight end David Morgan offers a bit of size, but this is mostly a speed-based, hit-or-miss unit. My guess is they will be relatively low on efficiency (success rates), higher on explosiveness (PPP+) this fall.
You can get by with an all-or-nothing passing game if you can fall back on a reasonably efficient ground game. Signs point to that being a strength for UTSA in 2012. Coker and company spent a good portion of last fall trying to figure out which of their ultra-young rushers was ready to carry a heavy load, and he got mixed answers. Nobody stood out, but quite a few showed some level of adeptness.
Blocking back Evans Okotcha turned into a strong threat, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, while freshmen David Glasco II, Brandon Armstrong and Tevin Williams all had their moments. The three combined to gain 413 yards and score six touchdowns on 93 carries. Throw in Georgia Tech transfer Marcus Wright, and you've got quite a few options on which to lean. Again, there might be a problem with size -- Armstrong is 5-foot-6, 160 pounds, while Wright is just 5'7, 177 -- but the depth should make up for that.
And like the running backs, UTSA offensive linemen spent much of 2011 getting shuffled around. Seven Roadrunners with starting experience return: six sophomores, including tackles Drew Phillips and Scott Inskeep , center Nate Leonard (each started all 10 games last year) and Oklahoma State transfer Patrick Hoog, a former three-star recruit. Keeping with the size theme, the projected starting line averages just 6-foot-4, 277 pounds -- not terrible, but still a bit undersized.
In all, the UTSA offense was interesting, if inconsistent. It did, however, keep things at a slow, manageable pace and rarely put the defense in a bind. The defense responded with respectable numbers. Although freshmen littered each unit, and despite taking on a decent slate of FCS offenses, the Roadrunners allowed a respectable 339 yards per game. Granted, that does break out to a less healthy-looking 5.3 yards per play, but experience should become, and remain, a strength over the next couple of years.
Like TCU, every small Texas school's mid-major role model, the Roadrunners debuted last season with a speed-based 4-2-5 attack. Texas State operated under the same alignment and became quite the all-or-nothing unit; UTSA, on the other hand, was quite a bit more tame, allowing fewer big plays and making fewer stops behind the line of scrimmage.
They did have three primary stars in the TFLs department, and all three return this fall. Senior end Marlon Smith was a force up front, logging 10 tackles for loss (eight sacks) and breaking up seven passes. Meanwhile, if UTSA was going to blitz, they were probably going to send either middle linebacker Brandon Reeves (8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) or strong safety Nic Johnston (nine tackles for loss, two forced fumbles). A sophomore from Coppell, Johnston is perhaps the odds-on favorite to become UTSA's first all-conference performer, at least if the defense can find a nice replacement for rover and safety-valve Mark Waters (52.0 tackles, three passes broken up), the only 2011 starter who doesn't return.
While UTSA lacks size on offense, it is less of a problem on D, at least up the middle. Sophomore tackles Richard Burge (6-foot-4, 270 pounds), Ashaad Mabry (6'3, 290 pounds) and Ferington Macon (6'0, 290 pounds) aren't exactly the size of Georgia tackles, but they at least stand up well next to other DTs in the WAC. If they can hold their own, then it appears that Johnston, Reeves, backup middle linebacker Steven Kurfehs and HAWK linebacker Cody Rogers should be able to fly around and make quite a few plays. It is evident that Coker and coordinator Neal Nethery have focused on getting as much speed as possible onto the field, but you still have to have a baseline amount of size.
Because of the nature of their schedule, UTSA could rack up quite a few wins whether they are truly ready for FBS or not. With home games versus Texas A&M-Commerce, NW Oklahoma State, McNeese State and Texas State, it would be a surprise not to least match last year's four wins and potentially creep up to five or six. By any stretch of the imagination, that would have to be considered a success for a program that, 12 months ago, had not yet fielded a team.
One has to figure that every decision Larry Coker makes this fall should be made with 2013-14 in mind. Every projected offensive starter and all but possibly two or three projected defensive starters are still underclassmen, and while the schedule does include some likely wins, results do not necessarily matter in 2012. There are potential stars strewn throughout the roster -- Soza, Kam Jones, Marlon Smith, Brandon Reeves, Nic Johnston -- but "growing pains" will likely still be the theme of 2012. That said ... welcome to the party, UTSA. Looks like you will fit in just fine.