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UAB football returns in 2017 from a super dumb hiatus. How’s it gonna go?

Just by taking the field this fall, the Blazers have already won. Now to win some games, too.

Football: Sons of UAB Alumni Flag Football Game Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

In UAB's last season, first-year head coach Bill Clark brought hope. The Blazers finished with six wins for the first time since the 2004 season (their only bowl berth) and finished in the S&P+ top 75 for the first time since 2005. Both the offense and defense improved, and they boasted one of the best special teams units in the country.

Clark came down the road from Jacksonville State, where he had led the Gamecocks to 11 wins and an FCS quarterfinal bid. The longtime Prattville (Ala.) High School coach was quickly proving himself as a high-caliber mid-major coach, and UAB was scheduled to return quite a bit of talent from the near-breakthrough season.

Since UAB's last game, a 45-24 pasting of Southern Miss, the Blazers have finally found momentum off the field. A long-sought football operations building on campus is going up, and plans for a nearer-to-campus (and further from Legion Field) stadium have never been so realistic. Program momentum!

And all it took was a two-year break and one of the dumbest, most cynical incidents in the history of a dumb, cynical sport.

A recap:

UAB president Ray Watts commissioned CarrSports Consulting to perform a financial review in 2013. In December 2014, the review determined that along with bowling and rifle, football should be shut down.

Rumors built as Clark rallied to keep the program. Watts shut it down in December, informing the team during a heated meeting.

More than 50 players transferred and 2016 opponents rescheduled. Clark refused to take another coaching job.

The numbers were likely bunk. A CBS report revealed the CarrSports math indicating future losses was based on assumptions in donor patterns, an economist study alleged the program would make money, and a College Sports Solutions study found the deficit likely nowhere near the $17 million claimed.

Alabama state rep. Jack Williams, who runs Rivals.com's UAB site, stated UAB planned to shut down football anyway.

This was, to put it gently, foreseeable.

Meet the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, the group that oversees the flagship in Tuscaloosa and other schools. Blazer fans have complained for years that the board has held down UAB. Among their anecdotal evidence:

1. UAB tried to hire future Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, but funds were denied at the 11th hour with no public comment.

2. UAB played in one of the most decrepit facilities in FBS, city-owned Legion Field. A proposal for a small stadium was denied as "the wrong project at the wrong time."

3. Clark created a plan for a $10 million practice facility funded substantially through private donations, replacing fields that routinely flooded. The mayor supported the project. The board never approved it, but months after killing football, greenlit a $4.5 million soccer complex.

4. When a local business arranged to upgrade practice turf at no cost, UA trustee Finis St. John had the project killed, according to AL.com.

5. In 2011, St. John implied publicly that UAB shouldn't have athletics. St. John and others feel the medical school should be UAB's focus, not football. In the state of Alabama.

UAB fans believe the trustees encourage a cycle of defeat in order to preserve focus on the Crimson Tide. When the trustees claimed UAB hadn't built enough support to warrant a stadium, fans used the Fisher denial to argue they never had a chance.

Somehow not sensing the outcry that would follow, UAB got rid of football, only to announce about half a year later that it’d return. All of the players had decamped for other schools, and many thrived.

  • RB Jordan Howard rushed for 1,200 yards at Indiana and was the NFL’s No. 2 rusher as a rookie.
  • WR Jamari Staples caught 73 passes in two years at Louisville.
  • QB Jeremiah Briscoe won the Walter Payton Award at Sam Houston State.
  • LB Jake Ganus was Georgia’s leading tackler in 2015.
  • LB T.J. McCollum has made 15.5 tackles for loss for WKU and has one year remaining.
  • Safety Bobby Baker and LB Alonzo McGee became maybe Georgia State’s two best defenders.
  • DT Robert Mondie has been awesome for Arkansas State.
  • At South Alabama, QB Cody Clements started, WR Josh Magee caught 72 passes in two years, TE Gerald Everett caught 90, and LB Kalen Jackson became a top defender.

That is not even a full list. The 2015 UAB team was going to be quite good.

When college football and state politics interact, painfully stupid things happen. This was the most lunkheaded, ham-fisted, dull-witted, plain-old-mean development this sport had seen in a while.

This asinine nitwittedness, however, might have accidentally created a brighter future. There was no state support for the on-campus facilities UAB had been attempting for years to arrange. Now the ball is rolling.

Granted, there’s a chance the Blazers are bad this fall; Clark did what he could to bring in boatloads of JUCO transfers so that his team hits the ground running. That could create some ridiculous imbalance in classes moving forward — no seniors one year, about 40 the next, etc. It will take a while to even that out.

Still, there appears to be some talent. Per the 247Sports Composite, Clark has inked 18 three-star prospects in the last two classes. He landed a 2017 stud in Spanish Fort (Ala.) linebacker Thomas Johnston. There's no way to know how these pieces will all fit, but in pure recruiting rankings, it could be worse.

This experiment could succeed instantly or require a few years of pain. There’s not a way to predict it in advance, and the S&P+ projections assume the worst. Of course they do — UAB hasn’t played a game in two years.

But results are only part of the puzzle in 2017. The Blazers exist again. That is reason alone to celebrate.

Football: Sons of UAB Alumni Flag Football Game Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Full advanced stats glossary.

There’s really no other way to preview UAB’s offense than to simply list the assets. So here goes.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Buffalo
Collin Lisa (right)
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
  • Coordinator Les Koenning. Clark got an old hand to run his spread offense. Koenning was Dennis Franchione's coordinator at Alabama (2001-02) and Texas A&M (2003-07); S&P+ data only goes back to 2005, but the Aggie attack ranked 20th in Off. S&P+ in 2005, 21st in 2006, and 17th in 2007. Koenning then spent five seasons running Dan Mullen's offense at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs ranked in the top 50 four ties and in the top 30 twice (2010, 2013). Koenning was Texas' receivers coach in 2014, then signed on with UAB in 2015.
  • Quarterback A.J. Erdely. The former MTSU signee seemed to have the upper hand on the starting job in scrimmages last fall. In 2014 with the Blue Raiders, he threw just one pass but rushed seven times for 29 yards. He’s got good size (6’4, 214), but experience is at a minimum. If he doesn’t end up starting, the job will probably go to either of two redshirt freshmen: Tyler Johnston or John Jacobs.
  • Running back Kalin Heath. Heath was a mid-three-star Kansas State signee and appeared to be the team’s best back last fall. He’s a little lanky (6’2, 180) but has nice speed. Koenning will likely look to distribute the ball to a variety of guys in the backfield, however, including redshirt Lucious Stanley, and inside-outside guys (slotbacks, almost) A.J. Brooks and Jonathan Haden.
  • Inside receivers Collin Lisa and Sederian Copeland. Lisa is a former Blazer-turned-Buffalo signee, and Copeland was a mid-three-star JUCO. Both appear to be lining up on the inside of four-receiver formations, based on practice reports.
  • Outside receivers Ronald Turner Jr. and Xavier Ubosi. Both are in the 6’5, 200-pound range; Turner is a three-star redshirt freshman, Ubosi is a mid-three-star JUCO. Basically all of the pieces pass the eyeball test, and most were three-star recruits. They have never played with each other in a competitive college football game, but they will look the part.
  • A line that averages 6’4, 300 pounds. By my count, there is only one former three-star up front and one player with any Division I starting experience (former Northern Iowa tackle Chris Schleuger). There’s no telling what the line might be capable of. But again, it will look the part.

Koenning will look to spread the ball to as many different weapons as possible, and in Erdely, he might have a decent lump of clay. This unit doesn’t lack for size and athleticism.


Defense

Let’s play List the Assets once again.

Ohio State v Illinois
Teko Powell (right)
  • Coordinator David Reeves. Reeves and Clark hit it off, first in 2013 at Jacksonville State, then in 2014 at UAB. Reeves was UAB’s line coach in 2014, and the Blazers improved from 60 tackles for loss and 18 sacks to 81 and 34, respectively. One assumes he will attempt to bring havoc and speed. Granted, his only coordinator experience came in Division II — he was Southern Arkansas’ DC in 2010-11, and his Mulerider defenses allowed about 35 points per game. But he’s aggressive, and he and Clark evidently work well together.
  • Defensive tackles Teko Powell and D’Von Isaac. Powell, an Illinois transfer, had 21 tackles and a TFL over parts of three injury-plagued seasons. He professed the desire to find a “more stable program” last summer and settled on UAB, which is funny when you think about it. Meanwhile, Isaac had seven tackles over two years as a WKU reserve.
  • Defensive tackle Anthony Rush. One of the more highly-touted members of UAB’s 2017 class, Rush is large, measuring 6’5, 335 pounds. It appears Clark and Reeves want to run an Alabama-style 3-4 defense, with three linebackers and a jack backer, an OLB/end hybrid. This often requires a mammoth human being at nose tackle. Rush qualifies. So does another JUCO, 320-pound Bentley Easley. The end position is a bit less settled, though there are plenty of JUCO options, led by three-star Quindarius Thagard.
  • Linebackers Shaq Jones and Tevin Crews. Jones was a dynamic force for UAB’s 2014 defense. After recording 2.5 TFLs in 2012-13, he erupted for 12.5 as a junior. He is the rarest of commodities: a proven play-maker. Crews was a steady option in his own right; over parts of three years, he logged 39.5 tackles and 4.5 TFLs. Between these two, UL-Lafayette transfer Chris Morgan (who could end up at either linebacker or safety), and three-star JUCOs Noah Jones, Chris Woolbright, Craig Kanyangarara, and Zachary Williams, plus three-star redshirt freshman Nick Holman and ace freshman Thomas Johnston, it seems like linebacker will be a strength.
  • Nickel back Duke Culver and safety Will Dawkins. Culver, a Louisville transfer, was a mid-three-star recruit from Tallahassee (Fla.) Godby and could be a lynchpin in the nickel role. Teams pass in Conference USA, and your nickel is sometimes your best play-maker against spread-out formations. Dawkins is a mid-three-star Indiana transfer who made 14.5 tackles and broke up a pass as a freshman in 2015. If these two stick in the secondary, UAB might have the weapons it needs.
  • Another batch of three-star JUCOs in the secondary. Safeties Garrison Mitchell, Darez Diggs, and Michael Turner and corner D.A. Williams were all solid recruits, and a few more fell into the mid- to high-two-star range. UAB is a start-up, basically, but the starting lineup on both sides will be loaded with juniors.

I like Clark’s hire of Koenning to run the offense, but in terms of personnel, it feels like the defense might be ahead in upside, experience, and proven quantities.


Special Teams

Clark brought in a couple of transfers — kicker Nick Vogel (another former-turned-current Blazer), punter Joel Dixon — and ... uh ... somebody will return kickoffs and punts. I’m not going to pretend to have extensive knowledge of UAB’s special teams potential. But the Blazers were awesome in this regard three years ago. That provides some hope.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Alabama A&M NR 17.7 85%
9-Sep at Ball State 90 -24.6 8%
16-Sep Coastal Carolina 114 -13.2 22%
23-Sep at North Texas 106 -20.6 12%
7-Oct Louisiana Tech 82 -20.3 12%
14-Oct Middle Tennessee 89 -18.8 14%
21-Oct at Charlotte 127 -11.7 25%
28-Oct at Southern Miss 84 -26.0 7%
4-Nov Rice 120 -11.4 26%
11-Nov at UTSA 91 -24.5 8%
18-Nov at Florida 15 -49.5 0%
25-Nov UTEP 126 -8.8 30%
Projected S&P+ Rk 130
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 130 / 126
Projected wins 2.5

In 1969, Holy Cross lost a season to a Hepatitis outbreak. In the mid-2010s, UAB lost two seasons to a crippling case of dumbass politics. But despite the ridiculous, dunderheaded, senseless, nattering, bumblef***ed events of the last three years, UAB football now has both a present and a future tense, maybe for the first time. The right team won, and the right team lost.

How much will that team win on the field this fall? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Clark isn’t trotting out a bunch of 175-pound true freshmen; in fact, he’ll have one of the oldest squads in Conference USA. And it isn’t hard to talk yourself into this defense, with its size, potential, and (two) familiar faces.

Still, expectations aren’t really the point. UAB has already won, and if Clark is as good a coach as he hinted at in 2013-14, it won’t take him long to get back to where he started.


Team preview stats

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