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Frank Wilson has improved UTSA on the field, and his recruiting hasn’t even kicked in yet

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Making the jump from recruiting coordinator and assistant to head coach is rare. Looking good so far!

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

What happens when a recruiter proves himself before he even gets a chance to recruit a full class? Is there anything more intriguing than that?

A year ago, UTSA was tasked with replacing the only coach it’d ever had. Larry Coker had taken the program from the conceptual stage to Conference USA. The Roadrunners took the fast lane to FBS, playing one provisional year before jumping all the way in; despite that, FBS life had started with 15-9 in their first two years.

When Coker’s first, giant class of freshmen and transfers left, so did Coker’s energy. He won just seven combined games in 2014-15 and elected to head toward the proverbial golf course. In looking to replace him, UTSA took a big swing.

Wilson went from small schools to big roles in a hurry. The Nicholls State grad spent seven seasons as a Louisiana high school assistant before taking the reins at O. Perry Walker High in 2000, at the age of just 26. He won state coach of the year honors in 2002, and by 2005 found himself in the college ranks.

After a decade as position coach/ace recruiter for Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Tennessee, and LSU, he had yet to move up to the coordinator ranks. UTSA took him all the same.

I was pretty intrigued by the thought of a dynamic recruiter running the show in San Antonio, but there was reason to be cautious.

We have no idea how good Wilson might be as a head coach. Plenty of ace recruiters have failed in this role. He's done about as much as Ed Orgeron had when Orgeron landed in Oxford (though he does have head coaching experience at the high school level). But while he's not going to start inking top-20 classes at UTSA, he's going to raise the talent level.

So now he has to coach. Either he will struggle like Orgeron did and leave his successor a stocked cupboard, or he will show that he's learned from previous bosses' mistakes and thrive. All we know is that he can still recruit and that his assistant coach hires have been interesting.

When you hire someone mostly known for recruiting instead of coordinator success or college head coaching experience, you don't expect immediate success. P.J. Fleck went 1-11 in his first year at Western Michigan, after all, and in Orgeron’s first head coaching gig at Ole Miss, he never turned things around. There’s a learning process here, and there’s a foundation to be laid.

To be sure, UTSA went only 6-7 with an S&P+ ranking of No. 103 in 2016. The Roadrunners weren’t exactly dominant. But the improvement was undeniable: UTSA's S&P+ rating (presented as an adjusted points per game average) improved by 4.4 points on offense, by 1.9 points on defense, and by 1.2 points on special teams.

Most important: UTSA doubled its win total. The Roadrunners overcame a 1-3 start, then walloped bowl teams Southern Miss, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee by a combined 57 points. There were plenty of missteps — a damning home loss to UTEP, a 28-point destruction at the hands of Louisiana Tech — but this level of success wasn't expected.

And then Wilson followed up by signing the No. 3 class in Conference USA, behind only Lane Kiffin's FAU and Southern Miss.

That's pretty good proof of concept in Year 1. Now all Wilson has to do is top himself.


2016 in review

2016 UTSA statistical profile.

It took a little while for UTSA to work its way into the 2016 season. The Roadrunners were neither great nor terrible early, looking pretty poor in a win over Alabama State, then suffering competitive losses to Colorado State, Arizona State, and ODU.

Barring an excellent 55-32 win over Southern Miss, the team got to the midway point of the season without distinguishing itself. But thanks to a mostly solid defense, the Roadrunners navigated a high-octane late stretch to qualify for a bowl despite a shaky shootout loss to UTEP.

  • First 7 games (3-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 29% | Avg. yards per play: UTSA 5.9, Opp 5.7 (+0.2)
  • Last 6 games (3-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 40% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.7, UTSA 4.9 (-0.8)

UTSA's defensive stats didn't change that much over the second half of the season, but the opponents improved; that made for better opponent-adjusted numbers.

Still, the defense was steady aside from a couple of glitches (namely, the UTEP and Louisiana Tech games); the offense was the primary difference-maker. When it showed up, UTSA won.

  • Yards per play in UTSA wins: UTSA 6.3, Opp 5.3 (+1.0)
  • Yards per play in UTSA losses: Opp 6.1, UTSA 4.7 (-1.4)

The offense was rarely amazing, but the variation was immense. The Roadrunners scored 20 or fewer points five times and 33 or more five times. While they allowed 0.8 fewer yards per play in wins, they averaged 1.6 more yards per play in wins.

Regardless, a 4-1 stretch in October and early-November put UTSA on the doorstep of bowl eligibility, and in the regular season finale against Charlotte, the Roadrunners clinched a New Mexico Bowl bid with a 33-14 win.


Offense

UTSA offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Louisiana guys stick together. Wilson named Frank Scelfo as his offensive coordinator last year; Scelfo spent 11 seasons at Tulane from 1996-06, then led the Louisiana Tech offense for three years after that. He had spent his last three seasons as an assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Wilson had enough regard for him from long ago to give him a call.

The thing that was obvious about Scelfo's résumé was his lengthy work with successful quarterbacks: Patrick Ramsey, J.P. Losman, and Shaun King at Tulane, Ross Jenkins at Louisiana Tech, Nick Foles and Matt Scott at Arizona. He might not have been directly responsible for their success, but he played a role.

It was interesting, then, to see what Scelfo might be able to do with Dalton Sturm. The former walk-on had shown some promise through ups and downs in 2015, but could Scelfo (who is also, not surprisingly, the QBs coach) make him more consistent?

Based on 2016, the answer is a solid "Maybe." "Perhaps," even! In his first year under Scelfo, Sturm's completion rate fell slightly (from 59 percent to 56.5), but he averaged 2 more yards per completion (12.8 from 10.8), cut his interception rate (2 percent from 3.3) and cut his sack rate (10.5 percent from 13.1). That's still far too many sacks, but improvement is improvement.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio
Dalton Sturm
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Sturm's back for one final go-round in 2017, and he's got his top four 2016 targets back.

That could be good news or bad news. Josh Stewart, Kerry Thomas Jr., Brady Jones, and Marquez McNair combined for only a 53 percent catch rate last year, and of the group, only Thomas finished 2016 with a success rate over 50 percent.

Efficiency for this offense might require influence from others. Junior running back Jalen Rhodes has a lot of potential — he combined 5.3 yards per carry with an 85 percent catch rate — and in senior Shaq Williams, JUCO transfer Robert Ursua, and three-star freshman Chance McLeod, UTSA has some interesting options at tight end. Plus, it could be interesting to see what roles Oklahoma transfer Dannon Cavil, three-star sophomore slot Matt Guidry, and three-star redshirt freshman Jesse Ebozue carve out.

Rhodes was more efficient than last year's go-to rusher, Jarveon Williams, and he'll be running behind what might be a five-senior line. Wilson brought in a couple of JUCOs to increase competition (not a terrible idea, as last year's line stats were subpar).

I'm not sure what the ceiling of a Scelfo offense is, but at worst, I figure UTSA's should improve by a couple more points per game this fall.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio
Jalen Rhodes
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UTSA defensive radar

Wilson went with an old hand on offense, but he went the other direction on D. When coordinator Pete Golding graduated from Delta State, Scelfo was already more than two decades into his career. The former college safety was Tusculum's coordinator in 2008, just three years out of graduation, and he moved up to Delta State in 2010-11 and Southeastern Louisiana in 2012-13.

After two years as safeties coach at Southern Miss, Golding took the reins of the Roadrunner defense last fall, and he acquitted himself well.

While the combination of opponent adjustments (UTSA played a lot of bad offenses) and a few too many huge plays (26 passes of 30-plus yards, 118th in FBS) dragged down their overall Def. S&P+ rating, UTSA ranked a robust 39th in Rushing S&P+. Five players made at least 6.5 tackles for loss (four return in 2017), and five defensed at least five passes (again, four return).

UTSA posted solid havoc numbers in the front (53rd in defensive line havoc rate) and back (31st in DB havoc), and the Roadrunners were just successful enough in their aggression to lure opponents into running the ball on passing downs. When the dam broke, it broke, but there was a load of potential here.

In 2017, the line returns four of its top five, three of four linebackers, and nine of 11 defensive backs. Most of the havoc guys are back, headlined by defensive end Marcus Davenport, who both makes plays and, at 6'7 and 245 pounds, looks the part.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas-San Antonio
Marcus Davenport
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

From an experience standpoint, the primary question mark comes at safety, where two starters (Michael Egwuagu and Jordan Moore) need replacing. Considering the big plays UTSA allowed, that could be reason for concern.

Another potential concern: injuries. The Roadrunners simply didn't have to deal with as many as other defenses did. Most contributors played in either 12 or 13 games. That doesn't happen every year.

Still, the combination of entrenched play-makers and athletic newcomers is exciting. Wilson added two three-star linemen, a three-star linebacker, a three-star JUCO corner (Jay Jay Smith), and four three-star freshmen in the secondary. If competition breeds improvement, the Roadrunners should have a lot, especially in the back, where they need it the most.

And in linebackers Josiah Tauaefa and La'Kel Bass, they have a couple of havoc guys in the middle. Tauaefa had nine tackles for loss and six sacks as a freshman last year.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio
Josiah Tauaefa
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Part of the reason to be excited about Matt Guidry's potential with the offense is because of what he did in special teams last year. UTSA's return game dragged an otherwise shaky unit to a No. 77 ranking in Special Teams S&P+, and Guidry's steady kick returns were a major reason why.

Guidry's got potential, and honestly, so does the rest of the unit. Daniel Portillo's kickoffs were mostly unreturnable (aside from a couple of very returnable ones that went for scores), and at the very least, Victor Falcon was automatic inside of 40 yards. (Outside of 40: not so much.)

This might not be an incredibly high-ceiling special teams unit, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Roadrunners moved from 77th into the 50s or 60s in 2017.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Houston 49 -9.0 30%
9-Sep at Baylor 28 -18.8 14%
16-Sep Southern U. NR 25.1 93%
23-Sep at Texas State 129 12.6 77%
7-Oct Southern Miss 84 1.0 52%
14-Oct at North Texas 106 1.4 53%
21-Oct Rice 120 9.6 71%
28-Oct at UTEP 126 7.1 66%
4-Nov at Florida International 104 0.7 52%
11-Nov UAB 130 23.5 91%
18-Nov Marshall 101 4.7 61%
25-Nov at Louisiana Tech 82 -4.3 40%
Projected S&P+ Rk 91
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 92 / 84
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -8.5 (103)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 86 / 93
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 3.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 78% (81%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.3 (-0.3)

Wilson took a young two-deep and a recruiter's reputation into battle and engineered improvement before his recruiting could even kick in. That's not how that's supposed to work.

Now, in theory, the improvement could really kick in. UTSA's returning production figures (18th overall, 19th on offense, 33rd on defense) are strong, and at worst, recent recruiting should make for more competition in key areas like the receiving corps, offensive line, and secondary.

S&P+ projects UTSA to win seven games, but the upside on the schedule is obvious. The Roadrunners are given at least a 52 percent chance of winning in nine games (including seven of eight C-USA battles) and a 40 percent chance in a 10th. If this seasoned squad can close out close games, the Roadrunners could contend for the C-USA West title.

There are obvious potential limitations. We don't know that the passing game will ever be as efficient as it needs to be, and there's nothing saying that the secondary will be any better at preventing big plays. But the ceiling is high in San Antonio.


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