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Frank Wilson’s UTSA starts over again

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A month into 2017, it looked like UTSA might roll to the conference title. Now the Roadrunners are tasked with both rebounding and reloading.

UTSA v Baylor Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A season can change directions like a Saquon Barkley jump cut. As an illustration, let’s look back at where things stood in Conference USA four weeks into 2017.

  • Lane Kiffin’s FAU Owls were desperate for traction. They had just fallen to 1-3 after an upset loss at Buffalo, only we didn’t know it was an upset at the time.
  • Butch Davis’ FIU wasn’t faring much better. The Panthers got destroyed, 61-17, by a UCF that had gone just 6-7 in 2016, and they beat bad Alcorn State and Rice teams by just a touchdown each.
  • North Texas was treading water, having lost by a combined 39 to SMU and Iowa and barely beaten a UAB start-up we assumed would be pretty bad in 2017.
  • UTSA was the class of the league. Frank Wilson’s second Roadrunners squad had beaten Baylor and had beaten Southern U. and Texas State by at least 30 points each. Weather had prevented them from getting a shot at Houston in Week 1, but with the way both teams had played to that point, it was fair to think UTSA would have beaten the Cougars, too. The offense was good, the defense was great, and UTSA was a serious C-USA contender.

Wilson had come to San Antonio with a reputation as one of the best recruiters, and he had honed his reputation by doubling the Roadrunners’ win total and taking them to their first bowl in 2016. And now UTSA was 3-0. Wilson’s stock as a future power-conference head coach was rising quickly.

From September 30 onward, FAU won out, and FIU and UNT finished the regular season 13-2 against teams not named FAU. UTSA lost heartbreakers to Southern Miss (31-29) and North Texas (29-26) and only barely recovered. The defense hit a hiccup, and the offense hit a wall. And that win over Baylor looked less and less impressive as the Bears crashed to a 1-11 season.

  • First 3 games (3-0): Avg. yards per play: UTSA 7.1, Opp 3.5 (plus-3.6) | Avg. percentile performance: 85% (67% offense, 92% defense)
  • Next 4 games (2-2): Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, UTSA 6.2 (minus-0.1) | Avg. percentile performance: 56% (52% offense, 58% defense)
  • Last 4 games (1-3): Avg. yards per play: Opp 4.8, UTSA 4.1 (minus-0.7) | Avg. percentile performance: 43% (17% offense, 74% defense)

A 1-4 record in one-possession games exacerbated what was already a clear fade in quality, and UTSA finished 6-5 and missed a bowl.

Thanks to the hot start and the defensive quality, the Roadrunners finished 55th in S&P+, and with a better close-game record, they still could have been a factor in the C-USA West race. But plot twists are a zero-sum game — when FAU, UNT, FIU, and others began to find their way, someone had to lose theirs.

Unfortunately, the window that closed for UTSA last fall might not open again for a bit. Per the 247Sports Composite, Wilson has signed 33 three-star players in the last two recruiting classes, and that could pay off handsomely at some point, but it’s still early in the those classes’ respective life cycles.

While those players continue to mature, UTSA is tasked with replacing almost its entire starting offense: quarterback Dalton Sturm, running back Tyrell Clay, the top three receivers, and five linemen who had combined for 107 career starts.

Granted, you’d rather rebuild an offense that ranked 106th in Off. S&P+ than a defense that ranked 19th in Def. S&P+. And this total reset could set the table for a lot of exciting youngsters that might carry a 2019 breakthrough. But it’s hard to assume the Roadrunners will be any better at scoring points in 2018. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine them contending for the C-USA West title either.

Offense

2017 UTSA offensive radar

In its best moments, UTSA’s offense was pretty well-choreographed. The Roadrunners scored at least 26 points in just five games, but in those five Sturm completed 65 percent of his passes and kept opponents off-balance by completing 68 percent on standard downs.

Not a lot of these passes went for huge gains, but when opponents were stretched out horizontally, running lanes opened up. Clay and Jalen Rhodes combined to average 26 carries and 133 rushing yards (5.1 per carry) in these five games.

In the other six games, they averaged just 4.3 yards per carry, Sturm’s completion rate was just 59 percent, and the Roadrunners averaged just 13 points per game. They failed to score a touchdown in their final two games, so Wilson made a trade of sorts, dumping one old-hand offensive coordinator (Frank Scelfo) for another (Al Borges).

Borges has been around forever. The 62-year-old Chico State grad got his first offensive coordinator job in 1985, at Diablo Valley CC, before taking on the same jobs at Portland State, Boise State, Oregon, UCLA, California, Indiana, Auburn, SDSU, Michigan, and SJSU over the following three decades. That’s a hell of a set of coaching polos.

Results have varied, to say the least. But when he has a bell cow, he knows how to use him. In his best recent seasons, he had Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn, Ronnie Hillman at SDSU, and the Denard Robinson/Fitzgerald Toussaint combination at Michigan.

At UTSA, he’ll have Jalen Rhodes ... and we’ll see what else. Rhodes was an X-factor in 2017 — when he did well, so did the Roadrunners. In UTSA’s five games above 25 points, Rhodes averaged 5.6 yards per carry; in the other games, 4.2. He’s not incredibly explosive but can be a solid piece.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Baylor
Jalen Rhodes
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Senior Brett Winnegan and sophomore B.J. Daniels combined to carry 30 times for 182 yards, with Daniels the more efficient and Winnegan the more explosive of the two. But there’s a wildcard in JUCO transfer Deven Boston. The highest-rated member of UTSA’s 2018 class, the 5’11, 225-pound Boston rushed for 1,243 yards (6.7 per carry) at Santa Ana College last year. He could be a difference-maker.

He and Clay will need a line, though. And a quarterback. The Roadrunners do return three linemen who have combined for 20 career starts, and Wilson added two JUCO transfers, but the line faces major burden-of-proof. And the quarterback position enters 2018 in flux.

Here are your 2018 UTSA QB candidates:

  • Sophomore Bryce Rivers, who completed five of eight passes while backing up Sturm last year.
  • Redshirt freshman Frank Harris, a three-star prospect who rushed and threw for nearly equal amounts as a senior at Schertz (Tex.) Clemens High in 2016.
  • Junior Alin Edouard, who originally signed with Syracuse, landed at Independence (Kan.) CC, then appeared set for Jackson State before suddenly signing with UTSA last August.
  • JUCO transfer Cordale Grundy, who threw for 455 yards (with a semi-alarming 47 percent completion rate) and rushed for 169 for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in 2017 before getting injured and rendered to a backup role.
  • True freshman Jordan “JoJo” Weeks, another three-star signee who chose UTSA Football over Texas State Baseball.

The winner of the QB job will be tasked with making something of a receiving corps that features two seniors and a massive set of unknowns. Greg Campbell Jr. and Marquez McNair combined to catch 43 balls for 471 yards and two touchdowns last year; among 2017’s primary weapons, Campbell’s plus-14.1 marginal efficiency was second-best.

If there’s major upside here, though, it’ll likely come from a load of young former three-star recruits: sophomore tight end Chance McLeod, redshirt freshman wideouts Tariq Woolen and Dadrian Taylor, incoming freshmen Tyke Ogle-Kellogg, Sheldon Jones, and Andrew McGowan. There are enough candidates there to assume that someone breaks out a bit, but it’s impossible to say who.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Baylor
Greg Campbell Jr. (10)
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 UTSA defensive radar

Wilson chose to find a new offensive coordinator, but he was forced to find a new defensive coordinator. Pete Golding’s massive success in 2017 got him a massive promotion — he’s now Alabama’s defensive co-coordinator and ILBs coach — so Wilson promoted LBs coach Jason Rollins to DC.

UTSA’s 2017 defense was aggressive as hell, and it usually paid off. The Roadrunners gave up bigger big plays than most of their conference brethren but also gave up the smallest number of big plays.

2017 UTSA defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Opponents weren’t particularly good at running the ball on UTSA, but they found it the more appealing of the two options. If they were running, they got to deal less with Marcus Davenport (17 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks).

Davenport’s incredible 2017 breakout will likely make him UTSA’s first first-round draft pick in a few weeks — and led to a fantastic quote from Wilson (“I think the UTSA brand is badass”) — but UTSA still returns a lot of disruptors, and potential breakout stars, in the front seven. Junior end Eric Banks (7.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks), senior tackle Kevin Strong Jr. (7.5 TFLs, three sacks), and junior tackles King Newton and Jarrod Carter-Mclin (combined: 6.5 TFLs) should make this a strong unit even without Davenport.

Everybody’s jobs will be harder without Davenport, but there’s still a lot of skill here, especially if one of two three-star JUCO ends (T.J. King or Lorenzo Dantzler) is ready to play a major role.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Baylor
Kevin Strong Jr. (54)
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The line will need to set a tone because the back seven gets thinned out quite a bit. UTSA does still return middle linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and senior safeties Carl Austin III and C.J. Levine — the duo took part in a combined 15 run stuffs, if you want a hint of how aggressive Golding used his personnel last year — but loses its other three top linebackers and both starting corners.

Here’s where recent recruiting could pay off the most quickly. UTSA boasts three three-star true or redshirt freshmen at linebacker and four in the defensive backfield. Redshirt Samuel Barnes, a mid-three-star recruit with power-conference offers, will need to prove his potential as quickly as possible. Plus, sophomore corners Teddrick McGhee and Javontavius Mosley could be asked to play key roles. Junior Clayton Johnson had a strange, all-or-nothing stat line as a reserve — four solo tackles to three passes defensed — but could have some nice ball skills.

UTSA has a nice backbone, with experience and known quantities at defensive tackle, middle linebacker, and safety. The play-makers on the edge are new, though, and we’ll see how much of a drop that causes in the Roadrunners’ Def. S&P+ ranking.

Special Teams

UTSA returns the bones of a really nice special teams unit. The Roadrunners ranked in the top 75 in every special teams efficiency category and bring back punter Yannis Routsas (28th in punt efficiency) and place-kicker Jared Sackett (48th in FG efficiency as a freshman). Return men Brett Winnegan and Matt Guidry were a bit all-or-nothing, but there’s decent “all” potential at least.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Arizona State 57 -13.2 22%
8-Sep Baylor 50 -9.8 29%
15-Sep at Kansas State 61 -12.8 23%
22-Sep Texas State 123 8.8 69%
29-Sep UTEP 130 14.5 80%
6-Oct at Rice 128 5.4 62%
13-Oct Louisiana Tech 70 -5.4 38%
20-Oct at Southern Miss 94 -4.8 39%
3-Nov at UAB 91 -5.8 37%
10-Nov Florida International 120 7.0 66%
17-Nov at Marshall 62 -12.8 23%
24-Nov North Texas 86 -2.2 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 104
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 128 / 40
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.7 (95)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 76 / 94
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 2.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 41% (28%, 55%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.3 (-0.3)

It’s not hard to see why S&P+ is lukewarm. The Roadrunners are projected 104th overall, thanks mostly to an offense that was bad and lost almost everyone (and is therefore projected 128th). That places them fifth in the seven-team C-USA West.

It’s also not hard to spin that around, though. The offense doesn’t have to start over — it gets to. The addition of Deven Boston and a new QB could create a backfield that Borges can lean on, and if only a couple of recent high-upside recruits can mature pretty quickly, the upside of this offense will be definitively higher, even if the downside is also lower.

The offense will need to overachieve, though, for UTSA to be bowl-eligible for the third straight year. Wilson’s Roadrunners are favored in only four games and are projected to win just 5.3. Eking out a 6-6 or 7-5 record would be great, but really, the key to 2018 will be finding the answers for a 2019 breakthrough. There could be as many sophomores as seniors in the starting lineup, and that says good things about where Wilson could eventually take this team.

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