The West Division of Conference USA football features many of the programs with great tradition, and will soon enough include some that could build a tradition of their own on a greater platform with more visibility.
This morning, I had the chance to speak with each of the coaches from the division, and took away the following impressions from our conversations.
UTEP Miners- Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson
My first conversation of the morning was with UTEP defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, who somewhat oddly was present at the event in place of head coach Mike Price. When asked why Coach Price was not present, Coach Patterson mentioned he had a prior engagement and wouldn’t elaborate on what the engagement was.
On the defensive side of the ball, Patterson emphasized that the Miners will depend on a solid speed rush on the edges to establish momentum this fall. While the Miners are replacing three linebackers who played significant minutes in 2011, there is only one starter being replaced. The defensive unit will also be tasked with helping UTEP to flip the turnover ratio back to the positive by forcing turnovers and being more aggressive.
Coach Patterson felt there were too many individuals on the UTEP roster last season and the chemistry was not what it needed to be. So far this summer the chemistry appears to have improved and should help both sides of the ball to be more cohesive as units.
As was echoed throughout the morning, Patterson mentioned that the arrival of North Texas and UTSA to the fold in 2013 could change the landscape of recruiting in the state, but shouldn’t present an entirely unique challenge.
SMU Mustangs- Head Coach June Jones
I was able to listen, along with an intrigued group, to the always mercurial and engaging SMU head coach June Jones as he outlined the keys to success for the Mustangs in 2012.
As expected, the target of the media’s questions to Coach Jones dealt with the quarterback position and how former Texas Longhorns signal caller and recent transfer Garrett Gilbert would factor in. Jones stated that Gilbert is ahead of the pack at this point, and while all Mustang quarterbacks will see snaps early in fall practice, Gilbert’s snaps will increase as the season draws closer. Along these lines, Gilbert will be the presumptive starter in Week 1.
Jones pointed to Gilbert’s vast experience at Texas and his learning ability as being separation points. The former Lake Travis star has evidently absorbed SMU’s offensive scheme with ease and has earned the respect of his teammates.
Coach Jones’ comments about the culture of the SMU program were also interesting. Jones laid out the idea that there was a “lost generation” of SMU football following the death penalty the program received from the NCAA in 1987 which he is still recovering from. His most significant task is rebuilding a winning culture on campus and making SMU games an event again as they once were when the team saw success.
His plan is to continue to mix old tradition with newly established tradition to engage the fan base and make SMU a destination again not only for local talent, but talent across the state.
As was echoed by several coaches, Jones noted that whomever has an unproven quarterback emerge could quickly be a surprise team in the division given the departure of several high-profile guys after the 2011 season.
Rice- Head Coach David Bailiff
The Rice Owls have plenty to prove in 2012 after an injury-riddled 2011, and this is something not lost on David Bailiff. In my conversation with Coach Bailiff, the overall health of the team was mentioned as being a major factor in how competitive the Owls will be in 2012.
With only eight seniors returning, several underclassmen will be asked to step up and fill greater roles this fall, but a large junior class with strong experience can be the anchor to ensure this happens. Bailiff mentioned that if guys like quarterback Taylor McHargue and all-everything Sam McGuffie can stay healthy and focused throughout the season, the Owls have the ability on the offensive side of the ball to change the course of games.
On the defensive side of the ball, Rice plans to add some new wrinkles to their existing sets to mix things up and keep opponents honest. Bailiff feels this can help the Owls be more agitating, change the tone of games, and improve the team’s overall turnover ratios.
Part Two of this post is coming soon with my talks with coaches from Houston, Tulane, and Tulsa.
Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.
Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.