Rice football meets the UAB Blazers, a relatively new foe in the middle of the 2018 season. What can the Owls expect from the newly reformed team?
Three years ago UAB football ceased to exist. The university decided it was in its best interested to shut down the football program. That left head coach Bill Clark without a job and a multitude of the Blazers’ fans extremely disgruntled. That frustration turned into action, and soon enough the football program was reinstated.
After a two-season hiatus, UAB returned to action in 2017. In Year One of the new era, UAB shocked many. They finished the year 8-5 (6-2 CUSA) with both conference losses by a combined four points. It’s safe to say that nobody is writing off the Blazers as newbies this year, including Rice.
Rice fell at home to UAB 52-21 last season. The loss dropped the all-time series record even at 3-3, setting up an interesting rubber game for the two teams at Legion Field this season. Here’s how the Blazers will look this 2018:
AJ Erdely will once again lead the offense in 2018. The Blazers’ quarterback made Conference USA history last season against the Owls, completing 20-of-21 passes, a 95 percent completion percentage. His season average of 60.7 percent was right in the middle of the pack in CUSA as were his 16 touchdowns and 2,331 passing yards. Erdely’s mobility should be a plus for the Blazers as well. Last year, excluding sacks, he picked up 539 yards on the ground and added 13 rushing touchdowns.
Complementing Erdely on the ground will be one of the most productive running backs in school history. Sophomore Spencer Brown ran wild last season, racking up 1,329 yards on the ground as he shattered Jordan Howard‘s freshman rushing record of 881 yards. Spelling him will be Fresno State transfer James Noble (54 carries last season compared to Brown’s 250).
In front of them returns one of the more experienced offensive lines in Conference USA. Outside of the loss of Chris Schleuger at left guard, the rest of the line is intact.
Wide receiver should be another area of strength for the Blazers. Leading wideout Andre Wilson should be in line for another big year, assuming he can transition smoothly to new offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent. Vincent joins the team for a second time after spending two years at South Alabama during UAB’s hiatus from football.
Behind Wilson, Collin Lisa and JUCO transfer Austin Watkins will be in the mix for sizable roles with several contributors from last season returning as well. On paper, this is one of the deepest offenses in the conference. UAB was the No. 5 scoring offense in CUSA last season and has the potential to take another step forward in 2018.
If the someone can step up and fill the void left by Tevin Crews the Blazers defense could be as powerful as their offense in 2018. The senior linebacker led the team with 102 tackles, led the team with two forced fumbles and tied for the team lead with three sacks. They also lose Shaq Jones who also had three sacks and led the team with 13 tackles for a loss.
Sliding in behind those are Stacy Keely and rising sophomore Thomas Johnson. Johnson made waves when he spurned Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson and LSU when he committed to UAB in 2017. After playing sparingly in the deep unit a season ago, he’ll be trusted with the starting weakside linebacker spot moving forward.
The linebacker position is the most inexperienced on the team, which bodes well for the rest of the defense as a whole. Three starters return on the defensive line, led by 6-foot-5, 340-pound tackle Anthony Rush. The road grader tallied nine tackles for a loss last year and added an interception at the line as well.
Rush will ease the pressure on a secondary that finished second in CUSA in pass defense a year ago. Replacing strong safety Jordan Petty won’t go unnoticed, but the mostly intact unit should pick up right where they left off. UAB never allowed more than 270 passing yards in any game last season and had a five game stretch in which they registered eight interceptions.