FRISCO, TX — There are no big screens or podiums at the Baylor Scott & White Performance Center set up for the league’s kickoff. There were high school kids doing drills outside however. People in the above floors overlooking the festivities were going about their business: rehabbing, working, sweating.
It is a good visual of the league and its place in the national hierarchy. For all the niceties — one of the nicest spots in DFW — there were people working hard in full view. The league is somewhere similar. There are some old and famous programs and some nationally famous coaches and players standing around some temporary seating answering questions from stringers and bloggers.
Judy MacLeod is respected and also denied by the internet fandom for the league’s plight as the 7th — at best — league in the nation. Circumstances brought these teams together and even though UConn is bailing on the AAC there appear to be no league roster-moving announcements on the horizon.
So the media had a nice and well-orchestrated event with plenty of time for networking and information-gathering.
The NFL Network deal is welcome by all, and the money is better, which is nice. The 25th anniversary of the league coupled with the inaugural HOF members was a prominent theme but something of an awkward fit. There are current members with some entrants –Rice, USM, etc– but it is weird seeing Memphis’ D’Angelo Williams and Houston’s Case Keenum’s photos up.
The league was proudly displaying the trophy for the league with the best record in the past season’s bowl season.
If there seems to be a sense of proving to all who come near that this league is good enough to compete and — let’s be real — earn the money the other leagues are earning it is because so much depends on it. Nearly every coach and player talked up the quality of the league. Even the not-so-sales-pitch comments support that argument. North Texas senior QB Mason Fine, he of the preseason hype (deserved) talked up the quality of defense he faces “Everyone is so well-coached in this league.”
Lane Kiffin discussed the number of coaches he has had to replace as they get snatched up by other programs “It’s something I didn’t realize at this level.”
USM is feeling confident about their chances. “I really feel like I have a number of NFL-type players” says Jay Hopson. Experience brings wins, says the coach, and he has lots of it. Jack Abraham is a returning starter and he’s the most accurate quarterback in the league. The future looks bright as Hopson noted they are returning to a full scholarship load in the next few years.
The always jovial Skip Holtz held court and discussed Amik Robertson and how well his work ethic helps set the example for the rest of the roster. He also named dropped some quality former players — Jaylon Ferguson, Xavier Woods — as a kind of reminder and also something of a point of pride. The fact is that Holtz can get talent into Ruston and just needs to put it together in the right fashion to turn that into a title. They beat last year’s preseason media favorite North Texas in Apogee and have the kind of talent to win more like that.
For a number of reasons UNT was the hottest ticket. Not only were the program’s media folks there, but so were various contingents from national media. Seth Littrell has been on the shortlist at many a P5 program and rumors suggest both Mississippi State and Kansas State were turned down in the last two off-seasons. Graham Harrell is now the coordinator at USC and Mason Fine is in the discussion for various national awards.
There is much news to discuss. The biggest such news is that Seth Littrell is “itching” to get more involved in the offense.
The Champs Were Here. Bill Clark was all smiles as he discussed his program. Tyler Johnston is expected to do great things as UAB main guy. The Blazers are not picked too highly although that is more saying that the guys who were a big part of the Return have graduated and moved on and not necessarily a knock on this year’s team. UAB has all the ingredients to defend the title — a solid offense, a bell-cow back, and lots of talent. They did lose their top wideouts and large parts of the group that formed the soul of the program these last few years.
Frank Wilson talked up the administration, the support he has gotten, and the new OC Jeff Kastl. As usual, he said some things that sounded really nice and made a lot of sense. The issue for long time watchers of the program is that they have heard this kind of talk before. Last year, when he brought in a new offensive play-caller he said similar things. The shine is off at UTSA now, and that could mean that Wilson is on the hottest seat in the league.
Head coach Dana Dimel had the most surprising team last season. UTEP fought hard in every game and made things interesting more often than not. They also got a win for the first time in a very long time. He was forthcoming when asked how we should judge him “I am a believer that coaches should be judged on the games they should win” and on the future of Kai Locksley “We will wait on his court result and go from there.”
The Miners still have a long road to rebuild but things are looking bright so far.
Mike Bloomgren was quicker with a smile this season. He acknowledged the long road ahead of his program but he says “we are doing the things that bring wins” and while he “wants to win every game” he takes comfort in the fact that they got a lot of young guys on the field to build the foundation for the future. Interesting contract between Bloomgren and Dimel: the Rice coach prefers an every-down back “If a guy can carry it every down, give it to him” while Dimel prefers the committee approach.
Butch Davis has won at about the same rate as Lane Kiffin has thus far in their respective terms as coaches, but he is missing the league title. That is important yet also puts some perspective on it. The Panthers were a play or two away from going to the league’s title game, but also were that far away from not even being in the conversation — they needed an interception vs Middle to win that game late.
QB James Morgan has the numbers, the support of his team and his coaches, and is going to build on last year’s success — and the hurt. Sage Lewis said he and Morgan discussed that game just the day before Media Days. Morgan, for his part, says he does think about it but is focussed on doing the things that put them a play or two away from achieving their goals. “That’s how we get passed those [missed opportunities] by doing the things that put us in position to be a play away”.
What makes Marshall so good on defense despite the turnover in staff and roster? “It’s the number one thing on our board” says DB Chris Jackson. This year’s team is in the running but will have to find some quality play from the QB spot. Isaiah Green showed some nice things last season as he threw to Tyre Brady, but his leading pass-catcher is gone and Green will have to find enough improvement in his game to lead a team against some tough defenses in the East.
Lane Kiffin had no one sitting near him when I approached, I asked him if things felt different this year “Well we have open spots at the table” he joked. He also was self-deprecating about the team’s performance against Oklahoma last year and talked about expectations vs reality in his own life and perception and in his team’s expectations. “Things are never as bad or as good as people say”. He feels good about the talent on his team but acknowledges that no one will ‘replace’ Devin Singletary.
How does a team bounce back from losing on a mental mistake? (MTSU’s title game chances ended on a 12-men call against their special teams unit to end the championship game at home in Murfreesboro) “It’s hard” says Khalil Brooks. “It means no hands on hips this offseason, just getting mentally stronger and not letting it happen again”.
“Being more accountable. Just come out there with a chip on our shoulder” says Malik Manciel.
Speaking on playing in front of family, Manciel, who is from Detroit, on playing in front of family at the Michigan opener: “You never want to play bad in front of your family, so just knowing they are up there and staying locked in and saving the ‘thanks’ for after the game.”
Interesting note: Khalil Brooks likes playing at Charlotte, because of the campus. Malik likes ODU because of the fan base. He also likes the atmosphere at Marshall “they don’t like us too much and their fans heckle a lot and it is just funny.”
Western’s new coach Tyson Helton was calmer than Sanford was. A son and brother of a coach he seemed more at ease with the job and any advice comes from that family “I use that advice and use their perspective but each coach has to do it their way.” There is a lot of talent and Helton has a familiarity with the program and league as a former coach here and at UAB.
Helton does not like using the word “rebuilding” as it is an insult to the current players on the team. “It’s our job to find a way to win every single game for those guys.”
Bobby Wilder is the coolest guy at Media Days, always smiling and quick with a joke and ‘hello’. He may also have had the best jacket. He talked up the stadium, and the development of the program. This is something like a desperation year for his Monarchs, as they have added a ton of JUCO guys to bring in some much-needed talent. There is also a change in offense philosophy “12-man football” which means we will see more QB-changes, more QBs on the field at the same time, and other quirks that indicate the Monarchs will be throwing things at the wall.
I had to double-take and make sure I was not walking over to talk with a staff intern. It was a running joke that even Will Healy made “I’m sure these coaches are like ‘who is that 12-year old pretending to be a coach'” Talking with him reveals the kind of interview performance that won him the job. His record and his presence are persuasive indicators of a good coach. He is rebuilding a program but knows he has some good players and that his predecessor did a good job under tough circumstances. “You go from accepting an FCS job then boom — you are going to be FBS in 2-years. I thought Brad did a phenomenal job here.”
Healy knows he needs talent but the right talent is more important. “I know we are not going to get the guy that wants to go someplace with 10-conference titles. That’s fine. The QB we get has to know and want to be the face of this program. He will have his face plastered everywhere and we want someone that wants that.”