The following is a list of the top position battles of the nine Sun Belt Conference teams, provided by the newspaper beat writers who cover them.
4-8 overall, 3-5 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Quarterback: The departure of senior Corey Leonard leaves a large opening. The battle boils down to sophomore Ryan Aplin and redshirt freshman Phillip Butterfield. Coach Steve Roberts has said several times since spring practice that he's not settled on who the starter will be and that the two will compete for the job when preseason workouts begin. Aplin has an edge in experience having played in nine games last season and starting three of the final four games when the team failed to respond to Leonard in several key situations but did respond to him. Aplin finished the year with a school single-season record 65.3 completion percentage and 889 passing yards and three TDs but was picked off six times. He was second on the team in rushing with 253 yards and four TDs. Aplin hurt his shoulder during the season and missed all of spring practice. Butterfield was a highly touted, strong-armed QB that led Lake Hamilton High School to the Arkansas Class 6A state title his senior year after throwing for 2,761 yards and 23 TDs. But he suffered a torn ACL in the first week of preseason practices and missed the entire season. Butterfield redshirted and returns with high expectations. He took 90 percent of the snaps during spring practice, so he actually has more experience in ASU’s new hurry-up, no-huddle offense than Aplin.
The winner: Look for Aplin to begin the season as the starter. He's got Division I experience and was fairly successful at moving Arkansas State's offense. However, Butterfield appears to be the more talented of the two quarterbacks, at least on paper. If Butterfield can adjust to the speed of the game and make good decisions quicker, there's a good chance he'll take over the starter's role probably around the fourth or fifth game of the season and keep it. Unlike previous years, the backup quarterback, no matter who it is, will be very talented and capable of leading ASU's offense without issue.
-Matt Roberson, Jonesboro Sun
5-7 overall, 5-3 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Offensive line: Yes, the whole line. Or at least four-fifths of it. FAU has to replace every starter on the line from a group that has zero career starts. Compounding the problem was that injuries hit in the spring, ruining the plan of identifying the five starters at the end of spring so they could go into the offseason and start molding the unit. Aside from center Jordan Sessa (6-5, 280, So), the other four positions remain up for grabs. Andy Czuprynski (6-5. 270, So.) was moved from defensive line to left guard on the offensive line in the spring and has plenty to learn but is currently No. 1 on the depth chart. That gives you an idea of what FAU is up against.
The winner(s): The coaches are going to have to make judgments very early in camp so they can give the starters as much reps as possible before they all make their first college start on Sept. 2 at UAB.
-Ted Hutton, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
3-9 overall, 3-5 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Quarterback: Technically, it's a wide-open battle to determine who will replace Paul McCall, last year's starter who's out of eligibility. The top two contenders: junior Wesley Carroll and senior Wayne Younger. But if pedigree and performance in the spring game are any indication, Carroll certainly has a leg up. The Fort Lauderdale native started nine games at Mississippi State as a freshman in 2007, earning all-conference honors, but fell out of favor in 2008 before transferring to FIU the next spring. He redshirted in 2009, then acquitted himself well in practice this past spring. Younger appeared in nine contests last year, completing just 37.9 percent of his passes and throwing four interceptions.
The winner: Wes Carroll because of his SEC experience and better fundamentals. But even if Carroll wins the starting job, Younger might get a handful of snaps per game, purely based on his athletic ability.
-Adam H. Beasley, Miami Herald
6-6 overall, 4-4 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Running back: Due to injuries, inexperience and a lack of depth, the Cajuns finished seventh in the Sun Belt and 71st nationally in rushing offense (136.9 yards per game) last season. It was a sharp decline for a ground game that was among the nation's best over the previous four years, but they will have plenty of options in 2010. Junior Julian Shankle sat atop the depth chart at the end of spring drills but has rushed for only 155 yards in college and has been injury-prone. Freshman Rob Walker, who rushed for 3,897 yards and 51 touchdowns in his final two years of high school, signed last year but was declared ineligible during fall camp. He enrolled in January and played well in the spring before pulling a hamstring. Two other newcomers - junior Kevis Streeter (Iowa Western Community College) and freshman Aaron Spikes (Dallas Pinkston High) - will also compete for the starting job. Streeter accounted for 12 TDs last year. Spikes, once committed to Texas Tech, rushed for 1,526 yards and 16 TDs as a prep junior. The three-star recruit was hobbled for most of his senior season with an ankle injury.
The winner: Coach Rickey Bustle has said he would have no problem rotating multiple players in the backfield. Look for Shankle, Walker, Streeter, Spikes and sophomore Draylon Booker to all get some carries this season. But Walker and Spikes will likely carry most of the load as long as they both stay healthy, with Streeter likely playing a bigger role as a punt and kick returner. If the talented youngsters can produce, the Cajuns could shock a lot of people this season.
-Joshua Parrott, Lafayette Daily Advertiser
6-6 overall, 5-3 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Quarterback: There are a lot of skeptics that do not believe there is a true battle at quarterback since last year’s starter Trey Revell is returning for his senior season. However, with a new coaching staff and Todd Berry’s desire to find the right guy to run his offense, redshirt freshman Kolton Browning has won the job over. However, it will continue to be a competition throughout fall camp. Revell has the experience – throwing for 1,739 yards last year over the course of 10 games. He missed two contests due to a broken thumb and had trouble returning to early season form once he came back from surgery. Browning, on the other hand, has no college experience but he has the confidence of a player that does. He ran the offense like a veteran during the spring game back in April and seems very comfortable in the pocket.
The winner: Experience can trump a lot of other attributes in a college quarterback, but Revell has to prove he’s a leader for the offense. He needs to bring the right attitude into the fall camp or Browning will continue to carry the advantage.
-Tabby Soignier, Monroe News Star
10-3 overall, 7-1 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Middle linebacker: With the graduation of All-Sun Belt selections Danny Carmichael and Cam Robinson, linebacker is the glaring defensive question. Senior Antwan Davis is the lone returning starter. He can play all three spots, but he will move from strong side to middle linebacker. While Davis is versatile and experienced, junior Gorby Loreus, an explosive and powerful player, fits the middle linebacker spot better. Loreus is catching up after a spring injury, but he should push Davis for the starting spot in fall camp. Redshirt freshman Stephen Roberts may be better than both in time, but for now he lacks experience.
The winner: Davis will start somewhere. Whether that’s at middle linebacker depends on his level of leadership shown amid a young group in fall camp. Davis may start at middle early on, but he’ll have to fight to keep it. As many as seven linebackers are close to even on the depth chart, so expect frequent movement in the lineup.
-Adam Sparks, Daily News Journal
2-10 overall, 1-7 Sun BeltTop position battle
Quarterback: North Texas is back in a familiar situation again this season while searching for its next starting quarterback. Since Scott Hall graduated following the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, UNT has trotted out six starters, including Nathan Tune. The senior started two games last season in relief of Riley Dodge, who moved to wide receiver in the off-season due to nerve damage to his elbow following a series of injuries that sapped his arm strength. Tune will compete with sophomore Derek Thompson, who would be UNT’s seventh starter in six seasons if he wins the job. Thompson played just one series last season at the end of UNT’s loss to Arkansas State after Dodge broke his arm. Tune and Thompson are larger quarterbacks than Dodge, who was listed at 6-0, 193, last season. Both are 6-4 and around 225 pounds and are pocket passers who lack the running ability that Dodge possessed that made UNT’s zone-option play effective. Tune and Thompson are adjusting to new coordinator Mike Canales’ offense that should employ more downfield throws that Dodge simply could no longer complete most of last season.
The winner: The battle between the two will likely go down to the last few practices before UNT opens at Clemson. Tune doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he has more than Thompson and will probably begin the season as the starter. UNT doesn’t have much margin for error and faces a huge home game against Rice in the second week of the season. If Tune struggles, UNT will turn to Thompson quickly in an effort to get the team on track to reach the seven-win mark head coach Todd Dodge likely needs to achieve to return for a fifth season at UNT.
-Brett Vito, Denton Record-Chronicle
2009 record9-4 overall, 8-0 Sun Belt
Top position battle
Quarterback: Redshirt junior Jamie Hampton and redshirt freshman Corey Robinson were the top two coming out of spring. They'll battle this fall to replace departed senior Levi Brown, the 2009 Sun Belt Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. Hampton threw for more than 1,000 yards in 2008, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game and redshirted last fall. Robinson threw for a nation record 91 touchdown passes as a Kentucky high school senior in 2007. Hampton says he's faster than he was before the injury, but won't be running nearly as much as he did. Robinson is a dynamic passer, but is working to decrease the turnovers.
The winner: Hampton is the best bet to start the season-opener on Sept. 4 against Bowling Green because of his experience and for the fact he is better ball controller of the two. But Robinson could take the role from him if he shows he can keep the ball away from the other team. Robinson is the future, no doubt, but who knows when the future will be.
-Drew Champlin, Dothan Eagle
0-12 overall, 0-8 Sun BeltTop position battle
Quarterback: Junior college transfer Matt Pelesasa grabbed this one by the throat during spring practice for two reasons. No. 1: Returning starter and redshirt sophomore Kawaun Jakes injured his ankle during a pickup basketball game. That earned Jakes a front row seat in coach Willie Taggart’s doghouse. No. 2: Pelesasa was the most consistent performer on the field – and not just at his position. Pelesasa is confident, has the size (6-1, 235) and possesses a pretty accurate throwing arm – not to mention he tosses probably the best deep ball WKU has seen since former four-year starter Justin Haddix in 2006. But with all the positives come a great deal of questions. He’s never actually played in an FBS-level game. So while he’s heard of how fast things move, he’s never actually seen it. He had stellar numbers at the JUCO level, but can he translate them to the 1-A level? This is a big moment for Jakes (6-3, 190), however, as he has to prove to Taggart that he’s committed to this program. If he doesn’t, he’ll likely fall behind another Taggart recruit in incoming freshman Brandon Doughty (6-3, 190). Unlike Pelesasa, we all know exactly what Jakes is capable of at this level. He showed real flashes of brilliance last season at times – especially during his 22 of 28, 276-yard, 2-TD performance at Navy. But he’s yet to impress the person who matters most – Taggart himself.
The winner: Expect Pelesasa to get the call when WKU plays its first game of the season at Nebraska. Jakes might have too much ground to make up in a short time and Doughty likely isn't ready yet. But my gut tells me this could be a battle that lasts throughout the entire season.
-Nick Baumgardner, Bowling Green Daily News