FIU cornerback Richard Leonard's working on being faster. And eight Conference USA special teams coaches and offensive coordinators just lost their appetites. Or their lunches.
Leonard's fourth gear already exceeds most players' sixth. But he wants to boost his zoom to any return crease he reaches -- beep! beep! -- six points. All the players at media day talk about getting their team a conference title. There's a sense that runs a little deeper with guys like Leonard, a fifth-year senior, or Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty ("I know I'm not getting a seventh year."), who know this is it for their college careers and maybe their football careers period. That's your CUSA preseason Defensive and Offensive Player of the YEar, coincidentally.
FIU coach Ron Turner feels he's got 100 guys with a team first mentality. Two years ago, he definitely didn't believe that. He thought pockets of selfishness remained last year. That, more than being in the third year with mostly his recruits, makes him optimistic about what this year could be for FIU.
And, yes, he's happy about that $6,000 Cost of Attendance stipend (see last post) for what it allows FIU's athletes to do with the thin slices of life away from class/sport as well as for the possible recruiting advantage.
FAU (vs. FIU, Oct. 31)
Recruiting geeks love the last two classes brought in by FAU coach Charlie Partridge. We'll start finding out if that class can justify that love soon. Partridge said, "Right now, we've got 50 guys we've recruited over the last two years. You're going to see a good portion of them on the field." That's why I picked them under FIU in the East Division.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (at FIU Nov. 21)
By the way, you want to watch Conference USA coaches shiver, have them imagine Jeff Brohm as FAU's head coach with his offensive system, able to recruit South Florida and North Broward Prep's Doughty somehow still at FAU as his quarterback. Doughty threw for 4,830 yards, 49 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions and completed 67.9 percent of this passes. "I really want to expand my game and show I can do a variety of different things. I'm not just a pocket passer and a good system quarterback."
MARSHALL (vs. FIU Nov. 14)
Similar to Leonard and his speed, opposing defenses tended to find Marshall running truck Devon Johnson already big enough. Johnson left 1,767 yards of defenders in ice baths and training rooms last season and averaged 8.6 yards per carry.
Johnson said he's up five pounds to 245 and thinks he's both quicker and faster -- "I think I can break those long runs without getting caught on the 2-yard line."
No accident that the one game Johnson missed via injury turned into Marshall's only loss last year, the 67-66 overtime pinball game with Western Kentucky. He said missing that game bothers him to this day and "my main goal is to be healthy for my team."
LOUISIANA TECH (vs. FIU, Sept. 26)
One reason La Tech's the West Division favorite: quarterback Jeff Driskel, a one-and-done transfer from the University of Florida, to go with a tough defense and running back Kenneth Dixon.
"I think I came into a really good situation," Driskel said. "The guys have always cared about each other, always been a close knit unit. I think I came in and didn't mess anything up. I came in, shut my mouth for a while and showed the guys I was there to work hard. I earned their respect. Everything's been often. No complaints."
Not having to surf the swarming media waves of SEC Media Days left Driskel loose enough to ask a veteran columnist to take a selfie with him (the columnist, an earthbound, AARP-eligible guy who has never taken a selfie in his life, declined).
"Coming out of high school, when you're being recruited heavily, you look at the stuff that has flash," Driskel said. "You look at the facilities, you look at how much money a school has, what they can provide for you. The second time around, when I announced I was going to transfer, I didn't look for that. I looked for, first of all, a place I could play because I've got only one year. I looked for a situation where I thought I could put up some big numbers. Cody Sokol did that last year (3,436 passing yards, 30 touchdowns) and there's a lot of guys coming back on offense. Also, I looked for a place full of good people -- a place where guys worked hard and enjoyed working hard together."
CHARLOTTE (at FIU, Nov. 7)
Charlotte put up a 5-6 2014 record against a schedule of 11 FCS opponents. Now, they've got 11 FBS opponents on their 12-game schedule. A bit of a jump. Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said, "It'll be a jolt to them, I'm sure, in the beginning of the year. But we feel like we've prepared. It's not something that got dropped on us. We knew it."
When I asked Lambert if he would've preferred an easing in to FBS, he said, "In the recruiting process, it's all about the brand that's behind your brand. Conference USA is a really realy good brand. So it enabled us to get in on some kids recruiting-wise the last two years that we might not have been able to get in on. We didn't have a team full of guys we'd recruited to an FCS team. Guys knew where we were and what we were doing."
OLD DOMINION (at FIU, Oct. 24)
Lambert says he expects Charlotte to be stronger on offense next year. I wonder how similar the collegiate East Coast 49ers will be to Old Dominion, shootout specialists during a 6-6, 4-4 in Conference USA, 2014 season. ODU put up 51 in regulation on Western Kentucky and lost 66-51. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke ran that offense the panache of a veteran joystick jockey playing Madden.
Redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley, a two-to-three-star recruit, now handles the Heinicke job.
"When we first started football, we had a brand new quarterback, Thomas DeMarco, and we played to his strengths and went 9-2 in his first year," Monarchs head coach Bobby Wilder said. "Taylor's first year, 2011, we changed the offense to fit around his strengths, we went 10-3 and the second round of the (FCS) playoffs. Shuler, the same thing, we're going to change the offense to fit his strengths.
"The good thing is we've got the conference rookie of the year back at running back (Ray Lawry). We return four starters in the o-line and we got an injured player back, Troy Butler, who was a starter for us two years ago. We've got eight wide receivers back who have started or played and been successful. So, there's a lot around Shuler. It's not as if he's stepping in and the cupboard is bare. He's stepping into a full cupboard."