News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Callaway, Blazers hope to surprise teams

Last in a series

By John Zenor
Associated Press Writer

UAB's Neil Callaway didn't exactly pick the easiest situation for his first head coaching job.

Callaway inherits a thin roster and a Blazers team that finished last season in a six-game swoon and is picked to finish at the bottom of the Conference USA Eastern Division.

The silver lining: Those low outside expectations give the longtime college assistant easy fodder for motivating his team.

"I don't put a lot of stock in preseason polls, but I think it will be good motivation for this football team and this program to realize what people think about us and make sure we want to prove them wrong," Callaway said.

The 51-year-old Callaway also embraced that challenge, leaving his job as Georgia's offensive coordinator to take over the Blazers program. Watson Brown left for Tennessee Tech after his final team suffered through a disastrous 3-9 season, the worst in the program's 16-year history.

Callaway entered fall camp with 68 scholarship players, 17 short of the NCAA limit. Only four starters return on each side of the ball. Nine players left the team or were dismissed, including starting linebacker Kris Guyton, since he took over.

"Depth on this whole football team is a big concern," Callaway said.

Making matters tougher is that the Blazers' first two games are at Michigan State and Florida State. UAB players appear to be embracing the underdog status.

"Our mindset is that we can win and beat anybody," quarterback Sam Hunt said. "Anytime someone tells you you can't do something, that's the biggest motivation you can have."

Callaway brought in former University of Houston head coach Kim Helton as offensive coordinator, taking over an offense that ranked last in the league in total yards and next-to-last in scoring.

Hunt is once again battling for the starting job. He split time with Chris Williams last season, starting four games and seeing action in three more during an injury-shortened season. But he finished with just two touchdown passes against five interceptions.

Sophomore Joseph Webb only played in the final two games last season, starting the finale against Central Florida. He completed 65 percent of his passes and didn't throw an interception.

Callaway isn't ruling out the possibility of rotating both quarterbacks, but would prefer one to win the job outright.

"Both are very capable guys at the quarterback spot," he said. "They both are good young men that are the kind of guys you'd want representing your football team. Both are big, strong guys that can run and throw as well.

"I do think it's a good situation have both those guys that can compete for it."

A less favorable situation is at running back, where the Blazers have to replace four seniors who combined for 5,625 yards and 41 touchdowns during their careers.

Rashaud Slaughter was the team's only scholarship back during the spring, but he only had one carry last season and played mostly at slot receiver.

The Blazers brought in four freshman backs and Mississippi State transfer Brandon Thornton. Junior college transfer Aaron Johns, a former Alabama player, was not eligible for this season.

Callaway said his biggest concern during the spring was at receiver, where Sylvester Mencer (31 catches, 400 yards) is the only returnee who caught more than six balls last season.

Nick Coon was a probable starter in 2006 but missed the season with a shoulder injury. But even he has only 13 catches in three seasons of playing.

The only returning starters on the line are center Jake Seitz and tackle Adam Truitt.

The defense is in a similar situation, short on experience everywhere except the secondary. Preseason All-CUSA free safety Will Dunbar, last year's leading tackler, and cornerback Kevin Sanders are back.

"The secondary has a lot of pride coming into the season," Sanders said. "We have a lot of experience and most of us have either started or played a lot. We feel like it is up to us on the defense because we do have the most experience."

Linebacker Joe Henderson also is a preseason all-conference pick

Brandon Jeffries is the only starter back on the defensive line, and he's moving from tackle to end.

Place-kicker Swayze Walters took over the starting job late last season and also handled punting duties during the spring.

UAB football at a glance

Coach: Neil Callaway, first year school and overall.

Last year: 3-9 overall, 2-6 Conference USA (fifth East).

Offense: Athletic QBs Sam Hunt and Joe Webb are vying for starting job. ... Four top RBs are gone, and early No. 1 Rashaud Slaughter had only one carry. ... Also thin at WR and OL. ... Ranked last in the league in total yards and next-to last in scoring last season, averaging 310 yards and 19 points.

Defense: DBs Will Dunbar and Kevin Sanders lead relatively experienced secondary, but that asset is in short supply elsewhere. ... LB Joe Henderson and Dunbar are preseason first-team All-CUSA picks. ... Brandon Jeffries returns on the line but is moving from tackle to end.

Special teams: PK Swayze Waters returns and also handled punting duties in spring.

Key losses: RB Corey White, RB Dan Burks, QB Chris Williams, WR Willie Edwards, OL Julius Wilson, LB Orlandus King, DL Larry McSwain, LB Kris Guyton.

Opener: Sept. 1 at Michigan State.

Pivotal game: Nov. 3, Southern Miss.

Outlook: The Blazers have fewer than 70 scholarship players and are thin on experience at nearly every position. They lost their final six games of 2006 and are picked to finish last in the C-USA East Division. Nonconference games at Michigan State, Florida State and Mississippi State make things even more difficult. Need players to step up early at each of the offensive skill positions and for either Hunt or Webb to lay claim to the starting job at quarterback.

The Associated Press

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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