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The footprint of Conference USA (CUSA) is one of the greatest in all of college football. It stretches from the depths of Florida, way up the Atlantic coastline and then all the way down to El-Paso. Even though the reputation of the programs within it are no match for many of the Power Five schools that occupy the same lands, it needs to be addressed that there is still tons of talent on the field.
Let’s dive in to some of these highly talented, but less known players:
Charlotte 49ers: WR Cameron Dollar
Sometimes when researching for the next shiny gem, I go off hunches that I get. With Dollar, this is one that I have a pretty high confidence level with. He only played in five games last season but had three TDs on only 10 catches, with a 17.8 yard average.
Quarterback Chris Reynolds just happened to have his worst season under center in 2020, which skewed the numbers a bit. If he gets back on track to somewhere around the 63-64% mark for completions, then Dollar and the rest of the receivers should be able to get more involved. If he can maintain that high average and get at least a career high in receptions (42) then he could be in for roughly a 750 yard season.
Florida Atlantic Owls: WR T.J. Chase
Originally a four star Clemson commit, Chase was never really able to make his mark on the field. It’s hard to blame him though, having to share the receptions with Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. In an attempt to find more playing time, Chase flew south to Boca Raton to become an Owl.
In his first year he almost topped his whole body of work at Clemson. He brings a veteran presence and a polished skill set, having worked with and against some of the best college wideouts and corners for his first three collegiate seasons. He’s a wideout that will make a ton of noise next season on his way to a potential All-CUSA selection.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs: H-Back Smoke Harris
Such a fitting name for a young man that can really scoot. A mini but mighty athlete who comes in at a towering 5’6”. Make no mistake though, because he’s packed in there at 184 lbs. and with that low center of gravity can move a pile.
The only problem is that he doesn’t have the best of opportunities to hit the home run as most of his work is done on screens and underneath routes. His potential was on display vs BYU when he housed a bubble screen for a 66 yard TD, forcing four missed tackles. More carries on jet sweeps as that hybrid piece should be on the horizon for this electric player.
Marshall Thundering Herd: TE Xavier Gaines
Without a doubt Gaines is one of the most versatile players in the whole country. Even though he’s listed as a tight end on the depth chart, he’s so much more. He has 68 career receptions, 37 career rushes and even has attempted five passes.
Gaines is undersized for a tight end at only 220 lbs. but is definitely a capable blocker. When in the open field he runs hard and even has pull away speed from defensive backs. He should easily find a spot in the NFL due to his mismatch ability and receiving skills.
Marshall Thundering Herd: QB Grant Wells
Even though he’s not really an “under the radar” prospect, it’s imperative to put Wells in here. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, he had the Thundering Herd offense firing on all cylinders. All the playmakers including the aforementioned Gaines were all massive beneficiaries to the on timed delivery of passes from the young gunslinger.
For the first seven games, he was posting a solid 16:4 TD to INT ratio. The last three games Wells posted a TD-less, five interception game vs Rice and two subpar performances in the CUSA Championship Game and the Camellia Bowl. The comeback is going to be massive for this young man and he may be well on his way to a early draft departure this year if he plays his cards right.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders: WR Jarrin Pearce
Pearce has probably one of the worst reception to TD ratios that I’ve ever seen, having only seven scores on 101 catches. That shouldn’t take away from what he does on the field for the Blue Raiders though. With the departure of quarterback Asher O’Hara, the new signal caller will need easy completions to get into a rhythm.
Pearce provides a seemingly always open target who can operate underneath, or make tough catches downfield. Any time he gets the ball on a smoke or tunnel screen there’s always a threat that he can turn it into a 20 plus yard gain. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends the season with around 75 catches in 2021.
North Texas Mean Green: RBs DeAndre Torrey and Oscar Adaway III
The Mean Green seemingly always have one of the most productive offenses in the country. Last season they placed eighth in total offensive yards per game with just shy of 514. With the ultra talented wideout Jaelon Darden off to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the offense may have to look to the ground first to get in rhythm.
That shouldn’t be a problem though because both Adaway III and Torrey averaged 5.8 yards per carry. They get close to an equal workload as Torrey got 113 carries, and Adaway III got 99. A full season could very well see both these guys go over 1,000 yards, obviously depending on injuries and game situations.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: RB Frank Gore Jr.
It’s crazy to think that Frank Gore Sr. has a son who is about to be in the league in a few years. Gore Jr. has things about him that mimic the game of his father, but overall they aren’t they same type of back. Dad was always a hard nosed runner that did everything downhill as a standard back while Gore Jr. plays more of an all-purpose role.
Make no mistake though, because when he wants to lower the shoulder, he can and will drag defenders five or so yards downfield. Also he has incredible patience that must have been passed on to him, as he finds creases that just aren’t there. I don’t think he’ll rise to a must have selection in the first or second day of the NFL Draft, but he’ll definitely make it to the league.
UAB Blazers: RB DeWayne McBride
When a player averages 9.3 YPC it’s usually because of one massive run and a lack of carries. Though when a player does it on 47 attempts, then people start to raise some eyebrows. That is exactly what McBride did as a true freshman, and with Spencer Brown off to the Carolina Panthers, it’s his show.
He’s such a smooth runner who can slip through shifting creases in running lanes downfield. Even though he doesn’t have a ton of top speed, he makes up for it with the ability to turn and freeze defenders in the hole. McBride is a sure fire candidate to break out and top the 1,000 yard mark as a sophomore in 2021.
UTEP Miners: WR Jacob Cowing
This is a player I’ve had my eye on since he led the Miners receiver room as a true freshman two seasons ago. Last year in 2020, there was definitely a more refined and efficient piece on the outside. To go out there and average 16.9 yards per catch with completely spotty quarterback play is nothing short of a miracle.
Cowing has really come into his own as a route runner and ball carrier after the catch. It’s a little lofty on the comparison, but how meticulous he is with the breakdown of his routes is eerily similar to Jarvis Landry. Landry has a start and stop ability that is uncanny to create space for himself and it looks like Cowing is trying to channel that.
UTSA Roadrunners: RB Sincere McCormick
I’m not really sure how someone “quietly” is a top five rusher in the country, but McCormick found a way to do that. The reality that he’s not getting any buzz is almost sickening due to his on field abilities. He’s shifty and can make people miss on his first cut, has a ton of patience and can find another gear in open space.
As a freshman in 2019 he was just shy of 1,000 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. In 2020 he upped the numbers to 1,467 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. McCormick is in for a monster year in 2021 and will likely eclipse the 6.0 YPC mark. I would be the least bit surprised to see him run for 1,700 yards next season and be in consideration for the Doak Walker Award.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: QB Bailey Zappe
Following suit from last season, it looks like the Hilltoppers will be riding with a transfer quarterback. This situation is completely different though, because new offensive coordinator Zach Kittley isn’t coming from Houston Baptist alone. Zappe has thrown for 8,466 yards and 73 TDs against 29 interceptions in his time there.
That 29 seems a little high but what’s important is that Zappe has progressed every one of the last three years. He only had one interception last year with 15 TDs, and completed nearly 66% of his passes. The Hilltoppers will be in good hands with this coordinator-quarterback combo who could easily lead the conference in passing.