BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —
UAB coach Garrick McGee figures familiarity with both his team and Conference USA will make for a smoother ride in his second season.
The Blazers won just three games in McGee’s debut season and went 2-6 in the league.
“I think if you are a very fast learner, and I pride myself in being a very fast learner, that if you run around the track once, you are supposed to know where all the curves are and where the straightaway is,” McGee said. “I understand our conference, what schemes other coaches are running, our program and its positives and deficiencies, and I know our staff and players better.
“So I am in a better position personally going into the second year, which is going to force our team to be in a better position.”
UAB returns seven starters on offense, including quarterback Austin Brown and 1,000-yard rusher Darrin Reaves. However, McGee dismissed leading receiver Jackie Williams during preseason camp, a move he later said was part of his efforts to change the program’s culture.
Defensive end Connor Boyett is among eight returning starters on defense. Boyett returns to his initial position after spending most of last season at tackle.
The newcomers include Arkansas transfer receiver Maudrecus Humphrey and former Arkansas Baptist cornerback Jimmy Jean.
UAB has nonconference road games against LSU and Vanderbilt. Linebacker Patrick Bastien said a big difference has been the attitude.
“I think the team enthusiasm is at an all-time high,” Bastien said. “I’ve been here for five years and the optimism and how everybody is feeling great, and we have really bought in. We have put in the hard work and now we are waiting to see the results.”
Five things to watch during McGee’s second season at UAB:
1. DEFENSE ANYONE? The Blazers allowed 38 points and 427 yards a game last season, ranking 111th and 84th in the nation, respectively. The Blazers allowed 39-plus points eight times but the staff spent the offseason studying up on defending spread and no-huddle attacks. They’ve got to replace linebacker Marvin Burdette, who led the nation with 157 tackles. Linebacker Daniel White, who has 16 career starts, is back after missing last season with a knee injury.
2. HIGH-POWERED OFFENSE: UAB had one of its best offensive seasons in McGee’s first year, racking up the third-highest yardage total in school history (5,029 yards) while moving up 41 spots in the national rankings in both scoring and passing offense from 2011. Reaves became the first UAB tailback to receive first-team all-conference honors. Brown took the reins as a redshirt freshman in the fourth game and didn’t relinquish them. Former starter Jonathan Perry also returns but they’re in search of more targets.
3. REPLACING WILLIAMS: Williams had the nation’s longest streak of consecutive games with a catch at 35 before his dismissal. The second- and third-leading receivers, Nick Adams and Patrick Hearn, are also gone. The Blazers have moved defensive backs Nyiakki Height and Darius Powell to receiver, and Jarmarcus Nelson is a deep threat. Humphrey, son of former Alabama and NFL running back Bobby Humphrey, spent two seasons at Arkansas.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE: Five blockers return who started at least five games last season, but the Blazers must replace All-Conference USA tackle Chris Hubbard, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brian O’Leary takes over at center while Billy Autrey moves from that position to guard.
5. JUST FOR KICKS: The kicking game figures to be a strength for the Blazers. Placekicker Ty Long has made 30 of 36 field goals in the past two seasons and hasn’t missed from inside 43 yards. Punter Hunter Mullins set a school record and ranked 12th nationally with an average of 44.8 yards.
Predicted finish in the East Division: Fourth.