(Part 7 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Football is back at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Since the program was disbanded at the end of the 2014 season due to financial concerns, the Blazers have moved into a new $22.5 million football operations center, complete with three practice fields and a weight room. Additional money has been raised to ensure the program is on solid ground.
Coach Bill Clark stayed on board throughout the ordeal. Clark has a 17-10 record in two seasons as a head coach, with an 11-4 mark at Jacksonville State in 2013 and a 6-6 ledger (4-4 Conference USA) at UAB in 2014.
Thanks to Clark's persistence, this isn't a typical startup program. With a handful of holdovers from the 2014 team and an influx of transfers, the Blazers could be fairly competitive right away.
Junior A.J. Erdely and redshirt freshman Tyler Johnston III are battling for playing time at quarterback. Erdely spent his freshman season at Middle Tennessee, before transferring to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College where he completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,881 yards and 14 touchdowns with only three picks. A three-star prospect out of Spanish Fort (Ala.) High, Johnston enrolled at UAB in 2016.
Juniors James Noble III and Donnie Lee and redshirt freshman Lucious Stanley are competing for playing time at running back. Lee, a New Orleans Helen Cox product, moved from linebacker in the spring.
Junior wide receiver Collin Lisa has a year of Division I experience to his credit after catching 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns at Buffalo in 2015. Junior Jonathan Haden, who saw extensive action on special teams in two seasons at Arizona, is coming off of an impressive spring.
Logan Scott and Thair Blakes, a pair of juniors, are the top candidates at tight end.
Left guard Chris Schleuger, the only senior on the two-deep offensive depth chart, anchors the offensive line. Schleuger appeared in 14 games while drawing eight starts for Northern Iowa in 2015. Rounding out the projected starters are junior left tackle James Davis, sophomore center Lee Dufour, junior right guard Malique Johnson and sophomore right tackle Justice Powers.
Like Clark, senior Jack linebacker Shaq Jones from Lanett, Alabama, chose to remain at UAB over opportunities to go elsewhere. The lone holdover starter from the 2014 squad, Jones recorded 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2014. He spurned offers from Western Michigan, Western Kentucky and Marshall. Clark is joined in the linebacker corps by senior Tevin Crews (33 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks), who appeared in all 12 games as a reserve for the 2014 Blazers. True freshman Thomas Johnston, who set the Alabama high school state record with 675 career tackles at Spanish Fort, is expected to contribute from the get-go.
Two more 2014 holdovers are the projected starting cornerbacks. Junior Jordan Petty (29 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) has appeared in 21 games with seven starts. Senior Darious Williams (23 tackles, 1 INT) drew five starts in 2014 before attracting offers from Southern Mississippi, Troy and South Alabama.
Junior Duke Culver, a Louisville transfer, will also likely see action in the secondary.
Senior tackle Teko Powell, who played in 19 games at Illinois from 2012-14, could be a force up front.
Sophomore kicker Nick Vogel and Joel Dixon, a junior punter from Australia, are the specialists.
2017 UAB SCHEDULE
(All Times Central and Subject to Change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Alabama A&M 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Ball State 2 p.m.
Sept. 16 Coastal Carolina TBA
Sept. 23 at North Texas* 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 Louisiana Tech* TBA
Oct. 14 Middle Tennessee* 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at Charlotte* 530 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Southern Miss* 6 p.m.
Nov. 4 Rice* TBA
Nov. 11 at UTSA* TBA
Nov. 18 at Florida TBA
Nov. 25 UTEP* TBA