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Independents' Day

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The big money in college football is in conference affiliation and the Division I-A Independent programs are becoming extinct. With the loss of Central Florida to the Mid-American Conference this season, the list of I-A Independents has dwindled down to just six programs. That number will become even smaller in a couple of years when Connecticut and South Florida land new homes in conference play, joining the Big East (2005) and Conference USA (2003), respectively.

Still, this is only 2002, and it is time to take a look at the sextet that is the Division I-A Independents.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham will be afforded every opportunity to right the ship in South Bend.
NOTRE DAME - Obviously the poster child for the Independent ranks in college football for some time now. One of college football's most storied programs will begin to add another chapter to the South Bend lore this season, as former Stanford head man Tyrone Willingham takes over for the beleaguered Bob Davie. A losing season is never accepted by the Irish faithful, who sat through a 5-6 campaign in 2001, but Willingham will be afforded every opportunity to right the ship. Willingham's no nonsense approach to coaching has already left its mark on the program, as quarterback Matt LoVecchio and tailback Julius Jones will not be on the team this season. LoVecchio has transferred to Indiana and Jones was ruled academically ineligible. Still, finally switching from an option offense to a more pass-oriented one will be a welcome sight to Irish fans. Sophomore Carlyle Holiday proved his leadership ability last season and will be the opening day starter, but true freshman Chris Olsen is the real deal and he should thrive in the West Coast offense in the near future. The team's passing attack will immediately see an increase in production and whoever is throwing the ball, the likely targets will be senior Arnaz Battle and true freshman Maurice Stovall. The starting QB two years ago, Battle is said to have the best hands on the team. Stovall is a star in the making and at 6-5, 205 pounds, is just the type of receiver needed to help facilitate the offensive scheme change. Tailback Ryan Grant is a talented big man (6-1, 215), as is fullback Tom Lopienski (6-1, 245), so the running game will still be an integral part of the offense. One of the toughest schedules in the nation, UND opens with Maryland in the Kickoff Classic, followed by Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and Pittsburgh. The team also must travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State, as well as the season-finale at USC. Can the Irish post a winning season? The odds aren't good, but Willingham will do everything in his power to make that happen.

SOUTH FLORIDA - This is the feel-good story of the Independent ranks. The football program at South Florida has only been in existence since 1996 and is in just its second season as a member of Division I-A, but a highly successful debut season (8-3) in 2001 has Jim Leavitt and his Bulls believing they belong with the big boys. One would think the team beat up on I-AA foes just to ease into the new surroundings, but a resounding win of Pittsburgh early in the season set the tone for things to come. Senior signal-caller Marquel Blackwell returns for his last season and looks to cap off a solid career. A true athlete under center, Blackwell has the ability to beat you with his arm (completed 56.6 percent of his passes in 2001, for 2,880 yards and 20 TDs), or his legs (rushed for 241 yards and nine TDs in 2001). A talented receiving corps is highlighted by game-breaker DeAndrew Rubin (6-0, 185), who played with a severe case of turf toe for much of the year, but did show his worth with 11 catches at Pittsburgh. Depth in the receiving corps is found in Huey Whitaker, Hugh Smith and Chris Iskra, who were the top three pass catchers last season with 52, 40 and 37 receptions, respectively. With games at Arkansas, Oklahoma and East Carolina, as well as home tilts with Southern Miss and Memphis, matching last season's win total isn't likely. Still, the Bull have the second best roster (talent-wise) among the Independents.

TROY STATE - Larry Blackney has done a remarkable job with the Trojans, who started in Division II, made the successful jump to I-AA and finally I-A last season. The team finished 7-4 last year and it's most impressive win came at Mississippi State, with some help from the weather. The team did lose blowouts to the likes of Nebraska (42-14), Miami (38-7) and Maryland (47-14), but was competitive early against the Huskers and Hurricanes. Replacing savvy veteran Brock Nutter under center is first and foremost, but Blackney believes that the combo of sophomore Hansell Bearden and junior Matt Ray, can get the job done. Bearden saw some playing time last season (seven games) and Ray is a transfer from UNLV, who started three games in 1999 with the Rebels. Senior wideout Heyward Skipper is the go-to-guy downfield, and with 4.3 speed it's no wonder. Skipper led the team in receptions (60), receiving yards (995) and TD receptions (nine) as a junior. Tailbacks LeBarron Black and DeWhitt Betterson will be asked to replace Demontray Carter, who led the team with 801 yards rushing and eight TDs in 2001. A veteran defense which returns eight starters should once again produce decent numbers, but a tougher schedule than 2001 will take its toll on the Trojans. The team opens the season at Nebraska and has other tough road games at UAB, Iowa State, Mississippi State, Marshall and Arkansas.

UTAH STATE - Last season was more of the same for the Aggies, who posted their 19th losing season in the last 21 years (4-7). The team has made just two bowl appearances since 1961, taking part in the Las Vegas Bowl in 1993 and the Humanitarian Bowl in 1997. The Aggies did hang tough with the likes of Utah (23-19 loss), Oregon (38-21 loss) and BYU (54-34 loss) last season and that in and of itself is a reason for optimism for third-year coach Mick Dennehy. The team will rely heavily on the pass this season, and has the weapons necessary to do so. Senior quarterback Jose Fuentes returns under center after completing nearly 60 percent of his passes in 2001 (59.5 percent) for 3,100 yards and 24 TDs. His top option in the passing game is Third-Team All- American Kevin Curtis, who caught 100 balls last season, for 1,531 yards and 10 TDs. Senior Gary Coleman (36 catches, for 440 yards and four TDs in 2001) and junior Chris Stallworth (33 catches, for 384 yards and four TDs in 2001) give the team much needed depth downfield. The biggest problem will be replacing tailback Emmett White, who posted his second straight 2,000 all- purpose yard campaign last season. A dangerous weapon, White rushed for 1,361 yards (13 TDs) and caught 48 balls for an additional 408 yards (three TDs), not to mention his return stats. Junior David Fiefa got few carries last season (30) and will take a more integral role in the ground game in 2002, as will sophomore Roger Fernandez. The last time the Aggie defense was on the field, it allowed 70 points to Fresno State. This year, the unit returns eight starters, including its top two tacklers in middle linebacker Jesse Busta (100 stops) and strong safety Jamar Glasper (77 stops).

NAVY - When a team goes 1-20 over a two-year span, it is time for a change. That is exactly what the powers that be in Annapolis did following last season. Charlie Weatherbie was let go before the end of the season, as the team recorded its first winless season in school history, following a 1-10 record in 2000. The new sheriff in town is former offensive coordinator Paul Johnson, whose job it will be to return the Naval Academy's pride. Even with just five offensive starters back from last season, the team should be able to see huge strides in offensive production under Johnson. Junior quarterback Craig Candeto will replace veteran Brian Madden and will bring a strong arm to the QB position this year, although the team will continue with a spread option offense. Veteran rushers Tony Lane (4.7 ypc in 2001) and Bryce McDonald (4.2 ypc in 2001) will get the bulk of the carries along with Candeto, but look for the pass to be a bigger weapon in 2002. The return of wideout Chandler Sims (6-4, 208), should give the Middies some opportunities in the aerial game. The defense returns eight starters this year, including last season's top tackler, Lenter Thomas (98 tackles), at safety.

CONNECTICUT - In just their third year in Division I-A, the Huskies have had a rough transition. Randy Edsall's team has won just five games since making the jump up in competition in 2000, but four of those victories have came against I-A foes, including wins over Rutgers and Eastern Michigan in 2001. The team will move into its new stadium (Rentschler Field) next season and will join the Big East in 2005, so things are looking up for UConn, despite the team's losing record of late. Although the team had a number of problems at the QB position last year, the Huskies are probably going to be better off for it in 2002. Sophomore Dan Orlovsky was forced into action as a true freshman and showed signs of a bright future after finishing the season with 1,379 yards passing and nine TDs. He will probably split time with the more athletic Keron Henry, who started five of the first six games last year, before succumbing to numerous injuries. Henry suffered a fractured ankle in the spring, but should return for the start of the season. The ground game was devastated by a multitude of injuries last season, but there is depth this year if the unit can stay healthy, including junior Chandler Poole, who will probably get the bulk of carries early on. The receiving corps returns its top three pass catchers from 2001, including leader Cliff Hill (40 receptions, for 397 yards and one TD). Depth is found in Jasen Ridley and Wes Timko. With 10 starters returning on the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies should be able to put up more of a fight this season. While a winning season is still in the distant future, an improvement on last year's ledger is attainable.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.


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