by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

In a perfect world, Jimbo Fisher would be coaching at UAB right now. Or, perhaps, he would have already been hired away by a higher-profile program after leading the Blazers to a CUSA title or two and consecutive bowl appearances. Instead, however, we live in an imperfect world, one in which Jimbo is instead at Florida State in his second season as Bobby Bowden’s successor, coaching a Seminoles team ranked in the preseason top ten by most informed observers. And UAB is, well, still UAB, trying to gain some traction on the gridiron and some exposure for itself in a state where there is little room for existence after Alabama and Auburn suck the available oxygen from the atmosphere, while functioning with second-rate facilities (including time-worn home venue Legion Field) and a budget that might even make some FCS entries cringe.

Such is life for the Blazers, who thought they might have had a coup back in 2007 when ready to name Fisher as the successor to program architect Watson Brown, whose regime had run its course. Jimbo was the high-profile offensive coordinator at LSU in the those days and was on a fast track to the head coaching ranks. But before UAB could close the deal, the State University Board of Trustees (which also oversees the Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa, as well as Auburn) had some other ideas. And in this aforementioned imperfect world, the Crimson Tide influence on the state board, which included an influential member named Bear Bryant Jr., had no interest in approving such an up-and-comer as Fisher to be coach at UAB and potentially deflect attention away from nearby Alabama. Neither the Tide, nor Auburn for that matter, particularly approve of the Blazers, who, according to the big boys in the state, should remain second-tier football citizens and stay occupied with business in Conference USA. It is no accident that UAB has never faced Bama and has not been scheduled by Auburn since the nascent days of the Blazer program in 1996.

As for Fisher, after the UAB snub, he was quickly tabbed by Florida State as Bowden’s successor, and appears to be one of the rising stars in the college coaching ranks. Meanwhile, the state board believed Georgia’s offensive coordinator at the time, Neil Callaway, would be a more appropriate hire for the Blazers . Callaway was also a Bama alum, but most “in the know” did not view him as a future star in the head coaching ranks as Jimbo was regarded. Four years later, those “in the know” seem to have been on the money; Callaway has yet to record a winning season or bowl berth in Birmingham, with a 15-33 record in four seasons on the job. Somewhere, we think Bear Bryant Jr. thinks that development is just swell and dandy.

Might 2011 be the year Callaway and UAB get the last laugh on Bear, Jr? For Callaway’s sake, it had better be, because we’re not sure how many more mulligans the Blazer administrators are going to give him. Most CUSA observers believe Callaway occupies one of the hottest seats in the league, even if Bear Bryant Jr. might be content as a cow in the pasture if UAB continues to lose.

Numbers might finally be in Callaway’s favor, however. The program he inherited from Brown had just 66 scholarship athletes, far short of the 85 allowable. And it wasn’t until last season that the Blazers finally reached their full complement of scholarship players. Moreover, 16 starters return from last year’s team that lost four games by five points or fewer, including narrow defeats on the road vs. eventual SEC bowl reps Tennessee and Mississippi State.

There wasn’t anything terribly wrong with the Blazer offense last season, but the "D" was a different story after allowing almost 32 ppg and ranking 105th nationally in pass defense. So Callaway, realizing his job will likely be on the line this fall, quickly moved to change the recipe by bringing in veteran coach Tommy West, who previously led programs at Clemson and more recently at Memphis, as the new Blazer defensive coordinator. West, very familiar with CUSA from his days with the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl, plans to keep the 4-3 looks employed by predecessor Eric Schumann, but will introduce more aggressive schemes in hopes of turning the Blazers “D” into a big-play platoon.

West’s stop unit returns nine starters, but his initial concerns will be to shore up a defensive front that lost a couple of playmakers in DE Bryant Turner and DT D.J. Reese, although a spate of injuries during spring meant that West won’t get a clearer read on his new-look DL until fall camp. For the moment, he intends to build the forward wall around sr. DT Elliott Henigan, who had 15 ½ tackles for loss last season, while an aggressive LB corps led by fire-hydrant size OLB Marvin Burdette (team-high 114 tackles last year) will be looking to blitz more often and bring a bit more pressure on opposing QBs afer UAB registered a modest 23 sacks a year ago. West is also looking for more big plays from his all-senior secondary after the Blazers recorded just 9 picks a year ago while conceding 24 TD passes, although the overall numbers were better than in 2009 when UAB’s pass defense ranked last in the nation when allowing a whopping 311 yards pg. Players to watch include shutdown CB T.J. Ballou & SS Jamie Bender, although the DBs and their penchant for gambling still resulted in too many big pass plays a year ago. Juicing up the pass rush could help; to that end, CUSA scouts are keeping an eye on soph DE Connor Boyett, who opened some eyes when moving into the starting lineup late last season after providing some consistent pressure from the edge. More secondary depth is likely to be provided by a couple of highly-regarded jucos, S Lamar Johnson & CB Calvin Jones, each of whom will push for playing time.

The Blazers stayed in most of their games last season because the offense uncovered a capable successor to catalyst QB Joe Webb, who moved to the Minnesota Vikings after spending what seemed to be a decade at QB in Birmingham, in the form of Bryan Ellis. It was Ellis who displayed a flair for the dramatic early in the season when leading a breathtaking late rally, including a Hail Mary TD pass at the final gun, to beat Troy (one in-state institution that is unafraid to play the Blazers) 34-33. When the smoke finally cleared last fall, Ellis had passed for nearly 3000 yards and 25 TDs while tossing only 12 picks, and was firmly established as the offensive catalyst. Ellis, now a senior, solidified his grasp on the starting job in spring, although depth is a bit of a concern after David Isabelle, who started the first two games last season, decided to transfer to Alabama A&M in the offseason. Ellis, who endured injury problems during his first three years in the program, is the only Blazer QB with any significant experience, as scheduled backups Joe Bento and Jonathan Perry have thrown all of two passes between them in their careers. Callaway and o.c. Kim Helton (another former CUSA head coach, previously at Houston) can at least count upon a veteran OL that returns all five starters from last season to keep Ellis protected in the fall.

UAB’s secret weapon on the attack side, however, is shifty RB Pat Shed, a 5'9 mini-back who accumulated 847 YR, caught 47 passes, and notched 177.1 all purpose ypg (third nationally) a year ago. A major focus of spring work was upgrading the receiving corps that lost top 2010 pass catcher Frantrell Forrest to graduation. Reports were encouraging, especially for potential homerun threat jr. Patrick Hearn, the star of the spring game along with soph deep threat Jackie Williams. But Hearn and sr. Nick Adams, two projected wideout starters, have fought injury problems throughout their careers, and need to stay healthy to make an impact in the fall. Callaway also brought in pair of frosh kickers to challenge incumbent PK Josh Zahn, who hit only 7 of 17 FG tries a year ago. Punter Trey Ragland is another possibility to assume PK chores.

Pointspead-wise, be careful before laying any points with the Blazers, who dropped their last four and five of six chances as chalk last season.

Summary...This is the year it has to happen for Neil Callaway, who fortunately has an experienced, senior-laden roster at his disposal to get UAB back into the bowl mix for the first time since 2004 (and only the second time in school history). As long as QB Bryan Ellis stays healthy, the offense should be able to trade points with most teams on the schedule, so the burden will be on new d.c. Tommy West to get the Blazers to play some defense if this coaching regime is to survive into 2012. Unfortunately, the early portion of the schedule is tricky (beginning with the opener at Florida), as the Blazers hook six bowl teams from last season in their first seven games. Callaway can probably save his job with a bowl bid, but the UAB season could also unravel before Halloween. In which case we might have to wonder whom Bear Bryant, Jr. might want to recommend as the next Blazer coach.

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