by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

UTSA is the youngest team in the Football Championship Subdivision--in more ways than one. Although UT San Antonio sports have been around for more than four decades, this is only the second season for the Roadrunner football program. Moreover, with only one season under its belt, the UTSA squad is loaded predominantly with sophomores, with a smattering of upperclassmen, plus a full group of incoming frosh and jucos.

But UTSA is thinking big. First of all, the Roadrunners are led by former University of Miami coach Larry Coker, who won the 2001 National Championship in his first season with the Hurricanes (the star-studded Ken Dorsey, Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed team routed Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl) after assuming the reins from Butch Davis. After a tremendously successful first three seasons with Miami, Coker’s teams began to wobble just a bit. And the head coach lost favor after some uncharacteristic losses (40-3 to LSU in the 2005 Peach Bowl) and then his job after the big, ugly brawl with Florida International in 2006, which brought Coker’s leadership and his grip on UM players into question. Seeking a clean re-start to his career, Coker applied early for the gig when UTSA (more than 30,000 students in a football-hungry state) decided to begin a gridiron program and ramp it up steeply to the FBS level.

So, after just one frosh-filled season as an FCS-level independent playing 10 games, the Roadrunners find themselves in the remade WAC, which was searching for new members after losing Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii to the Mountain West. But after 2012, the Runners will say “beep, beep” and speed away from the WAC.

After opening with a major fan-flourish in 2011, UTSA is set to take another big jump after this season, moving to Conference USA in 2013. The Roadrunners’ first-ever game last season drew a whopping 56,743. And for six home games, the Runners had an average of 35,521. Both of those figures are NCAA records for an inaugural program. So, with UTSA offering the Alamodome and its capacity of 65,000+, C-USA was eager to make the invitation.

For 2012, however, the Roadrunners will try to keep their necks above water, as last season’s schedule included no FBS foes, and the four victories in their 4-6 mark were against Northeastern State (Okla.), Bacone, Georgia State, and Minot State. Not exactly the SEC West. Thus, the 2012 slate, one of the easiest in the nation, will be much more taxing by comparison, with 12 games, including the first FBS foes that infant UTSA will face. The competition goes up another notch next year in C-USA.

It goes without saying that Year Two will remain mostly a learning experience for the soph-laden Roadrunners. But credit Coker for recruiting and training for the future by flooding his lineup with mostly true frosh last season and then letting them get as much experience as they could. Thus, nearly 20 starters return all told, although several are likely to be replaced due to position shuffling and after intra-squad competition in the fall.

6-0 dual-threat soph QB Eric Soza (left; 56%, 14 TDs, 9 ints.; 285 YR) started all ten games running UTSA’s multiple spread attack in 2011. While scouts believe Soza has an upside as the competition stiffens, he also faces challenges from 6-3 juco Tucker Carter (an early enrollee this season) and 6-2 RS frosh Ryan Polite (35 TDP as a high school senior). While they have promise, like all QBs, they are likely to be limited by the performance of their offensive line, which coaches admit is likely to be paper thin, at least for a while. Five sophs are expected to start, with LG Scott Inskeep considered the most talented and soph C Nate Leonard the unit’s leader.

Receiver is likely the strength of the attack, with 5-10 Brandon Freeman (30 recs. LY) the most precise route runner and 6-0 Kam Jones (right; 39 recs.; 127 YR; converted QB) the best all-around threat. Kenny Harrison and 5-7 Josiah Monroe offer big-play potential.

The nascent ground game did not blossom as expected last season. 5-9, 220 jr. Evans Okotcha (326 YR) provides a physical presence, while 5-10, 195 soph David Glassco II (149 YR) was No. 1 coming out of spring. Tiny 5-6, 160 soph Brandon Armstrong must be spotted in the attack, but has been praised by Coker for his explosiveness.

In most respects, the Roadrunner defense (21.4 ppg last season) is ahead of the offense. Coker has a four-man DT rotation with size that many established teams in the MAC and Sun Belt might envy. And the Runners’ 4-2-5 defense has experience and depth at the LB positions, beginning with sr. Brandon Reeves (69 tackles, 6 sacks) and jr. Steven Kurvehs (61 Ts). But the pass rush is dubious after top sacker DE Marlon Smith (a 6-6 former basketball player who had 8 sacks last season) reportedly left the team.

Coker is optimistic about the talent in his 5-man secondary, including 5-9 soph CB Darrien Starling (2 ints. LY) and 5-10 jr. CB Erik Brown. But the HC freely admits his DBs are yet to be tested by a quality aerial attack. At safety, soph Mauricio Sanchez (44 tackles in 2012) has locked up one spot, and juco S Code Berry showed a nose for the football in the spring after enrolling early.

PK Sean Ianno hit only 11 of 18 FGs in Roadrunner Year One and is being counted upon to improve this season along with the rest of the team.

Summary...Soph-loaded UTSA opens its second-ever season, appropriately enough, at fellow FBS newbie South Alabama, which is in its fourth year and survived a double-OT thriller vs. Coker's team last fall. Coker's team . Should be a “furious” battle for that W! And the Roadrunners close their campaign vs. I-35 rival Texas State of nearby San Marcos. That one’s for local braggin’ rights and perhaps for a few recruits. In between, the Runners should also have a good chance for victory against the likes of Texas A&M-Commerce, NW Oklahoma State, and perhaps McNeese State. Maybe even against some of its WAC foes, if Coker’s yearlings learn fast. There might be the inevitable whoopings (e.g., at Rice & at La Tech), but there are none of those deflating “pick up a paycheck” hammerings in visits to the SEC or Big 12 on the docket. Insiders say UTSA assistants firmly believe they have the core of a good young team. If the offense demonstrates expected development, the defense and the Astrodome home field should offer an opportunity for the Runners to take their next step up the FBS food chain with pride, maybe with a few pointspread victories along the way.


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