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Conference USA 2013 season preview

Kickers Cairo Santos of Tulane and Chris Boswell of Rice might be C-USA's top pro prospects.

Conference USA was riding relatively high two seasons ago. Houston quarterback Case Keenum seemingly was setting an NCAA record every time he completed a pass, and his Cougars were in the running for a BCS bid until being shocked in the league championship game. A lot has changed since -- for the worst.

C-USA is one of the weakest leagues in the nation. The league lost three of its strongest programs -- Houston, SMU and Central Florida -- to the new American Athletic Conference. Memphis also left for the AAC. Next season, Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa also will depart for the AAC. Newcomers to the league this season are Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas from the Sun Belt, and Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio from the now-defunct WAC.

Despite the talent drain, there still are some NFL prospects -- but two of the best three are kickers in Rice's Chris Boswell and Tulane's Cairo Santos. In fact, despite winning only 13 games in the past five seasons, Tulane has two of the top three prospects in the league; the other is WR Ryan Grant. There should be a lot of high-scoring games in C-USA this fall, meaning there will be a lot of entertaining games involving middling teams.

October 20, 2012; Hattiesburg, MS, USA; Southern Miss Golden Eagles quarterback Arsenio Favor (6) takes off on a fourth quarter, 12-yard touchdown run, during the game between the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and the Marshall Thundering Herd at M.M. Roberts Stadium. (Chuck Cook - US PRESSWIRE)
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Check out special college football uniforms worn during the 2012 season.

Top senior prospects


Rice K Chris Boswell: He was considered one of the nation's top five kickers in the 2009 recruiting class, and, after redshirting that fall, he generally has lived up to his billing. He is the No. 1 kicking prospect in the nation. Boswell (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) was 23-of-29 on field-goal attempts last season, including 6-of-8 from at least 50 yards. He had the most 50-yard field goals of anyone in the nation last season and nailed a 57-yarder. (He has 11 successful 50-yard attempts in his career.) And 49 of his 80 kickoffs were touchbacks. His 51 career field goals are the second-most among current players (Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro has 54).

Louisiana Tech DT Justin Ellis: The squatty Ellis (6-2, 330) is a space-eater in the middle. He holds up well against the run and can muck up things in the middle. He strictly is a run-stuffer. Ellis was bothered by an ankle injury last season and missed three games.

Rice CB Phillip Gaines: Gaines (6-1, 185) already has played 39 career games, but received a fifth year because of his injury history. That injury history makes him an iffy pro prospect. He missed time as a true freshman in 2009 with a wrist injury, then played in only five games in 2011 because of a foot injury. He also missed spring drills this year with an undisclosed injury. Gaines has good size and average speed, but while he has 29 career pass breakups, he has zero interceptions.

Tulane WR Ryan Grant: Tulane is a bad program, but don't hold that against Grant (6-1, 193), who has a nice mix of size and speed. He had 76 receptions for 1,149 yards and six touchdowns last season, his first as a full-time starter. Those stats came on a team that rushed for 475 yards total all season. In other words, Grant was the Green Wave's only legitimate offensive weapon. He was a part-time starter in 2010, then missed all but one game in 2011 with a sports hernia. Grant was in coach Curtis Johnson's doghouse shortly after Johnson took over after the 2011 season, but Johnson now praises Grant for his work ethic, leadership ability and overall talent. Johnson was the New Orleans Saints' wide receivers coach before leaving for Tulane.

Marshall FB/H-back Gator Hoskins: Hoskins (6-2, 242), whose given name is Harold Jr., plays tight end for the Thundering Herd but projects as a fullback/H-back at the next level. Hoskins has good hands, and 13 of his 49 career receptions have gone for touchdowns. He needs to improve his blocking but could be a weapon as a receiving fullback. Hoskins was a high school quarterback in Gainesville, Fla., and was recruited as a wide receiver by Marshall.

East Carolina TE Justin Jones: He has only 52 career catches, but his size (6-8, 272) and ability to find the end zone -- he has 12 career touchdown receptions -- make him an interesting prospect. Jones has been an inside receiver in ECU's pass-happy offense but projects as a pass-catching tight end in the NFL. He has good hands and runs well for his size; he also has a 33.5-inch vertical leap. While Jones played tight end in high school, he was known primarily for his work as a defensive end on the prep level. He is a raw prospect but one who could pay off big.

Tulsa FS Marco Nelson: Nelson (6-0, 192) will be a four-year starter who has been productive since his arrival at Tulsa. Nelson runs well and isn't afraid to stick his nose in against the run; he has 239 career tackles to go with eight interceptions, 14 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He might be best suited for strong safety at the next level. Nelson was a high school running back who never had played safety until moving there during practice before his freshman season at Tulsa.

Tulane K Cairo Santos: If Boswell isn't the best kicker, it's this guy instead. Santos (5-8, 160) is a small guy with a huge leg. He was magnificent last season, going 21-of-21 on field-goal attempts. He was 12-of-12 on attempts of at least 40 yards, including 2-of-2 from at least 50 (the first two 50-yarders of his career), and nailed a 57-yarder. In addition, 31 of his 55 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

East Carolina OG Will Simmons: Simmons (6-5, 342) is a huge presence on the interior and will be a three-year starter. He can be a road grader in the running game, but given ECU's love of the pass, he has spent a lot of time in pass protection. He is physical, but he also is slow.

Southern Miss DT Khyri Thornton: Southern Miss was a disaster last season, finishing 0-12. However, Thornton (6-3, 308) still played steady football. He had 36 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss, and picked up a sack against Louisville. He has good quickness for a 300-pounder but could become more physical. Thornton was a high-level recruit out of high school in the 2008 class, drawing interest from Clemson, Florida State and South Carolina, among others, but academic shortcomings forced him to a prep school. After one year at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy, then redshirting at Southern Miss in 2009, Thornton has been solid for the Golden Eagles.

Tulsa RB Trey Watts: Watts (5-11, 190) was the leading rusher (1,108 yards) for a powerful ground game last season. He has rushed for 2,186 yards in his career, but has only seven rushing touchdowns. He lacks top-flight speed, but is a proficient receiver with 85 career receptions. He also has experience as a return man on kickoffs and punts, with three return touchdowns in his career.

Southern Miss CB Deron Wilson: Wilson (5-10, 181) has started all 39 games of his college career, but has been inconsistent. He has eight interceptions (three of which he returned for touchdowns) and 34 pass breakups in his career. He was good in run support last season, but his coverage was spotty.

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Top underclassmen


Tulsa OG Jake Alexander: Tulsa was ninth nationally in rushing offense last season, and Alexander (6-2, 295), a junior, is one of two returning starters along the offensive line for the Golden Hurricane. He is especially proficient as a run blocker and is a solid technician, not surprising considering his dad, David, played center for the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. Jake Alexander lacks ideal height, but his physical nature helps him make for up for it.

Middle Tennessee SS Kevin Byard: After redshirting as a true freshman in 2011, Byard (5-11, 216) made a big impact for the Blue Raiders last season. He had 74 tackles, four interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns), two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He lacks top-flight speed, but he is a big hitter with good instincts. Byard is from Atlanta and was a first-team all-state player in Georgia's second-largest high school classification.

Marshall QB Rakeem Cato: Cato (6-0, 182) was fifth in the nation last season in passing yards (4,201) and had 37 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions to earn MVP honors in Conference USA. He plays in a pass-happy offense, and there are questions about his slight frame (though he has gained about 30 pounds since arriving at Marshall), mobility and arm strength. But he sure can pile up the stats. Cato is one of the most prolific passing quarterbacks in Miami-Dade County history, and he led Miami Central to a 2010 state title in Florida's largest prep classification.

Rice DT Christian Covington: Covington (6-3, 290), a sophomore from Canada, quietly put together an impressive redshirt freshman campaign last fall. He is athletic for a 290-pounder, and used that trait and good strength to pile up 44 tackles, five sacks and 10 tackles for loss. His dad, Grover, is in the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame as a defensive end, and his sister, Asianna, runs track at Georgia.

Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon: He was a scoring machine as a true freshman last season, leading the nation with an NCAA-freshman-record 27 rushing touchdowns. Dixon (6-0, 215) isn't a breakaway threat, but he's tough between the tackles. Dixon ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns against Texas A&M. He had six games with at least 18 carries, including 19 against the Aggies, and three with at least 20. His receiving ability is a question.

East Carolina WR Justin Hardy: Hardy was one of the nation's most productive receivers last season, when he had 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hardy (6-0, 186), a junior, has 152 career receptions and has scored 17 times. He's an inside receiver in the Pirates' offense and needs to become more well-rounded. While he's not a burner, he has relatively good speed.

Marshall SS D.J. Hunter: Hunter (6-0, 205) was a C-USA all-freshman pick last season as a redshirt freshman linebacker but has moved to his more natural position of strong safety this season. Hunter runs well (he was clocked in 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash in high school) and is a big hitter. His background, though, will give a lot of teams pause. He was a consensus top-20 cornerback nationally as a senior at Middletown (Ohio) High in the 2009 recruiting class and committed to Tennessee. But in January of 2009, Hunter shot a BB gun from a vehicle and one of the BBs hit a 15-year-old boy in the face. Hunter pleaded guilty to felonious assault and was given 180 days in jail and five years of probation, which included a five-year ban on playing athletics. The ban was lifted after 18 months and Hunter signed with Marshall. He went through spring drills in 2011, but was injured in a workout and had to redshirt. Hunter made 102 tackles last fall.

Marshall C Chris Jasperse: Jasperse (6-4, 283), a junior, will be starting for the third season this fall after beginning his career as a walk-on. He has done a nice job dealing with Marshall's fast-paced offense and a lot of shotgun snaps. He could stand to become more physical, though.

North Texas OG Cyril Lemon: Lemon (6-3, 321) has started all 24 games of his college career. He is a proficient pass blocker and helped North Texas lead the nation in fewest sacks allowed (only six in 375 passing attempts). Lemon has good size but could stand to become a bit quicker and more physical at the point of attack.

Marshall FS Taj Letman: Letman (6-3, 195) is a junior college transfer who went through spring practice and is set to start at free safety. Letman, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining, has excellent size, can run and is a good athlete. His physicality is a question, but Letman and the aforementioned Hunter definitely give the Herd a high-ceiling duo at safety.

UAB K Ty Long: Long has a good leg but still is only the third-best kicker in the league. He was 30-of-36 on field-goal attempts in his first two seasons, and hasn't missed a kick inside 40 yards. Long was 7-of-10 from beyond 40 yards last season and kicked two field goals of more than 50 yards; his three misses were from 47, 52 and 56 yards. In addition, half of his 64 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

Tulsa ILB Trent Martin: Martin (6-2, 242), a sophomore, missed five games with a leg injury last season (he also had a leg injury as a high school junior), but, when healthy, he showed good instincts and was solid against the run. Martin lacks speed but is a tough, physical player.

Louisiana Tech FS Terrell Pinson: Big things were expected from Pinson when he signed with West Virginia in February out of junior college. Alas, he lacked the necessary math credits to enroll at WVU and ended up signing with the Bulldogs. He has excellent size (6-3, 210), runs well and was productive at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi last season, making four picks and five pass breakups. Will he play with the needed consistency and intensity?

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Marshall WR Tommy Shuler: The Herd had two senior receivers last year, including one (Aaron Dobson) who was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. But Shuler (5-8, 187) was the Herd's leading receiver last fall, by a large margin. He had 110 receptions, fourth-most in the nation, for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns. Shuler works well with quarterback Rakeem Cato, not surprising considering the two were prep teammates at powerful Miami Central. Shuler has excellent speed and is elusive, but he needs to get stronger, run more disciplined routes and show he can get into the end zone more often.

Marshall P Tyler Williams: Williams averaged 45.2 yards per punt as a true freshman last fall, but didn't have enough attempts to qualify for the national statistical rankings. Of his 43 punts, 13 traveled 50-plus yards and 16 were downed inside the 20.

Eight must-see games of 2013


Aug. 31, Rice at Texas A&M: Rice defensive tackle Covington will try to make an impression on Johnny Manziel, provided he is not suspended. A&M's interior offensive line has undergone some changes, so the play of Covington and Shahin bears watching. Gaines will have an opportunity to make some plays against what should be a high-powered passing attack.

Sept. 7, Southern Miss at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a good offensive line, so Thornton will get a stern test. Wilson vs. Huskers wide receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa could be interesting, too.

Sept. 14, Tulsa at Oklahoma: "Little brother" goes against his bigger sibling in this in-state matchup. In three games against major competition last season, Watts rushed for 355 yards and a touchdown; he also caught nine passes in those games. Alexander, Martin and Nelson also have a chance to make some noise against a high-profile opponent.

Sept. 14, Virginia Tech at East Carolina: This is a rare visit to a C-USA campus from a major-conference foe. In five career games against "big" competition, Hardy has 36 receptions. Grove will be going against a questionable offensive line, so his 10th career double-digit tackle game is a possibility.

Sept. 21, Marshall at Virginia Tech: Can Cato have success? If he does, chances are Shuler has a big game, too. The Herd secondary will try to slow talented Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas, but Thomas has few proven wide receivers with whom to work.

Sept. 21, Tulane at Syracuse: This is the only game Tulane plays against a "big league" school. In two games against major-conference competition last season, Grant had 12 receptions for 165 yards but no touchdowns. Syracuse's secondary should be one of the worst in the ACC, so Grant could put up big numbers and garner some more national attention. In addition, this will be one of seven games this season in which Santos will get to kick in a dome.

Oct. 5, Rice at Tulsa: On paper, these are the two best teams in the C-USA West Division. Watts has only 75 rushing yards in two career games against the Owls. Can Alexander and the rest of Tulsa's offensive linemen control Covington?

Nov. 29, East Carolina at Marshall: This regular-season finale could determine the C-USA East Division title. These are two pass-happy teams. Can Marshall's safeties handle the Pirates' receivers? Can Grove help stifle Marshall's running game?

Follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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