The obvious choice on offense has to be running back Eric Shelton (6-3, 230). His performance in the Red-White game proved how he can just overpower defenders on one play then run around them on the next.
The quarterback spot is going to be a battle until the end. After watching Stefan LeFors (6-0, 190) and Justin Rascati (6-2, 210) all spring I can see why we probably will not get an answer until the week before the season opener against Kentucky. If incoming freshman Michael Bush (6-4, 225) can come in and learn to read defenses at the college level, as well as learn the new offense, he just may get the nod for the start against the Wildcats. With that said, I don’t have an impact player picked at quarterback as of yet, but Bush could fit that roll.
As mentioned above, the choice for running back is a no-brainer. Eric Shelton exhibited what he is capable of and I look for him to receive the majority of the snaps. Junior Lionel Gates did have a great spring and will see plenty of playing time as well, but Shelton should be the starter this fall and could very well lead Conference USA in rushing this fall. I know if I were a defensive back on our schedule, I would hate to see big number “32” break through the line and come running at me full speed.
Eric Shelton (ITV)
I believe that J.R. Russell (6-3, 190) will have a big year at wide receiver. He had the most consistent spring of any receiver. I had a chance to talk to Coach Paul Petrino and he also thought that Russell had the best spring of the receiving corp. With his size and Coach Petrino’s coaching, he should have a breakout season. I also look for Antoine Harris (5-11, 185) and Joshua Tinch (6-3, 210) to be big play guys. If Broderick Clark (5-11, 185) continues to improve and look like he did for the spring game he will get to start opposite Russell. Off the bench, I see Spillman (6-0, 190), Jimmy Riley (6-1, 190), Victor Glenn (6-1, 170) and Tiger Jones (5-11, 180) also seeing plenty of action. With the depth at the receiver position it will be interesting to see if incoming freshman B.J. Vickers (6-3, 207) can make his presence felt and see playing time.
The offensive line still has some questions marks, but I believe they looked much improved this spring. At this point the line looks to have 8 or 9 guys that can play in this system. Will Rabatin (6-1, 305) sat most of the spring and could compete for a starting job this fall. Jason Hilliard (6-6, 340), Jeremy Spencer (6-3, 315), Dan Koons (6-4, 285), Jason Spitz (6-4, 290) and Travis Leffew (6-4, 290) are the starters going into fall practice.
With a full year of experience now under his belt, I believe he will be a great lineman, the impact player along the line should be Travis Leffew.
Right now I would pick Bobby Leffew (6-4, 285), because of his impressive strength and his ability to play either the inside or outside of the line, as the overall impact player for defense.
The defensive line is a place where we have lost two great players the past couple years in Michael Josiah (Cleveland Browns) and Dewayne White (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). I believe that Leffew can be that next All-American candidate. Tyrone Saterfield (6-2, 305) looked real good this spring and finally looks like the recruit we all thought he could be. My surprise lineman is Montavious Stanley (6-2, 285). Even though he was highly recruited out of high school, he has stepped his game up and I think will be starting on line before the first game or not too far into the season. Scott Lopez (6-4, 270) is a steady player and is still holding onto the other tackle spot. Marcus Jones (6-2, 235) is very quick and deceptively strong. He may not be the biggest defensive end, but he does not get pushed around. I like Jones, Saterfield, Stanley and Leffew along the defensive line. This fall we add Kraig Shelton (6-5, 270) to go along with Brian Devine (6-4, 290), Matt Sanders (6-2, 255) and Jeremy Segiun (6-1, 270).
Bobby Leffew & Elvis Dumervil (ITV)
The defensive secondary is a spot that is solid 2-deep at three positions then it’s gets a little thin. Right now Laroni Gallishaw (5-11, 205) and Josh Minkins (5-10, 180) are the starters at the corners. I believe the move of Gavin Smart (5-9, 180) to defensive back was a good move, because he has great speed and breaks on the ball well. Give Smart time to adjust to playing on that side of the ball and he could become a great cornerback. J.T. Haskins (5-10, 170) made a believer out of me with a great spring. Kerry Rhodes (6-3, 190) and Brent Johnson (5-10, 200) were both impressive throughout spring practice and I believe they will step right in for the departing Curry Burns (Houston Texans) and Anthony Floyd (Indianapolis Colts). Backup at safety is where I have my concerns. This is where either Eric Miller (6-3, 200) or Thomas Miller (6’3, 200), or possibly both, might get a chance to play. Abe Brown (6-3, 205) is a solid backup for either Rhodes or Johnson, but the other safety spot is questionable. Ray Childs (6-0, 195) has never really developed into the type of safety we need. Domonique Dunbar (6-1, 185) saw playing time at corner this spring, but I am not sure if he has the mentality to be a safety.
At this point I like Kerry Rhodes will be the impact player in the secondary. He has shown that he can cover well, likes to hit and is solid in run coverage.
I believe that we have three very good linebackers in Robert McCune (6-0, 230), Rod Day (6-1, 220) and Brandon Johnson (6-5, 215). In fact, I could see one of them getting 1st team C-USA this year. Right now I would give the edge to Day. Day has the most experience and should be the leader at that position. John Cardoza (6-2, 235) is big and should surprise a lot of people at middle linebacker. James Greene (6-2, 220) and Jonathon Jackerson (6-1, 220) should be solid backups. Rod Day is my choice for impact player at linebacker and I believe he will become the leader of the unit and lead the team in tackles when the season ends.
We are set with kick returns with Broderick Clark returning. Punt return remains up for grabs, along with the punter position. True freshman Brent Moody may come in a start, but Wade Tydlacka was looking better towards the end of spring. Nate Smith should be the field goal kicker and Wade Tydlacka should remain doing kickoffs. Many football games come down to field position and to improve on the 7-5 record from last year, the punting game will play a big part.
To sum it up: I believe the impact players for the 2003 season will be Eric Shelton, J.R. Russell, Travis Leffew, Bobby Leffew, Rod Day and Kerry Rhodes. Yes, many other players will make plays and it’s a team game where you need 22 guys to play as a unit, but I believe the guys mentioned above will be keys to the team’s success in the upcoming season.