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February 10, 2011

C-USA spring primer: Intrigue abounds

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Expect some changes at Conference USA school during spring practice.

Marshall and UTEP are looking for new starting quarterbacks. East Carolina needs tremendous defensive improvement. Rice is looking to upgrade its passing attack. SMU will be looking to shore up its back seven on defense. Southern Miss needs to rebuild its defensive interior while breaking in a new defensive coordinator. UCF has to find new leaders -- and new playmakers -- on defense.

Throughout the league, there will be more intrigue than usual during spring drills.

Here's a look at the start and end dates for spring drills, as well as a quick look at what each team hopes to accomplish.

Practice begins: March 21
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: It's vital that the Pirates make some strides defensively in the spring; too often, they simply were inept on that side of the ball last season. Coaches need to find some linebackers who can make plays. Offensively, the line has to be rebuilt after four senior starters were lost.
Practice begins: March 5
Spring game: April 9
The buzz: The Cougars have to replace three starting offensive linemen, but the good news is that QB Case Keenum has been given a sixth season of eligibility and RB Charles Sims is back after being ruled ineligible last season. The rush defense was horrible in 2010 and the Cougars have to get more physical up front. In addition, three starters in the secondary have to be replaced.
Practice begins: March 31
Spring game: April 23
The buzz: Finding a new starting quarterback should be the spring priority. The Herd also must find two new starting offensive linemen; the hope is the new linemen can add some punch to what was a poor rushing attack. The defense returns almost intact, but the loss of LB Mario "Thumper" Harvey is huge; coaches have to find a playmaking linebacker with Harvey gone.
Practice begins: March 16
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: The Tigers were uniformly awful last season -- on offense, defense and special teams. Three starting offensive linemen must be replaced, and finding the right guys is going to be important if the Tigers want to get their rushing attack revved up. Finding a tailback is important, too. Tightening up the pass defense needs to be the top defensive priority. The Tigers also need to find some return men; Memphis was 117th in kickoff returns and last in the nation in punt returns last season.
Practice begins: TBA
Spring game: TBA
The buzz: The passing attack must become more consistent, and coaches will be looking at a number of young receivers during spring drills. Defensively, the front six (the Owls run a 4-2-5 set) needs three new starters, including both end spots. The secondary returns four starters, but that group was torched often last season and must improve.
Practice begins: April 4 Final practice: April 30 (no spring game)
The buzz: The Mustangs lose only one starter on offense, WR Aldrick Robinson. Cole Beasley should move into the go-to receiver role, but the pecking order behind him needs to be determined. The Mustangs have a few more holes on defense, most notably at linebacker. Developing some depth at cornerback also will be important.
Practice begins: March 14
Spring game: April 9 Practice ends: April 11
The buzz: Finding a replacement for C Cameron Zipp looks to be the most important priority on offense. On defense, the Golden Eagles need two new starting tackles, and the secondary has to be revamped, too, after the loss of two starters. The new defensive coordinator is Dan Disch, who was hired Tuesday off the staff at Illinois.
Practice begins: March 14
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: The Green Wave have to replace their two best starting offensive linemen in C Andrew Nierman and T Pete Hendrickson. Finding a new tight end to replace the productive Cody Sparks also is going to be important. Developing depth in the secondary should be a defensive priority.
Practice begins: March 8
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: The Golden Hurricane need to find a feature back, and they also need to find someone who can adequately replace TE/H-back Charles Clay. Coaches also hope that a young secondary continues to make strides; Tulsa looks as if it could be solid on that side of the ball -- as long as the secondary is better than it was last season.
Practice begins: March 23
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: As long as the Blazers can revamp their receiving corps, the offense again should be a good one. The rushing attack should be fine with the return of four starting linemen and RB Pat Shed. Defensive tackle could be problematic, as the Blazers are losing three of their top four players at that position. The secondary returns almost intact, but that group did not play well last season and coaches will be looking for more consistency from the defensive backs this spring.
Practice begins: March 18
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: As coaches continue to get comfortable with young QB Jeffrey Godfrey, look for the Knights to become more diversified on offense. Finding two new starting offensive tackles is the spring priority on that side of the ball. Defensively, two new starters are needed at each level -- two ends, two linebackers and two defensive backs. But linebacker looks to be the only potential trouble spot.
Practice begins: April 1
Spring game: April 30
The buzz: Four-year starting QB Trevor Vittatoe is gone, and finding his replacement obviously is important. The Miners also need to replace four starting offensive linemen, and the new quarterback also is going to have to find a new go-to receiver. Defensively, the Miners must get more physical against the run.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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