Spring Practice Preview: Sun Belt

Spring Practice Preview: Sun Belt

This article is part of our Spring Practice Preview series.

College football spring practices are firing up, which means RotoWire will be previewing key job position battles at schools across the country. This article will feature the top fantasy-relevant job battle at each school in the Sun Belt Conference and provide a projected outlook for each team's 2022 campaign. 

These are interesting times in the Sun Belt. As the conference expands to include the likes of James Madison and (maybe) Marshall in 2022, it loses its conference-winning quarterback (Levi Lewis) and coach (Billy Napier) from a year ago. While some of the big names from 2021 champs Louisiana have moved on, there is no shortage of talent in the SBC, as Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall and Appalachian State running backs Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples return to make their salvos for playing on Sundays.

The talent drain in Lafayette opens the door for either the Chanticleers or Mountaineers to grab the Sun Belt title this season. Both schools return battle-tested quarterbacks, and both have all of the tools needed to win the league. 

As with any conference, this spring will be about the 11 (or 12) teams in the Sun Belt finding the lineups that they wish to take into battle in 2022. Some have relatively cut and dry rosters, others have big decisions to make at the game's most important positions, and one has to overhaul its entire offensive scheme.

Coastal Carolina

Position of interest: Wide receiver/tight end 

The Chanticleers are the only Sun Belt team

College football spring practices are firing up, which means RotoWire will be previewing key job position battles at schools across the country. This article will feature the top fantasy-relevant job battle at each school in the Sun Belt Conference and provide a projected outlook for each team's 2022 campaign. 

These are interesting times in the Sun Belt. As the conference expands to include the likes of James Madison and (maybe) Marshall in 2022, it loses its conference-winning quarterback (Levi Lewis) and coach (Billy Napier) from a year ago. While some of the big names from 2021 champs Louisiana have moved on, there is no shortage of talent in the SBC, as Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall and Appalachian State running backs Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples return to make their salvos for playing on Sundays.

The talent drain in Lafayette opens the door for either the Chanticleers or Mountaineers to grab the Sun Belt title this season. Both schools return battle-tested quarterbacks, and both have all of the tools needed to win the league. 

As with any conference, this spring will be about the 11 (or 12) teams in the Sun Belt finding the lineups that they wish to take into battle in 2022. Some have relatively cut and dry rosters, others have big decisions to make at the game's most important positions, and one has to overhaul its entire offensive scheme.

Coastal Carolina

Position of interest: Wide receiver/tight end 

The Chanticleers are the only Sun Belt team to have played their spring game as of yet, though it was a limited showing as Grayson McCall sat out. The two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year will undoubtedly be under center for CCU next season, and while there remains competition at the running back spot, senior Reese White should see the lion's share of the carries with the departure of Shermari Jones

The real issue for head coach Jamey Chadwell is at the pass-catching positions. Gone are the Chanticleers' top three receivers from last season, including tight end Isaiah Likely, who earned an invite to the NFL Combine after posting 59 catches for 912 yards and 12 touchdowns. Also gone is Jaivon Heiligh, who led the team with 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Kameron Brown rounds out the trifecta of weapons who have departed Conway since 2021, leaving running back Braydon Bennett and his 24 catches for 295 yards as Coastal's top returning receiver from a year ago. 

Aaron Bedgood is a candidate to replace some of the production at wide receiver, though he impressed out of the backfield in Coastal's spring game. While he is listed as a receiver, his 5-foot-8 frame is more conducive to a running back. Another option that will be at McCall's disposal this fall will be Georgia State transfer Sam Pinckney, who put up 815 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020 before regressing last year as the Panthers struggled at quarterback. 

Chadwell and crew will be buoyed by the second-best recruiting class in the Sun Belt this season, one that addressed the Chanticleers' needs at receiver by securing commitments from three-stars De'Andre Coleman, Rian Black and Dami'on Thompson. 

As far as the tight end position goes, Xavier Gravette brings the most experience, and caught five touchdown passes in 2018. Coastal also inked three-star John Grant to add depth.

Appalachian State

Position of interest: Running Back

From a strictly football standpoint, Appalachian State's most challenging position to fill next season will be at wide receiver, as the Mountaineers must replace their top three pass-catchers from a year ago. However, from a fantasy football perspective, App State's running back room is where all the intrigue lies. 

It is increasingly rare in the transfer portal era for two players at the same position to both stick around after elite seasons, but such is the case in Boone, as both Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples are back for another season in black and gold. 

Noel was a revelation last season, as he led his team in yards (1,128) and carries (199). Meanwhile, Peoples saw a slight dip in production from 2020 in terms of yardage, but still managed 926 yards on 166 carries. 

While both backs have similar stats across the board, the simplest category of all is the one that separates them: Touchdowns. Peoples has four inches and 30 pounds on Noel, which meant he saw the majority of the goal line carries last season. As a result, Peoples finished with 14 majors while Noel registered just four. Because of this discrepancy, Peoples is the superior option fantasy-wise, but don't sleep on Noel in deeper leagues. 

Arkansas State

Position of interest: Running Back

You'd be hard-pressed to find a worse team rushing performance than the one that Arkansas State's running backs put up in 2021. The Red Wolves ran for 975 yards total last season, were one of two teams in FBS to average less than three yards per carry, and averaged the third least rushing yards per game in the nation. But, perhaps the most telling number of A-State's ineptitude on the ground is four, as in four rushing touchdowns scored all season. That's almost as impressive as it is sad. 

The leading rusher last season in Jonesboro was Lincoln Pare, who ran for 448 yards and a touchdown while racking up 283 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He returns in 2022, as does backup Johnnie Lang, but running it back (pun very much intended) with the same duo as last year will not fix the Red Wolves' problems. 

A potential solution may be Purdue transfer Ja'Quez Cross. An Arkansas native and former three-star recruit, Cross makes his return to The Natural State after playing sparingly in three games for the Boilermakers in 2021. Head coach Butch Jones also inked another three-star in Mike Sharpe out of Pinson Valley High School in this year's recruiting cycle. 

While the new blood should at least give Arkansas State's running game some modicum of hope, the glaring issue is size. Pare is listed as 5'8, 192 lbs, Lang is 5'8, 186 lbs, Cross is 5'10, 180 lbs and Sharpe is 5'10, 186 lbs. Without a bruiser who has the ability to fall forward for four to five yards on first down, the Red Wolves could still be near the bottom of the country in terms of rushing productivity come this time next year. 

Georgia Southern  

Position of interest: QB

With its hiring of former USC boss Clay Helton midway through the 2021 season, Georgia Southern signaled that one of the last bastions of the triple option was falling. Indeed, against the will of some boosters, athletic director Jared Benko will attempt to usher in a new era in Statesboro this fall, and it all starts with the quarterback. 

Justin Tomlin (who started the majority of the Eagles' games in 2021 and registered a 2:9 TD:INT ratio and 977 yards passing) is not returning this season, but would likely be out of the running for the starting spot anyways as Helton looks to move to a more balanced attack. Tomlin missed the last two games of last season with injury and was spelled by Connor Cigelske, who played admirably against two tough opponents in BYU and Appalachian State. Still, he has a long way to go in developing as a passer. 

Perhaps the favorite to land the job should be Buffalo transfer Kyle Vantrease. A pro-style quarterback who has spent the past five years at UB, Vantrease would represent a major philosophical shift from the dynamic athletes like Tomlin and Cigelske whom the Eagles have lined up at quarterback over the past decades. The decision is further complicated by the fact that Vantrease has never put up eye-popping numbers at Buffalo, as he threw for just 1,861 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games with the Bulls last season. 

Beyond being too abrupt of a shift in ideology, Vantrease's lack of mobility is also a concern because of Georgia Southern's offensive line. The Eagles need not look far for an example of how long it can take a line to come around after shifting away from the option, as poor offensive line play plagued Georgia Tech in the years following its move away from the triple. Vantrease would likely be under siege as the Eagles' line learns how to pass block. 

Whether Helton decides to gradually phase in a modern offense or goes whole ham and begins the season with spread looks and air raid concepts, the quarterback position in Statesboro is going to be an interesting (and potentially painful) watch. 

Georgia State

Position of interest: Running back

A big reason why the Panthers were able to play their way into a bowl game after a 1-4 start last season was improvement in the run game, and both of Georgia State's stars at running back will be returning to Atlanta for 2022. 

Last year began with Destin Coates as RB1, but ball security issues (three fumbles in his first three games, two lost) led to his benching and eventual transfer to Florida A&M. In his stead, Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams emerged to form a two-headed monster in the backfield. While Gregg ran for more yards (953 to Williams' 859), Williams averaged an elite 6.7 yards per carry on 128 attempts. Both backs each scored nine touchdowns. 

The wild card in the Panthers' running back room is freshman KZ Adams. At 5'8, 175 lbs, Adams might need time to fill out his frame, but he is a three-star recruit with major potential. 

As Adams continues to grow, the fantasy edge lies with Gregg, as his stocky stature ensures he'll get goal line touches over Williams. However, keep an eye on both in deep leagues, as Williams' yards per carry numbers leave head coach Shawn Elliott no choice but to give him touches.

Louisiana

Position of interest: Everywhere 

Hopefully Ragin' Cajuns fans enjoyed their 2021 Sun Belt title because 2022 could be a major step backward for a program that has become used to being at or near the top of the conference. Watching head coach Billy Napier depart for Florida is the big headline, but Louisiana has suffered losses all over the field. 

The most noticeable absence will be Levi Lewis. The school's all-time leader in passing touchdowns has moved on, meaning that the Ragin' Cajuns will have to find a new quarterback for the first time in three years. 

They'll also need to replace two of the most productive members of their backfield from a season ago. Montrell Johnson led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns a year ago, but he followed Napier to Gainesville. Emani Bailey looked like a revelation in his last four games with Louisiana (57 carries, 332 yards, five touchdowns), but transferred to TCU. The good news is that Chris Smith (who led Louisiana with 855 rushing yards last year) is returning, but that's about it. 

The situation at receiver is a little more stable. Louisiana's top two pass catchers in terms of yards are returning in Michael Jefferson and Peter LeBlanc, but even the receiver's room couldn't escape the transfer portal blues. Kyren Lacy led the group with six touchdowns last year, but transferred to LSU in the offseason. 

As if issues at the three skill position groups weren't enough for new head coach Michael Desormeaux, he also had a treacherous journey on the recruiting trail. Louisiana's 2022 class ranks 111th nationally (down from 69th a year ago), which is good for only seventh in the Sun Belt (they had the top-ranked class in the conference a year ago). Smith has fantasy potential and Jefferson could blossom depending on the quarterback situation, but this has the makings of a down year in Lafayette. 

South Alabama

Position of interest: Wide Receiver

Only two skill position players from the Sun Belt got invitations to the NFL Combine: Coastal Carolina tight end Isaiah Likely and South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert. The native of Mobile rewrote the USA record book during his time as a Jaguar, becoming the school's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. His 1,474 yards last year were good for sixth in the entire country.

With Tolbert moving on to professional aspirations, the onus falls to Jalen Wayne to carry the torch. Wayne acted as Tolbert's understudy in 2021, as he snagged 53 passes for 630 yards, but only two touchdowns. Caullin Lacy could see a larger role as well, and tight end Lincoln Sefcik should be a frequent red zone target, as he hauled in five touchdowns a season ago. 

The other element to consider is the quarterback situation. After a college career that spanned stints with South Carolina, Utah, and one final year at South Alabama, Jake Bentley is now a graduate assistant at FAU. Candidates for 2022 starter include Desmond Trotter (who made two starts in 2021) and Toledo transfer Carter Bradley. If USA seems to have their pivot figured out in the early weeks, keep an eye on Wayne as a waiver wire pickup. 

Texas State

Position of interest: Quarterback

The quarterback play in San Marcos last year was a bit of a roller coaster. Brady McBride started the team's first seven games and flashed some potential in gutsy overtime wins over FIU and South Alabama. However, he also proved to be turnover-prone, as he threw 10 interceptions before being sidelined with an ankle injury and replaced by Tyler Vitt, who has since moved on. 

McBride did throw for 1,507 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021, but head coach Jake Spavital felt the need to bring in another quarterback this offseason. In a pretty gutsy move, Spavital stole his new quarterback from a school in his own conference, as he pried Layne Hatcher away from Arkansas State. Hatcher traded starts with James Blackman in Jonesboro last season before assuming the role permanently and throwing for 2,423 yards, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. 

The question is just how big of a problem are Hatcher's command issues? In 2020, the pivot threw just two picks against 19 touchdowns, so to have that number jump to 13 a year later is troubling. If Hatcher can show Spavital and his staff that his bout with the turnover bug is behind him, he should be the front runner for the job. McBride's guile and experience with the offense should keep him squarely in the running all the way through spring camp. 

Troy

Position of interest: Wide Receiver

Troy returns its leading passer, rusher and receiver from a year ago, but the pass-catchers are the Trojans' most questionable group heading into 2022. 

While the receiving corps is by no means deep, first-year head coach Jon Sumrall knows he has at least one trusted set of hands in Tez Johnson. After catching just 18 passes in 2020, Johnson exploded for 67 snags, 735 yards and four touchdowns in 2021. Beyond Johnson, the dropoff is steep. No other Trojan had more than 357 yards receiving last season, and the player who put up that total (Luke Whittemore) has moved on. 

There is reason to believe that Deshon Stoudemire could be in for a bump in action this season. The Stone Mountain, Ga. native came into his own in Troy's final three games, making 11 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown. Coach Sumrall will also look for a big season from UAB transfer RaJae Johnson, who had 23 catches for 394 yards and a touchdown last season with the Blazers. 

Of course, good receiver play is somewhat dependent on good quarterback play, and barring a transcendent camp from true freshman Tucker Kilcrease, the Trojans should have a steady hand in Gunnar Watson at the helm this fall. While he isn't spectacular, Watson threw for 1,613 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions in seven starts last season. If he takes a step forward, Troy's receivers could too.

Louisiana-Monroe

Position of interest - Quarterback

ULM returns two of the four quarterbacks that attempted a pass last season, as Chandler Rogers and Jiya Wright will vie for the starting spot in 2022.

The edge as of right now has to go to Rogers. The freshman assumed the starting role after Rhett Rodriguez (who has since graduated and left the program) went down with a horrific injury against Troy, and put up solid numbers in six starts. Rodriguez took back the starting job for the final three games, but ULM went 0-3 in that span. 

Rogers didn't fare much better record-wise, as he won just two games as the starter, but a 9:3 TD:INT ratio (compared to Rodriguez's 4:3) bodes well for the future. Rogers is also a threat with his legs, as he racked up 367 yards and a touchdown on the ground last season.

Wright is a bit of a wild card. While his playing time came mostly in mop-up duty last season, he flashed against Appalachian State, throwing for 158 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions while also rushing for 91 yards and a score. While he might not be ready to start full-time, his speed might warrant a package of plays. 

James Madison

Position of interest - Quarterback

James Madison is making the jump to FBS football this season, and they surely wish Cole Johnson could make the jump with them. Alas, the pivot that threw 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions last year is off to try his luck in the pros, meaning the Dukes will have to break in a new quarterback during their first season in the Sun Belt. 

The leading candidate for the starting job is Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio. The senior started every game for the Rams last season, and put up some decent numbers, throwing for 2,958 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The majority of his picks came late in the year, however, as Centeio threw two interceptions in each of his final four games. He'll need to prove that he has cast aside his turnover issues in camp to lock up the starting role. 

The Dukes' leading returning passer from last year's team is Billy Atkins, but he had just 13 attempts. The team also inked three-star Alonza Barnett in the recruiting cycle, landing him over now conference rivals Georgia State. While head coach Curt Cignetti incubates his young talent, look for Centeio to act as JMU's bridge quarterback to get it through year one in FBS. 

Marshall

Position of interest - Quarterback

It's no secret that Marshall's most questionable position heading into 2022 is at quarterback. What remains to be seen is if Marshall will be playing in the Sun Belt at all. 

The Thundering Herd have made it clear that they'd like to join the SBC in time for the 2022 football season, but C-USA is trying to hang onto the West Virginia school for one more year. In response, Marshall has tabled a lawsuit against C-USA that would expedite their move to the Sun Belt. While we wait on a result, Marshall's schedule for next season remains in a state of flux, with the school website posting that they'll play a Sun Belt slate while ESPN shows a full C-USA schedule. Read More about Marshall in our C-USA spring preview article.

While the boardroom stiffs sort that one out, we can turn our attention back to the field. Marshall lost 3,500-yard man Grant Wells to Virginia Tech via the transfer portal in the offseason, meaning there will be a new name under center in Huntington. 

The Herd recruited like a school in need of a quarterback, as they signed three freshman pivots in Chase Harrison, Cole Pennington and Peter Zamora. Harrison comes with the highest rating, but the Pennington name carries importance in Appalachia. Father Chad was a standout at Marshall (and remains second all-time in passing yards and touchdowns) before playing 11 years in the NFL. Marshall's top returning passer is Cam Fancher, who attempted just six tosses last season.

While the freshmen become acclimatized, head coach Charles Huff will have one experienced option to lean on. Henry Colombi transferred into the program from Texas Tech, and brings with him four years of college football experience. While the numbers aren't eye-popping and Colombi has played in just 24 career games split between Utah State and TTU, he might be the Herd's best option, wherever they may play. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trevor Popoff
Trevor Popoff has written and worked for numerous publications in both Canada and the United States. He graduated from the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) in 2022.
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