Akron hosts UAB Saturday at Noon on Saturday September 7th on CBS Network and we asked Evan Dudley, UAB beat writer for Alabama Media Group (AL.com – Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register), to answer some questions in order to get to know Akron’s next opponent.
Hustle Belt: Can you give us your impressions of UAB head coach Bill Clark? How he has been so successful given how much adversity UAB has been through (UAB lost its football program for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, then in 2018, won the Conference USA championship with an 11-3 record)?
Bill Clark, hands-down, is one of the best coaches in the Group of Five and it’s easy to see why when considering his quick success in his first head coaching position on the high school level. He led Prattville (Ala.) to a 106-11 regular season record and a 23-6 playoff record with back-to-back undefeated title seasons from 2006-2007.
Following a nine-year career at Prattville, Clark took the defensive coordinator position when South Alabama started its program and eventually took the head coaching job at his alma mater (Jacksonville State) for a season before arriving in Birmingham and taking over the UAB program in 2014.
When you get down to brass tacks, Clark is a winner and verifiable program-builder. He’s the son of a longtime high school head coach and has been successful every stop in his career.
He spent the better part of the hiatus building a championship roster from scratch and doesn’t plan on shying away after losing more than 30 seniors from last year’s team. He is a stickler for perfect-practicing and makes no excuses for the loss of upperclassmen – especially considering he kept Prattville competitive in the highest classification of Alabama high school football for a decade straight despite losing Division I talent each year to the SEC* and beyond.
Aside from the coach, he’s a pretty cool guy and I had the luxury of getting to know him on a more personal level when we were both delayed at DFW on the same flight back to Birmingham after leaving early from CUSA media days back in July.
Unfortunately for your readers, and my followers, those conversations were off the record and between the two of us.
*Three members of Clark’s coaching staff are former players who played for him at Prattville: defensive line coach Kyle Tatum (Alabama OL/DL – Class of 2006), outside linebackers Nick Gentry (Alabama DL – Class of 2012) and wide receivers coach Larry Smith (Vanderbilt QB – Class of 2011).
Hustle Belt: What was your impression of UAB’s performance in a 24-19 win in week one against FCS opponent Alabama State Hornets?
My initial impression was not a favorable one but after some film review, and deep reflection, I’ve come to find that the Blazers were not as bad they appeared to be in escaping a potential upset at the hands of an in-state SWAC opponent.
The three main culprits responsible for UAB’s struggles were yards in pre-snap penalties, two uncharacteristic turnovers – a fumbled kickoff return that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing play and a fumble by running back Jonathan Haden on a 33-yard reception to the Alabama State 9-yard line – and a 1-of-13 performance on third-downs.
Other than that, the offense line paved the way for 176 rushing yards, courtesy of Spencer Brown, Tyler Johnston and Haden, and did not allow a sack in the game. Following an impressive goal-line stand with less than 10 minutes to go in the game, the Blazers held the ball for 6:09 before having to punt back to the Hornets and sealing the game on a Will Boler interception.
Defensively speaking, UAB had a good start after losing seven starters* from last year’s unit that set the school record for sacks (48) and tackles for loss (111), the CUSA record for shutouts in a season (3), which also led the nation, and was ranked in the top 10 nationally in almost every major defensive category.
The Blazers allowed 19 points against Alabama State in the season opener – two of the Hornets’ three scores coming within 12 seconds of each other in the first quarter on a 67-yard touchdown run on the second play of the Hornets’ second drive and a 16-yard touchdown pass on first-down after recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff - but were otherwise dominated by the UAB defense.
Not counting the two first-quarter scores, Alabama State was held to 177 yards of offense (78 rush, 99 pass) while giving up three sacks, two turnovers and a 3-of-15 performance on third-down.
The defense was effective for the majority of the game and came up huge on a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter with the Hornets threatening to overtake the Blazers’ 24-19 lead. Defensive lineman Garrett Marino was a beast with nine solo tackles and was named the CUSA Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
Surprising to no one who follows UAB, the special teams unit was solid outside of the fumbled kickoff in the first quarter. Placekicker Nick Vogel was 5-for-5 on touchbacks and booted a 46-yard field goal straight down Broadway before the end of the first half. Myron Mitchell electrified the crowd with a go-ahead 98-yard kickoff return to end the first-quarter scoring spree and Kyle Greenwell was solid on his eight punts with a 41.9-yard average and two kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.
*Junior cornerback Brontae Harris was lost for the season after undergoing surgery for a foot injury suffered on the second day of fall camp.
Hustle Belt: Will UAB be in the mix to defend its Conference USA title this year? How do you think they will do this year?
I believe the Blazers still have the roster and proper placement of experienced players to defend their conference title, but it really all comes down to the play of the offensive line.
The defense returns experience in crucial spots while also creating some quality depth with the rise of Noah Wilder at inside linebacker and Jordan Smith at SAM linebacker, along with Luke Brasher and Kobe Griffin. Garrett Marino anchors a young but talented defensive line while the secondary has elite speed and experience at the safety position.
Tyler Johnston and Spencer Brown are proven players who can get the job at their respective positions along with a bevy of young talented receivers and Jonathan Haden coming behind Brown as a change-of-pace back.
If the offensive line – which lost four starters who combined for almost 100 starts the past two season – can gel in its run-blocking, eliminate preventable pre-snap penalties and give Johnston ample protection for him to read his progression, then the Blazers can be a dangerous team.
Especially considering a manageable schedule before beginning a five-game stretch that includes road games at Tennessee, Southern Miss and North Texas to close out the season.
Hustle Belt: Who are some of the UAB players to watch for in this week’s game vs Akron?
There are the obvious names in Brown and Johnston on offense, along with Marino on defense, so let’s go with some guys I expect to step up and make some big plays this week.
All three starting receivers – Myron Mitchell, Kendall Parham and Austin Watkins – were held in check for the most part against Alabama State but should be able to take advantage of better protection from the offensive line giving Johnston time to find the open man. You can also expect Jonathan Haden to break a few long runs or quick passes with his size and speed.
Linebacker Fitzgerald Mofor manned the middle of the defense the past two seasons but made the move to the JACK position during the fall and it paid off with a sack in the season opener. Mofor is becoming more comfortable with the positon while Jordan Smith is an imposing presence at the other linebacker/end position.
Will Boler is a playmaker in the backend of the secondary and cornerbacks C.D. Daniels and Starling Thomas V, and ‘star’ Jarrion Street, have the speed to take one back to the house if they mange to pick off a pass while manning up against Akron’s receivers.
Hustle Belt: Does UAB have any injury concerns after last week’s game?
There were a few minor bumps and bruises in the opener but overall the Blazers are fairly healthy coming out of Week 1.
Linebacker Kris Moll has been slowed by a recent injury and was held out of the opener as a precaution. His status is day-to-day and an absence could be exploited if he does not take the field against the Zips.
Hustle Belt: What's your UAB vs. Akron prediction?
The Blazers lost a lot to graduation, but the program is on much more solid footing than what may be expected and the team should improve dramatically this week at Akron. The Zips are breaking in a new coaching staff and UAB is now a seasoned program with a proven head coach who can get the most out of his players.
UAB 38, Akron 13
Evan Dudley is a graduate of the University of Alabama's College of Information Sciences and has covered UAB football since the program returned to the playing field in 2017. While not on the sports beat, he enjoys playing electric and double-bass for various music ensembles, high-adventure outdoor activities and contemplating the far-reaching effects of Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones.
You can follow Evan Dudley on Twitter @DudleyDoWriteAL and read more about UAB on al.com/uab