It is rare in college football when the majority of your conferences best players return for an encore. Thankfully for the fans of the conference many of their top stars and best performers are coming back, including Heisman hopeful Case Keenum, Tulsa aerial artist G.J. Kinne, up-and-coming superstar Jeff Godfrey and a plethora of offensive weapons at SMU, Tulsa, Houston and Southern Miss.
But what wins championships, both real and in fantasy circles, are those next to burst on the scene stars. Here is one player to target and watch for during the 2011 Conference USA season for each team.
Tulsa: Alex Singleton, RB
Singleton is a name you should now as he is now the lead back for the Golden Hurricane. While the offense still will revolve around G.J. Kinne, Damaris Johnson and the explosive passing game, one must remember the role Charles Clay has played in the offense for the past few years and someone will have to step up and take those reps. Despite the presence of Clay, Singleton still averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored 11 times in 2010. Clay contributed 220 yards rushing, 43 catches and seven receiving scores. Watch for Singleton as a sneaky RB3 with a ton of upside for a breakout 2011.
UCF : Brynn Harvey, RB
Why recommend another Golden Knights rusher for a breakout season? Why not? Despite the return of Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray who rushed for over 1400 yards and 22 scores, the goal for the offense is to spread out the production and keep everyone fresh. The rushers need to stay healthy as UCF seeks another Top 25 finish. Harvey has the most talent of any of the rushers, so it also would not be a surprise to see him claim the starting gig from these two productive rushers.
Southern Miss: Quentin Pierce, WR
With the loss of DeAndre Brown and Johdrick Morris, Austin Davis needs another playmaker to step up and take the pressure off Kelvin Bolden. The answer may be Pierce, who registered 38 catches with four touchdowns in 2010 and can provide Davis with the skills need to replace the two talented weapons he lost. With the solid ground game of Kendrick Hardy and Davis, Pierce should have plenty of room to make an impact with the space the running game provides. He is a solid late round sleeper with the potential to be a solid bye week fill in.
UTEP: Eloy Atkinson, OL
Who is Atkinson you ask? He is the lone returning Offensive Lineman from UTEP with ANY experience. That is some kind of pressure to keep the offense moving down the field. With new faces under center and in the backfield UTEP may struggle to score in 2011, however if Atkinson can anchor the offensive line, the development should occur. If not, UTEP may be one of the uglier offenses in the entire nation in 2011.
Marshall: Martin Ward, RB
Marshall needs to find a running game. Period, end of story. In 2010, Ward was the teams leading rusher with 313 yards. Yes, 313 yards and a 3.3 yards per carry average. Yuck. With the departure of Quarterback Brian Anderson, more is needed from Ward to move the team down the field. He will have a short leash, but as the top returning rusher, he will get the first shot at claiming the starting spot. It wont be easy for Ward, as the Thundering Herd open the season at Morgantown against West Virginia.
Memphis: Skylar Jones/Andy Summerlin
How about this for some change. After a dismal one win season, Memphis saw its quarterback transfer to Miami, then see its own incoming transfer Cannon Smith
transfer to DB. After spring practice Andy Summerlin
was atop the depth chart but Jones, a dual-threat who is transferring from Wake Forest are neck and neck for the starting job. Jones was made immediately eligible because of an NCAA rule that allows a fifth-year senior to transfer without sitting out a year if he enrolls in a graduate program his former school does not offer. That and the fact Jones could compete for the starting job makes it likely he will open the season under center.
Rice: Luke Willson, TE
In order to get more production of their passing game, the Rice Owls moved leading receiving threat Vance McDonald, who scored eight touchdowns in 2010, from tight end to receiver so they can create more matchup problems and insert Wilson into a starting tight end spot. And why not? Wilson led the Owls in receptions in 2010 and also scored three times. Now with more reps, there is no reason why Wilson could not get upwards of 50 receptions, six scores and over 500 yards in 2011. Not bad production for a Ttght end in fantasy.
SMU: Darius Johnson, WR
We all know Kyle Padron, Zach Line and Cole Beasley are studs in the SMU offense in fantasy circles, but who is going to replace Aldrick Robinson’s 1300 receiving yards and 14 scores? That will be Johnson, who last year despite Robinson’s presence caught 78 balls and close to 900 yards. Now is the time for Johnson to take the next step and explode with a mammoth season. 90 catches, 1200 yards and 10 scores is all within reach for Johnson in 2011.
Houston: Tyron Carrier, WR
Darius Johnson meet Tyron Carrier. Two potent passing attacks, each having a starter replaced by someone with breakout potential. In Houston James Cleveland has left and with it taken his 57 catches, 800 yards and six scores from 2010. Despite Carrier catching 53 balls in 2011 he only scored once. Now as the #2 target behind Patrick Edwards, Carrier will blossom in 2011 thanks to the return of Case Keenum for a 6th season. Carrier should easily amass over 1000 yards and six scores and is a borderline WR2 in fantasy circles.
Tulane: Ryan Griffin, QB
The Green Wave are finally set at running back and if they are to take the next step and improve on their 4-8 2010 record under Bob Toledo, they need for more growth out of Griffin and there is cause for optimism. Not every quarterback is asked to be a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in early July. While there were many names you would know partaking, Griffin flew under the radar, which also explains his 2010 season, which saw Griffin complete 60% of his passes and throw 14 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. With a steady threat in Orleans Darkwa, Griffin should have passing lanes to toss the ball and grow in 2011. He may not be a breakout fantasy stud, but could develop into a useful and sneaky matchup play.