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UTSA Football Preview: Top 3 Offense & Defense Questions

Updated: 3 days ago


 UTSA Roadrunners quarterback Owen McCown
© Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

After another successful campaign in 2023 that ended with the program's first-ever bowl victory, the UTSA football team is hoping to build on that success in 2024. The Roadrunners kicked off spring football with their first of 15 practices on March 4th which will conclude with the Fiesta Spring Game at the Alamodome on April 13th. With UTSA scheduled to kick off the 2024 season on August 31st against Kennesaw State, let's take a look at three questions that must be answered on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.


 

three questions the UTSA football offense must answer


Who is the starting quarterback?

This is THE question the Roadrunners must answer correctly to have another winning season in 2024. There are big shoes to fill with the departure of Frank Harris, who finishes his UTSA career as the school record holder at the quarterback position in passing yards (11,862), passing touchdowns (92), rushing yards (2,145), and rushing touchdowns (28). While all of the individual statistics are impressive, most importantly, Harris led UTSA to a 39-13 record as a starting quarterback.



Sophomore Owen McCown and junior Eddie Lee Marburger enter spring ball as the top two candidates for the starting role. Both saw playing time in 2023 due to injuries and had games where they showcased their abilities. McCown's best performance was in a 35-17 bowl victory against Marshall, where he threw for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Lee Marburger's best performance was in a 37-29 loss to Army, where he threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns.


McCown looks to be the favorite to win the role right now, especially since coach Jeff Traylor and the coaching staff did not add another quarterback to the roster in the offseason via its recruiting class or transfer portal.



Prediction - The starting quarterback for the 2024 season is not yet on the roster, but he will join the Roadrunners when the transfer portal window opens for 15 days on April 15th.


is the offensive line play A strength or weakness?

Football fans know the game is won and lost at the line of scrimmage, so consistent offensive line (OL) play is key to a winning season. Let's take a look at the American Athletic Conference all-conference players from the OL last year:


  • Guard Terrell Haynes (2nd team)

  • Tackle Ernesto Almaraz (3rd team)

  • Guard Cory Godinet (Honorable mention)


UTSA returns three linemen with starting experience: Venly Tatafu, Makai Hart, and Godinet. Given that Godinet is the only returner with accolades from 2023, there will be plenty of opportunities for players to step up and build a strong cohesive unit that can drive the offensive attack.



Prediction - The OL is a weakness early, primarily due to two tough non-conference games at Texas and at Texas State, but will improve to be a middle-of-the-pack group in the AAC by the end of the year.


will the real Oscar cardenas please stand up?

UTSA has been blessed with strong performances from their number-one wide receiver over the past couple of seasons, with Zakhari Franklin in 2022 (94 receptions, 1,136 receiving yards, and 15 touchdowns) and Joshua Cephus in 2023 (89 receptions, 1,151 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns). While the Roadrunners search for their next top receiver, they need tight-end Oscar Cardenas to step up and deliver a production that matches his talent and potential.



Listed at six-foot-four inches and trimmed down to 265 pounds from around 285 pounds last year, Cardenas has the frame to box out linebackers and safeties for contested balls. In addition, he has reduced his 40-yard dash time from 4.95 seconds to 4.7 seconds, so he moves well for a player of his size. Per the table below, Cardenas had a disappointing 2023 season as his total receiving yards and yards per catch dropped significantly when compared to 2022.


Year

Receptions

Yards

Average Yards Per Catch

Touchdowns

2021

16

233

14.6

2

2022

31

438

14.1

2

2023

32

280

8.8

2

Prediction - Cardenas has his best season in blue and orange, finishing with 52 receptions, 752 receiving yards, 14.5 yards per catch, and seven touchdowns.


 

three questions the UTSA football defense must answer


who replaces the production of Trey Moore?

Trey Moore was a human wrecking ball on defense for the Roadrunners last year, finishing the season with 45 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, and a school-record 14 sacks. The 14 sacks were the second most in the history of the American Athletic Conference, and Moore was ultimately named Defensive Player of the Year. Unfortunately, UTSA lost Moore to the transfer portal as he heads up I-35 to Austin, and he will play for the Texas Longhorns in 2024. The challenge of replacing Moore mirrors the Roadrunners' experience when Marcus Davenport, the 2017 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, was drafted 14th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.



UTSA had 45 sacks last year as a team, which put them second in the AAC for total team sacks behind only SMU with 47 sacks. Linebacker Jimmori Robinson is the top returning defensive player in terms of sacks, as he had four-and-a-half sacks last year and will look to increase that total in 2024. Transfer Ian Jackson from Alabama is a player to watch, as he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school in 2021 and has the athletic ability to get home if he is allowed to hunt the quarterback.


UTSA Roadrunners linebacker Jimmori Robinson celebrates after a sack against the Marshall Thundering Herd
© Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction - UTSA will not replace the production of Trey Moore with one player, as that is too big of an ask. However, the Roadrunners will replace some of the production by committee and finish the year with 27 sacks as a defense.


will the secondary be a rebuild or reload?

Defensive coordinator Jess Loepp has a tough task to rebuild his secondary, as a lot of talent walked out the door after the bowl victory over Marshall in December. Cornerback Kam Alexander and safety Rashad Wisdom were both first-team all-conference selections. Alexander left via the transfer portal for Oregon, and Wisdom used up his eligibility, so he is hoping to play on Sundays now. Cornerback Nicktroy Fortune is also gone and had a solid year with 20 tackles, two interceptions, and nine passes deflected.



The Roadrunners landed an extremely talented cornerback in the transfer portal from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Denver Harris. On3 had Harris as a five-star prospect coming out of Houston and the third-best cornerback in the 2022 recruiting class. Besides spending time at LSU, Harris initially started his college career at Texas A&M after high school. Harris had some off-the-field issues in College Station that led to multiple suspensions and was also involved in a fight in a practice in Baton Rouge. Adding Harris to the secondary can be viewed as a high-risk/high-reward move, and the Roadrunners are banking on the reward side of that equation.


Prediction - The secondary will not be as strong as last year and will struggle against strong passing attacks. The defense will finish the year giving up over 245 yards per game and 25 passing touchdowns.


Can the defense generate more turnovers?

The defense caused 17 turnovers (10 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries) in 2023 and was tied for 71st in the nation with 1.3 takeaways per game. In 2014, Bill Connelly at SB Nation analyzed data from the 2013 college football season and determined that if you win the turnover battle, you win the game 73% of the time. Are you questioning if that data is still valid after 10 years? If so, the national champion Michigan Wolverines finished the 2023 season number one in turnover margin at plus 19.


The formula for generating turnovers in football is straightforward: win on first and second downs to force the offense into predictable third and long situations, allowing for creative blitz packages. However, replacing five key defensive starters will be challenging, particularly early in the season with less experienced players


Marshall Thundering Herd quarterback Cole Pennington is sacked by UTSA Roadrunners defensive lineman Trumane Bell II
© Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports


Prediction - When you consider the Roadrunners had a strong pass rush and a talented secondary last year, it is shocking they forced so few turnovers. Given this team will not be as strong in either area, look for UTSA to force 15 turnovers in 2024.


 

meep meep nation - will you be happy in 2024?


Yes and no! Both answers are true because it is going to depend on which side of the ball we are focused on. Assuming UTSA can solve the quarterback question on offense, they will continue to put up points and be one of the top offensive teams in the AAC. However, the defensive questions are much harder to solve given the loss of talent, and this will likely be more of a rebuilding year for that unit. If you enjoy high-scoring shootouts, then this will be a year you don't want to miss with the Roadrunners!




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