With only nine starters back and a starting quarterback with 27 career pass attempts, Head Coach Gary Patterson and his Horned Frogs need playmakers to emerge and some breaks to repeat last seasons 11-3 record.
Sophomore Shawn Robinson takes over for Kenny Hill at quarterback. Last season he completed 13-of-27 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns adding 169 yards on the ground. He started in a 27-3 road win over Texas Tech. The real battle is for backup where senior Grayson Muehlstein and Penn transfer Michael Collins are the frontrunners while four-star true freshman Justin Rodgers is a likely redshirt.
Leading rusher Darius Anderson returns while his backfield mate Kyle Hicks departs. Last season Anderson ran for 768 yards and eight touchdowns on a healthy six yards a carry despite missing three games. After running for 330 yards and seven touchdowns as the third option last season, look for 6’3 235lbs junior Sewo Olonilua to see an increased role.
Sophomore wide receiver Jalon Reagor made an immediate impact as a true freshman leading in yards and touchdowns with 576 and eight on 33 receptions. He averaged 17.5 yards a catch. Desmon White and John Diarse depart leaving talented but inexperienced options. Look for Jalen Austin, Jarrison Stewart and Dylan Thomas to see plenty of snaps alongside do everything senior KaVontae Turpin who splits between running back and receiver. In 35 career games, he’s scored 16 touchdowns in three different ways with 10 receiving, two rushing, three punt return and one kickoff return. Look for true freshmen Tevailance Hunt and Taye Barber to see time as well.
The line returns one full-time starter in junior Cordel Iwuagwu. Part-time starter Lucas Niang is penciled in at right tackle while junior college transfer Anthony McKinney is likely to start at left tackle. Sophomore Kelton Hollins, who has battled injuries the past two seasons, is slated to start at center. Senior Chris Gaynor is likely to start at the other guard spot. After having 22.5 percent of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, 114th in the country, improvement in the run game is a must.
The defensive line must replace all-conference end Mat Boesen who led in sacks with 11.5, 5.5 of which came against Baylor a single-game school record. The middle is stout with 300-pounders sophomores Corey Bethley and Ross Blacklock. Blacklock earned Freshman All-American honors after notching 20 tackles, 6.5 for loss and one sack. Bethley finished with 17.5 tackles, 3.5 for loss and one sack. Senior end Ben Banogu made an immediate impact after transferring from ULM notching an impressive 16.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He is joined by senior L.J. Collier.
Linebacker Travin Howard and his team-leading 108 total tackles depart ceding his spot to senior Ty Summers who notched 50 tackles, eight for loss and four sacks. Northern Illinois graduate transfer Jawuan Johnson is slated to start at middle linebacker. Arico Evans, Alec Dunham, and Montrel Wilson provide depth.
Interception leader safety Nick Orr departs leaving senior Niko Small, who has 24 career starts, as the leader of the secondary. Junior Innis Gaines, who had two sacks and an interception, is the starter at strong safety. Senior Markell Simmons looks to fend off junior Vernon Scott and sophomore Kerry Johnson in the battle to replace Howard at weak safety. Junior Jeff Gladney returns at one corner spot after snagging two interceptions and five pass breakups. Redshirt freshman Noah Daniels battles senior Tony James for the other corner spot.
Despite hitting all eight of his field goal attempts a season ago, kicker Jonathan Song lost his starting job to junior Cole Bunce in spring practice. Junior punter Adam Nunez is back after averaging 39.3 yards a punt with an impressive 30 downed inside the 20-yard line. Turpin and Barber are the likely punt returners while Reagor and Anderson handle kickoff returns.
The schedule does the Horned Frogs no favors after the season opener against Southern. A brutal three-game stretch- at SMU, Ohio State in Arlington, at Texas- will determine a lot about this team. The ending stretch- at West Virginia, at Baylor, OSU- is tough as well meaning the middle stretch are probably must win games. Still, this a Patterson coached team and he usually exceeds expectations just like last season.