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UAB Blazers focus on running, stopping run

Neil Callaway, an old offensive line coach, knows the importance of being able to run and stop the run.

The second-year UAB coach needs only to point out last season’s results to reinforce that message to his players. The Blazers were among the nation’s worst in both areas and lost their final six games en route to a 2-10 record.

Coach Neil Callaway, second year school and overall (2-10).

Last year 2-10 overall, 1-7 Conference USA (sixth East).

Offense Athletic QB Joe Webb takes over after playing multiple positions last season. He’ll be behind more seasoned line but RB spot could be up for grabs. Transfers Aaron Johns and Justin Brooks appear to be top candidates to try to revive anemic running game. WR Frantrell Forrest tries to build on impressive redshirt freshman season.

Defense FS Will Dunbar ranked fourth nationally in tackles per game last season and LB Joe Henderson wasn’t too far behind. Much of front 7 still lacks experience. CB Kevin Sanders is a 29-game starter.

Special teams P/PK Swayze Waters was among league’s best at both positions.

Key losses QB Sam Hunt, OT Adam Truitt, LB Jacob Tauanuu, CB Zach Britten.

Opener Aug. 30 Tulsa

Pivotal game Nov. 1 at Southern Miss.

Outlook The Blazers return 19 starters from team that was incredibly young last season. They were picked to finish last in the CUSA East Division for second straight season. Webb has proven his versatility and athleticism, but now he’s the unquestioned starter for the first time. Key to season is likely figuring out how to establish a running game and stop the opponent’s ground game. Schedule includes visits to Tennessee and South Carolina.

“It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on,” said Callaway, whose 2008 team has been picked to finish last in the Conference USA East Division.

The first task offensively was finding a running back since nobody on the team gained more than 325 yards last season and the Blazers collectively managed a scant six touchdowns on the ground.

Transfers Justin Brooks and Aaron Johns and returnee Jim Mitchell were vying for the No. 1 job at tailback. Brooks is a former Troy player who sat out last season after transferring, while Johns spent two seasons at Alabama before going to junior college. He was out of football last season.

The Blazers’ running game ranked 104th out of 119 Football Bowls Subdivision teams last season and produced the program’s fewest yards since 1994.

“Some of it has to do with personnel,” Callaway said. “Last year we were so young up front offensively. That was a big problem for us. I do think we’ve improved there. Now, we’ve just got to find a running back we can hang our hat on.”

And a way to stop the opponents’ runners. UAB had the nation’s worst run defense a year ago while starting three freshmen on the defensive line.

Still, allowing 257 rushing yards a game was a little tough for Callaway to swallow.

“If we can’t stop the run, it’s hard to win football games,” he said. “It’s a personnel problem more than anything else, but we’ll be a year older up front.”

The Blazers do have last season’s No. 2 rusher and receiver Joe Webb finally settling in at quarterback. Callaway thinks the athletic Webb can be a “big-time guy” at the position.

He started nine games at receiver last season, while passing for 679 yards and five touchdowns with only one interception.

“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Callaway said. “As much as anything, he’s a great leader. He is a very hard worker. He’s kind of like a gym rat that is always around. I think he’s exactly what you’re looking for. He can run the ball, he can throw the ball. He’s not a pocket, polished passer kind of guy. But he does throw a good ball. The type athlete he is, the way he can move, I think that he’s going to bring an awful lot to the table.”

Webb said the perspective he gained at receiver can be an asset at quarterback. He’s glad to finally be running the show, though.

“This is my chance to show everybody that I can be a good leader and lead this team to victory,” he said.

The starting line could include three sophomores, but Callaway expects the group to be improved. The receiving corps also is full of young players. Frantrell Forrest led the team with 49 catches for 563 yards as a redshirt freshman. Junior college transfers Rodell Carter and Mark Ferell could make quick impacts and the 6-foot-5 Mario Wright gives Webb a big target.

Despite youth at several positions, the Blazers defense does return CUSA’s leading tackler, Will Dunbar at free safety. He ranked fourth nationally with 12.2 tackles per game and returned an interception for a touchdown against Florida State. Linebacker Joe Henderson was also chosen for the preseason All-CUSA team.

On the line, Bryant Turner, Tim Davis and D.J. Reese combined to start 30 games as freshmen.

“I’m still very concerned about our front seven,” Callaway said. “We still are young and inexperienced there. We’ll just kind of keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.”

Cornerback Kevin Sanders has started 29 games, and Brandon Carlisle was a part-time starter at the other corner.

Swayze Waters returns to handle punting and placekicking duties.

The Blazers open Aug. 30 against Tulsa and will also visit two Southeastern Conference teams, Tennessee and South Carolina.