Most Sun Belt football teams leave spring practice still seeking answers

LAFAYETTE, LA (The Advertiser) - Another year of spring football recently wrapped up for the Sun Belt Conference.

Florida International faces the challenge of trying to build off last year's success when the Panthers were conference co-champions and won a bowl game.

Troy has won at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the past five years, and Middle Tennessee has played in a bowl game in each of the last two seasons. But both have some vital holes to fill in the fall.

Three programs — Arkansas State (Hugh Freeze), UL (Mark Hudspeth) and North Texas (Dan McCarney) — took the first steps of moving forward under new coaches.

Here's a look around the league in order of how the teams finished in the 2010 conference standings:

Florida International Panthers

Head coach: Mario Cristobal

2010 record: 7-6, 6-2 Sun Belt (tied for first)

What we learned: The Panthers return 15 starters and more than 30 upperclassmen. They are expected to provide leadership for this squad "» Senior WR/KR T.Y. Hilton, the 2010 Sun Belt Player of the Year, will again be the team's top offensive threat "» The offense should be solid with four running backs, three linemen and senior QB Wesley Carroll back.

Lingering concerns: Todd Orlando is the new defensive coordinator. The players might need more time to pick up the system "» There's more depth than in the past, Cristobal said, but not enough to feel comfortable with going into the fall "» Cristobal feels better about his secondary and linebackers after a strong spring, but both positions still have question marks "» There's a need for more physical play.

Key position battle: Linebacker. Toronto Smith is gone, but freshman Elijah Maxey and junior Winston Fraser impressed the coaches in the spring.

Troy Trojans

Head coach: Larry Blakeney

2010 record: 8-5, 6-2 SBC (tied for first)

What we learned: The Trojans have some weapons to score points with sophomore QB Corey Robinson, the 2010 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, and junior RB Shawn Southward back "» Four starting WRs must be replaced, but the remaining options are bigger with speed "» The defense has improved depth, and the secondary should be better "» Junior DE Jonathan Massaquoi is the league's top returning defender.

Lingering concerns: Several key players missed all or most of the spring. They should be ready in the fall, but it's still a concern "» The offense lost three starters on the OL and four starting WRs. C Tyler Clark and WR Jerrel Jernigan won't be easy to replace "» The coaches want improved production at defensive tackle. The Trojans lacked consistency on defense last year, and those issues up front didn't help.

Key position battle: Receiver. Last year's top three receivers are gone. Chip Reeves and Jamel Johnson are the top two options ready to become bigger contributors.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Head coach: Rick Stockstill

2010 record: 6-7, 5-3 SBC

What we learned: The replacement for QB Dwight Dasher won't be announced until the fall. Stockstill likes sophomore Logan Kilgore and junior Jeff Murphy, both of whom played last year » Almost the entire starting OL missed the spring while recovering from surgeries, which allowed some younger guys to get reps in the spring » The coaches like their speed, athleticism and attitude on defense.

Lingering concerns: MTSU has new coordinators, Willie Simmons on offense and Steve Ellis on defense. It's always a transition for players after making such a change » Have to wonder how the starting OL will recover after sitting out in the spring » The defense lacks experience. Most of the questions deal with players in the front seven.

Key position battle: Quarterback. Kilgore and Murphy will continue to compete over the summer for the starting job.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Head coach: Todd Berry

2010 record: 5-7, 4-4 SBC (tied for fourth)

What we learned: At least 19 starters are expected to dot the roster for Berry in his second year in Monroe. The coaches liked the progress in the spring after a surprising 2010 campaign » Sophomore QB Kolton Browning continues to make strides following a strong freshman year » The Warhawks developed some depth during spring drills.

Lingering concerns: Last year the Warhawks were young in some key spots. They have to mature to improve next fall » After turning some heads in Berry's first year, ULM won't have the same luxury of sneaking up on people in 2011 » The Warhawks struggled to run the ball last year due to some questions on the OL and had some defensive issues with a sluggish pass rush.

Key position battle: Running back. Junior Mitchell Bailey, an Arkansas transfer, and sophomores Centarius Donald and Jyruss Edwards are fighting to be the starter.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

Head coach: Hugh Freeze

2010 record: 4-8, 4-4 SBC (tied for fourth)

What we learned: The first spring under Freeze featured some improvement. The defense has eight returning starters and played with energy » Junior QB Ryan Aplin passed for nearly 3,000 yards last year but could split time with sophomore Phillip Butterfield » An OL lacking experience caught a break as senior C Tom Castilaw got a sixth year of eligibility. He's expected to be a leader up front.

Lingering concerns: It starts with the OL, which graduated eight players. Three were all-conference selections » Freshman RB Frankie Jackson has to finish some academic work before rejoining the team in the fall. He should provide a boost to the run game with senior Derek Lawson also back » There's little depth at CB » Freeze has options at WR but wants more depth to run his up-tempo, spread system.

Key position battle: Offensive line. Castilaw, junior Eric Allen and senior Delano Moore are the only returnees with collegiate experience.

Florida Atlantic Owls

Head coach: Howard Schnellenberger

2010 record: 4-8, 3-5 SBC (tied for sixth)

What we learned: The QB spot is open with Jeff Van Camp no longer around. Juniors Graham Wilbert and David Kooi will continue to fight through the summer » Most of the OL is back, which should bode well for the offense with the return of senior RB Alfred Morris, who rushed for 928 yards last year » The defense is now using a three-man front to get more speed in the front seven.

Lingering concerns: Wilbert and Kooi haven't played much. Wilbert was on track to win the job before suffering a hand injury » The QB situation is key after FAU had 26 turnovers last year and struggled offensively » The Owls return two receivers with any college experience. Sophomore DeAndre Richardson (12 catches) is the only one with a collegiate reception.

Key position battle: Quarterback. The coaches hoped to have this question answered in the spring, but nothing has been settled yet between Wilbert and Kooi.

North Texas Mean Green

Head coach: Dan McCarney

2010 record: 3-9, 3-5 SBC (tied for sixth)

What we learned: McCarney, who replaces Todd Dodge, will lean on senior RB Lance Dunbar, who rushed for 1,553 yards last season » UNT is still trying to identify playmakers on both sides of the ball » Offensive coordinator Mike Canales was retained and has helped with the transition» QB Riley Dodge has transferred, leaving sophomore Derek Thompson as the only returnee with college experience.

Lingering concerns: According to McCarney, the Mean Green must improve physically between now and the start of fall practice more than any other team in the league » There's little returning experience at QB » The OL lost a lot, and the departure of LB Craig Robertson is huge for a defense that lacks size and talent.

Key position battle: Defensive tackle. Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen is still looking for someone to emerge up front.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

Head coach: Mark Hudspeth

2010 record: 3-9, 3-5 SBC (tied for sixth)

What we learned: Hudspeth brings a lot of energy, and it's trickled down to his players » At QB, senior Chris Masson and junior Blaine Gautier battled in the spring, but Hudspeth won't name a starter until the fall » Senior TE Ladarius Green will be in the running to be an All-American again » A new-look OL made strides » The secondary is strong, led by senior CB Dwight Bentley and S Lionel Stokes.

Lingering concerns: The starting job at RB is still wide open. Sophomore Aaron Spikes and Rob Walker will be pushed in the fall by a talented group of incoming freshmen » The Cajuns are still looking for some answers on the DL and at LB » There's little depth and experience at CB » Green needs another consistent playmaker to emerge at WR to keep defenses honest.

Key position battle: Quarterback. Masson is the likely front-runner with two years as a starter, but Gautier's playmaking ability will likely result in some playing time.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Head coach: Willie Taggart

2010 record: 2-10, 2-6 SBC

What we learned: Taggart said the players have learned to trust the coaches and vice versa. He expects that to eventually lead to big improvements in the fall » Senior RB Bobby Rainey will be a huge weapon again next season. He rushed for 1,649 yards and 15 TDs last year » Junior QB Kawuan Jakes is expected to start for a third straight year.

Lingering concerns: The Hilltoppers lost all three starters at LB. Thomas Majors is a big loss after racking up 105 tackles last season » Leading WR Marcus Vasquez is back, but there's little returning experience behind him » The backup RB job is still open between sophomores Keshawn Simpson and Antonio Andrews.

Key position battle: Linebacker. The loss of all three starters from 2010 has WKU looking for some new faces to step into the lineup.