Know Your Foe: Q&A With UAB Insider Nick Birdsong
The Owls suffered another road defeat last week, losing 35-16 to conference leader Marshall. With four games left on the season, time is of the essence and the Owls need to string a couple of victories in order to go bowling for the first time since 2008.
This week FAU will host surprise Conference USA team of the year the UAB Blazers. At 4-4 and 2-2 in conference play, UAB is in the same position as FAU, fighting for a chance to go bowling.
FAU students and alumni will have all Saturday to celebrate homecoming and get ready for the football game. Kickoff between FAU and UAB is set for 7 pm.
Special thanks to Nick Birdsong of AL.com for taking the time to answer our questions and offer his perspective on this week's game.
For more on Blazer football you can find his work HERE. You can also follow him on twitter at @birds_word. On to the questions.
Q: UAB has won eight games in three years, had former head coach Garrick McGee leave to become an offensive coordinator at Louisville, and has seen attendance drop to staggering lows at Legion Field. How hard is the UAB job with Auburn, Alabama, South Alabama & Troy all fighting for talent and funds?
NB: It's definitely a difficult job but so is any job at a non-Power 5 school when it comes to bringing in talent and securing funds. Granted, in Alabama it may be even tougher with Auburn and Alabama having such a stranglehold on sports fans here. Drumming up interest in other programs is always difficult. However, UAB's hired the right man for the job in Bill Clark. He's a proven winner and culture changer and he understands how to find talent, beginning in Birmingham and beyond, something that's evident with the number of local standouts that are shining this year and his staff's ability to pine the junior college ranks and find immediate contributors.
Q: After Garrick McGee left Birmingham, UAB endured a long wait to find their guy as coaches turned down the opportunity to be head coach for the Blazers left and right, with the lowest point coming from current secondary coach for the Oregon Ducks and former UAB running backs coach John Neal turning down the chance for an interview. Blazers finally got their man in Alabama lifer and former Jacksonville State head coach Bill Clark. How was the hire received by the fan base? At 4-4 and 2-2 in conference play, has Clark turned the tide in fan support in what has been a surprising debut?
NB: I think any UAB fan would tell you, despite the circumstances that led to him getting there, they're more than pleased with Clark. He was received with open arms from Day 1. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he simply wasn't McGee, a guy who rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way during his two years in green and gold but more of it had to do with what kind of guy Clark is. He's definitely boosted fan support. I believe UAB is ranked third in the conference in attendance right now and the formation of the UAB Football Foundation this week is even further proof of his impact. He'd have to be a strong candidate for Conference USA Coach of the Year if the Blazers become bowl eligible.
Q: With 10 current players hailing from Florida, how important is this game for recruiting purposes for Garrick McGee and the Blazers when they come down to play FAU?
NB: The FAU game is extremely important for everyone on the Blazers roster simply because it'd put them a game away from bowl-eligibility but it has an added sentimental value for the guys on the team from Florida. Florida is a football state and for the guys, who've left it to play college ball, they want to show their home state folks they'r representing well elsewhere, especially guys such as Blazers offensive lineman Brian O'Leary. He comes from a family with deep football roots and is a cousin of FSU tight end Nick O'Leary.
Q: When overseeing a rebuilding job many head coaches go the Junior College route for quick fixes and McGee did no different, signing 14 from the JUCO ranks in his first class. One of the 14 was starting quarterback, Cody Clements. Clements has thrown 10 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions for 1540 yards so far on the year. How effective has Clements been this year? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
NB: Clements has been extremely effective this season. He's a natural-born leader and has ranked in the top 5 in the nation in completion percentage. He's also a guy who can get out of the pocket and make some things happen with his feet but gets himself into trouble sometimes when he's more willing than he should to lower his shoulder as opposed to sliding.
Q: Coming into the season many FAU fans pegged this game as an easy win. Now that the games have been played, Owl fans are cautiously optimistic heading into this week's homecoming game. One of the reasons why is FAU's ability to stop the run and UAB's penchant to establish the run, as Clark has brought over his run balanced offense over from Jacksonville St. to Birmingham. The Blazers are averaging 200 yards per game on the ground. What type of offense do the Blazers run out of? Who are the key players Owl fans should be on the lookout for?
NB: The Blazers operate out of the shotgun almost exclusively. They use a single back set and rotate sophomore Jordan Howard and senior D.J. Vinson at running back. Senior wide receiver J.J. Nelson is a speedster and the Blazers' biggest threat on special teams as a returner and in the passing game as a deep threat. Sophomore Jamari Staples, at 6-foot-4, 190-pounds can challenge defenses vertically and both tight ends Kennard Backman and Gerald Everett have NFL size and pass-catching ability.
Q: Like many teams in the offensively driven Conference USA, their defense has struggled and UAB is no different. The Blazers have allowed 406 yards to a tune of 30 points per game on the year. On the road the Blazers have allowed 41 points per game. What type of defense does UAB implement? What has been the issues on this side of the ball? Who are the key players Owl fans should lookout for?
NB: The Blazers change up their scheme on week-to-week basis based on what their opposition runs and how their personnel suits what they're up against. They're thin in the defensive backfield, due to a pair of early-season injuries and have had to play musical chairs at several positions back there. Diaheem Watkins is their best defensive lineman and Jake Ganus is a leader among the linebacker corps. Lake Wales product JUCO transfer Rolan Milligan has really come along the last two games at safety. He recorded 13 tackles at Arkansas.
Q: Special teams can play a crucial role in determining who leaves the field the winner. FAU's Lucky Whitehead has been electric on special teams whereas the kicking game has yet to get on track as Greg Joseph is 11-16 on the year with a long of 43 yards. How has the special teams unit performed for UAB this year?
NB: UAB excels on special teams. Kicker Ty Long recently became the school's all-time leader in scoring and is a few kicks away from tying the school mark for field goals made. Hunter Mullins is fourth in Conference USA at 44.6 yards per punt. Nelson is third in the country in kickoff return average. He has two 100-yard returns for scores for touchdowns, the most recent of which came at Arkansas, helping him earn league Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season.
Q: Prediction time! Its homecoming week for FAU. With it being a night game the energy should be electric for the Owls. FAU has been excellent at FAU stadium averaging 45 points and 515 yards per game. The defense, although prone to give up yards, has forced seven turnovers while at home giving a FAU turnover ratio while at home a plus four. However, UAB has the formula to pull off the road upset with a run balance offense, and have already pulled off a road conference win, beating Western Kentucky 42-39 earlier this season. Do the Blazers have enough to pull off another?
NB: The Blazers have enough talent to win on the road. However, think a lot of hinges on their ability to find their magic in the passing game again. If they can do that. Things could be interesting.