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MWC finds itself wanting in draft

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The Mountain West Conference, for years desperate for inclusion in the Bowl Championship Series, saw once again over the weekend that it just doesn't stack up — talent wise — with teams from the big-time college football conferences.

Consider: The University of Miami had six of its players selected in the first round of the NFL draft, while the MWC — all eight teams combined — had none. In fact, the MWC schools didn't have a player selected in the second, third or fourth rounds, either. It wasn't until San Diego State's Jeff Shoate was picked in the fifth round that a player from the league was selected.

In all, seven players from MWC schools — for an average of less than one per — went in the NFL draft's seven rounds this season. Utah, the outright conference champ last season, failed to have a player selected. Ohio State, by comparison, had 14.

Granted, it was a down year for the MWC as far as the draft is concerned. The league has averaged 10 NFL drafted players per season in its five year history. Still, it shows that there is a disparity in the NFL-caliber talent between schools in the BCS leagues and the rest of Division I-A football. The MWC, after all, is arguably the best of the five non-BCS leagues. If anything, the NFL draft speaks volumes about how well the MWC teams do in getting the most out of their abilities against BCS competition considering the talent differential. Just two MWC teams last season (BYU and Wyoming) failed to finish with a .500 or better overall record.

In any event, the MWC will continue to battle for respectability, this season — and likely come up short on a national scale. With the majority of the teams breaking in new quarterbacks and with numerous holes to fill, Utah looks like it may be the only school capable of making a dent in the national rankings in 2004.

With spring practices completed, here's a brief look at each MWC football team entering the summer months in last season's order of conference finish:

UTAH

2003 Record: 10-2 overall, 6-1 MWC (1st)

Starters returning — 17

Key players — QB Alex Smith, WR Paris Warren, DB Morgan Scalley, OL Chris Kemoeatu, KR/DB Bo Nagahi, DL Steve Fifita

Key losses — RB Brandon Warfield, TE Ben Moa, DB Dave Revill, DL Josh Savage, LB Ray Holdcraft, DB Arnold Parker

Outlook: The second year of the Urban Meyer era appears even brighter than the first — which could be a problem. Utah, picked to finish in the lower half of the league last year, won't sneak up on anyone this time around. Still, the Utes have confidence, the league's best returning quarterback, a strong defense and four conference home games. The loss of Warfield will hurt, but the running back position will be deeper with more options than last season. In other words, don't be surprised if the Utes spend New Year's Eve in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl once again.

NEW MEXICO

2003 Record — 8-5 overall, 5-2 MWC (2nd)

Starters returning — 10

Key players — RB DonTrell Moore, RB D.D. Cox, OL Robert Turner, OL Claude Terrell, OL Ryan Cox, LB Nick Speegle, DB Gabriel Fulbright

Key losses — QB Casey Kelly, OL Jason Lenzmeier, OL Justin Colburn, WR Dwight Counter, WR Adrian Boyd, DB Brandon Ratcliff, DL D.J. Renteria

Outlook — The Lobos lost 14 starters from last year's Las Vegas Bowl team — including Kelly, the all-time leader in wins as a starting QB in New Mexico history. While the graduation losses are many, head coach Rocky Long has several stars returning and the best running back tandem in the league. Moore, as just a sophomore last year, broke the school's single-season rushing record with 1,450 yards. Cox, meanwhile, added 642 yards and had three 100-yard games. The Lobo's aggressive defense, which has been copied by BYU and others, has finished in the nation's top 30 in each of the past four years. It will be inexperienced, however, as seven starters need to be replaced.

COLORADO STATE

2003 Record — 7-6 overall, 5-2 MWC (3rd)

Starters returning —12

Key players — WR David Anderson, OL Erik Pears, TE Joel Dreessen, QB Justin Holland, RB Marcus Houston, DB Ben Stratton, DL Patrick Goodpaster

Key losses — QB Bradlee Van Pelt, KR/DB Dexter Wynn, LB Andre Sommersell, OL Mark Dreyer, DL Bryan Save

Outlook — Colorado State has become to the MWC what BYU was in the old WAC. Even in "down" years the Rams make it to bowl games. CSU has been to a bowl in each of the five years of the MWC's existence. Last year's 7-6 record was a disappointment, however. The Rams have the bulk of their offense back — with the most notable exception being two-time MWC player-of-the-year Van Pelt. Holland, who started the San Francisco Bowl and played in nine games last year, will take over at QB. Anderson, the MWC's top receiver a year ago (99.5 yards per game) gives Holland a go-to guy. The defense, which was the CSU weakness last year already, needs to replace eight starters. The schedule is rough, too, as the Rams start the year with games at Colorado and then at USC before opening at home vs. Minnesota.

AIR FORCE

2003 Record — 7-5 overall, 3-4 MWC (tied for 4th)

Starters returning — 6

Key players — WR Alec Messerall, RB Darnell Stephens, DL Ryan Carter, LB John Rudzinski, DB Nate Allen

Key losses — QB Chance Harridge, OL Brett Huyser, OL Jesse Underbakke, K Joey Ashcroft, LB Marchello Graddy

OutlookFisher DeBerry's club has the fewest returning starters in the league (three on offense, three on defense). In addition, probable starting quarterback Adam Fitch, who looked to get the position vacated by longtime starter Harridge, ruptured an Achilles' tendon in his right leg early in spring practices. He won't likely be ready to play when training starts up again in August. Returned LDS missionary Andy Gray may become the top Falcon QB if Fitch is unable to return. Stephens, who was second on the team to Harridge in rushing last season, at least gives Air Force a strong running back to help whichever the inexperienced quarterback gets the job.

BYU

2003 Record — 4-8 overall, 3-4 MWC (tied for 4th)

Starters returning — 10

Key players — QB John Beck, QB Matt Berry, TE Daniel Coats, DB Aaron Francisco, DL Brady Poppinga, DL John Denney, P Matt Payne

Key losses — RB Rey Brathwaite, WR Toby Christensen, OL Scott Jackson, LB Colby Bockwoldt, DB Jernaro Gilford, LB Mike Tanner

Outlook — After two consecutive losing seasons, the pressure is on Cougar coach Gary Crowton — and the schedule maker didn't make things easy for him. Non-conference games are against USC, Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame. BYU will likely be underdogs in all four. The Cougars also play road games against top conference rivals Utah, Colorado State and Air Force. The QB situation, as usual, will be watched closely in the fall as veterans Berry and John Beck battle junior college transfer Jason Beck for the top job. The defense, the strength of the team last year, returns all-league players in Francisco and Poppinga and the Cougars also have the best punter in the league in Payne.

SAN DIEGO STATE

2003 Record — 6-6 overall 3-4 MWC (tied for 4th)

Starters returning —17

Key players — LB Kirk Morrison, RB Lynell Hamilton, LB Matt McCoy, OL Mike Kracalik, DB Jacob Elimimian, DB Marviel Underwood

Key losses — QB Adam Hall, DB Jeff Shoate, DL Brandon Rager, OL Brendan Darby

Outlook — The Aztecs have already been picked as the MWC team to beat in 2004 by College Football News.com due to their high number of returning starters. SDSU also finished last year strong, winning three of its final four games. SDSU needs to replace it's quarterback, but freshman sensation running back Hamilton was the best part about the Aztecs' offense last season anyway. Morrison returns after being named the MWC's defensive player of the year and fellow "Dark Side" linebacker Matt McCoy gives coach Tom Craft two of the best in the league. SDSU, as usual, has a couple of tough non-league games — at Michigan and at UCLA.

UNLV

2003 Record — 6-6 overall, 2-5 MWC (tied for 7th)

Starters returning —14

Key players — DB Jamaal Brimmer, QB Kurt Nantkes, WR Earvin Johnson, LB Adam Seward, P Gary Cook

Key losses — WR Michael Johnson, RB Larry Croom, PK Dillon Pieffer, OL Dominic Furio

Outlook — The Rebels could contend for the conference title — if they get out of the first two weeks of the season alive. UNLV opens at Tennessee and then plays at Wisconsin — and the Badgers will be out for revenge after losing to the Rebels last season. UNLV's offense managed just 23 touchdowns in 2003, so coach John Robinson has a new, veteran offensive coordinator this year in Bruce Snyder, the former Arizona State, California and Utah State head coach. Brimmer, a two-time first-team all-league selection, leads the defense. UNLV is also one of only three MWC schools (Utah and BYU being the others) that has a returning starting quarterback.

WYOMING

2003 Record — 4-8 overall, 2-5 MWC (tied for 7th)

Starters returning —15

Key players — WR Jovon Bouknight, OL Trenton Franz, OL Isaac Morales, DL Zack Morris, LB Guy Tuell, DB Jay McNeal

Key losses — QB Casey Bramlet, WR Malcolm Floyd, WR Ryan McGuffey, RB Derek Armah, LB Tyler Gottschalk, DB Chris Dixon

Outlook — Once again, a Bramlet will be starting at quarterback — just not the one that was a four-year starter. Casey Bramlet has graduated, but his younger brother, Corey, is ready to take over the starting QB position. Coach Joe Glenn's first year at Wyoming was a vast improvement over the previous dreadful seasons. In fact, the Cowboys beat both of their biggest rivals — Colorado State and BYU. Glenn feels his team can build on those successes and be even better this year.


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com