My good friends from the Burning the Redshirt podcast asked me to guest this week and talk about our favorite conference, the Sun Belt. While researching for the show, I found incredibly interesting data points and ones that I wanted to share with the written audience. I’ll note, if you did not check out the show OR you’re not subscribed to the BTR channel, you’re missing out. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
1. These Teams Have to Replace a Lot of Quarterback Production
Entering the 2023 season, at least seven Sun Belt teams will have a new quarterback under center. Conference fixtures like Chase Brice and Hayden Wolff are out with the old and in with the new. Players who emerged last season might take on full-time roles, and the offensive schemes will likely change dramatically. What’s fascinating about the approach these teams are taking is that most teams replacing their starter are poised to roll out a quarterback with more athleticism.
Highlighting some major teams first, Malik Hornsby stands out in replacement of Layne Hatcher at Texas State. I wrote extensively about this offense earlier this week, but there’s a lot to like about G.J. Kinne’s vision. Appalachian State is likely replacing Brice with Ryan Burger, who is a better rusher with a much tastier name. Cam Fancher steps in as the week one starter for Marshall despite playing in 13 games last year, he has a full offseason to operate as QB1. I assume Jordan McCloud will start for James Madison but I have tagged Alonza Barnett III as the future at the position if he gets in its wheels up. These are just a few names on teams at the top end of the conference.
One name I am paying close attention to is Zeon Chriss, from Louisiana. He took all first-team reps in the spring and played on BOTH teams in the spring game. Quarterbacks Ben Woolridge and Chandler Fields were out, with Woolridge’s injury potentially stretching into the season. At 6’2”, 210 lbs., he has good size, a good arm, and elite size-adjusted athleticism, purported to run a 4.40-4.50. He ran the 200M in high school and also set the Louisiana javelin record. He appeared in games last year as a true freshman, and his profile lends itself to a potential Levi Lewis+ for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
2. Arkansas State Loves Zak Wallace and You Should too
Whenever Zak Wallace had his name brought up this spring, Butch Jones couldn’t help but drool over his size. At 220 lbs., he’s the largest back at Arkansas State and the biggest under Jones as Red Wolves head coach. The fifth-year back from UT Martin made his name on campus, being a legitimate “workout warrior”. Even defensive linemen were impressed by his physicality in spring. Additionally, in high school won the State Lifting Championship. If it wasn’t already obvious, he’s a big AND strong dude.
Wallace enters the Arkansas State running back room after 16 touchdowns on 1,012 yards in 2022 and 807 yards for 15 touchdowns the year before. He was on the First-Team All-Conference Ohio Valley in back-to-back seasons and brings strength to a room that has seen poor RB performance for a few years (the leading rusher had 418 and 484 yards in 2021 and 2022.) Wallace led the spring game with 60 rushing yards and emerged as the key positional winner for this group. His pass-catching upside is TBD as he caught 18 passes last season and could be used for dump-offs but won’t be schemed as a receiver. However, the key to success will be the revamped offensive line and the ability to score touchdowns.
With three power five transfers, the Red Wolves look to bring one of the biggest lines to conference play in 2023. Jones made it known, with pride, of course, that every offensive lineman weighs more than 300 lbs. Additions Jacob Bayer from Lamar and Jalen Cunningham from Ole Miss are both big, strong, but notably athletic linemen who can play multiple positions. This group ranked 129th in average line yards and bottom 20 in both pass and run blocking per PFF. The Red Wolves seem to feel good about this unit, and I think we should, at minimum, keep Wallace on watch lists.
3. Georgia Southern Will Repeat as Offensive Juggernauts
The offseason in Statesboro essentially went as well as it could have gone. The offense returns most key contributors and, in my estimation, gets an upgrade at quarterback with Davis Brin. Vantrease did throw for 4,300+ yards and 27 touchdowns, but Davis Brin brings a higher ceiling to this offense. The difference between the two quarterbacks is stark. Brin had an average depth of target of 12.4 yards (ranked third nationally among qualified QBs) compared to Vantrease’s 8.8 yards. Part of that is offensive scheme differences, but Brin has been a better and more willing deep passer throughout their respective careers.
The skill position options are what sell this unit in 2023. Derwin Burgess, a breakout star in 2023, returns as one of the best deep threats in the nation. As the primary outside option for the Eagles, he averaged 10.1 targets per game in the ten games he played. One of the most involved receiving options in the nation, he only had a 57.4% catch percentage on 101 targets. Averaging only 12 yards per reception, there are questions about whether this scheme can leverage Burgess in all areas of the field effectively, but with Brin’s willingness to use the deep ball, it could be a moot point.
The offense also has receiver Khaleb Hood who lead the team in receiving with 925 yards and 85 receptions. There’s little doubt that Hood returns as the slot option, and with 9.8 targets per game, he’ll once again be heavily involved. The offense losing Jeremy Singleton and Amare Jones would be a bigger deal to most of the conference as they accounted for 27% of targets, but with the depth of the Eagles, Helton, and staff can weather the storm. That’s where I expect tight end Jjay McAfee to assume a larger role after playing more than 30 snaps in his last four games and blocking on only 6% of his snaps last year. Additionally, I hate doing this in small samples, but he was also ranked fourth in CFF points per play (.304) among tight ends, but with his 210 snaps, it’s worth investing in.
To cap it off, Jalen White might even have a bigger role with Gerald Green transferring to ECU. White’s 58.7% backfield dominator was borderline elite and where you want for college fantasy production. OJ Arnold is an efficient and quality backup option, but with White’s breakout season of 184 total touches, he’s going to be a solid option again this year and operate as one of the better running backs in the Sun Belt.
4. Darren Grainger is Underrated
Darren Grainger had 26.3 fantasy points per game in 2022. When I saw that, I was surprised, considering he’s ranked QB34 in Campus2Canton rankings and QB52 in average draft position. A top-20 option at the position last season, Grainger should repeat his fantasy production, given the changes to the Georgia State team this offseason.
With 70 more pass attempts from 2021 to 2022, Grainger’s role is changing towards a more pass-friendly offense as negative game scripts become more common for the unit. I expect this defense to be brutal in 2023. The hire of Chad Staggs from Coastal Carolina was puzzling, considering he consistently ranked bottom 20 in EPA/play on defense when with the Chanticleers. The defense also loses two All-Sun Belt options in the secondary, with Quavian White and Antavius Lane leaving.
Grainger does lose one of the best receivers in the Sun Belt, with Jamari Thrash transferring to Louisville. However, as a sucker, I am fully invested in Robert Lewis. Averaging over 70 yards per game to start the season, he was inconsistent down the stretch but is a player the staff wants to get involved with and is by far the most talented receiver currently on the roster. It was concerning the offense ranked 124th in neutral game script pass rate at 30.5% but not only will the offense need to reconsider their approach based on the defense, but they also lose key members of the offensive line. Notable departures include Part Bartlett (RG) and Malik Sumter (a four-time All-Sun Belt center). Sumter, one of the leaders on the team, will be a challenging replacement both on the field and off. Expect this offense to throw more and out the ball in Grainger’s hands at a higher rate.
The offense also needs to replace Jamyest Williams and Tucker Gregg at the running back position. Two big-time contributors, the running back room will rely on inexperienced Marcus Carroll and KZ Adams.