5 storylines to watch as UAB opens fall camp – AL.com

UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent answers questions from the media during the 2022 C-USA Football Kickoff, Wednesday, July 27, 2022, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (UAB Athletics)
The crisp autumn air of a Saturday afternoon is still a few weeks away but fall camp for the UAB football program is proceeding ahead of the 2022 season.
The Blazers opened fall practice Monday at the UAB Football Operations Complex in Birmingham and start a new era under interim head coach Bryant Vincent following Bill Clark’s retirement due to health-related issues.
Vincent takes over a team with experience in key areas and well-defined leadership roles.
“I think our leaders identify themselves,” Vincent said. “They have identified themselves throughout the offseason. They identify themselves in spring practice and then going into the summer. It’s who they are every day and one thing we talk about a lot is who we are daily and who we will become. I feel like our leadership is strong right now and we’ve got to continue to grow that, but I feel really good about where we’re at right now as a football team.”
UAB is 43-20 overall and 30-9 in Conference USA since returning from a two-year hiatus and have ranked in the top 20 for total defense the last four seasons. The Blazers won three straight division titles from 2018-2020 and two C-USA championships in 2018 and 2020.
Here are five things to keep in mind as the Blazers open fall camp:
Let’s Get Down To Business
Bill Clark is now the former UAB head coach, factually speaking, as his retirement started today with the Blazers opening fall camp. The old ball coach is doing well post-surgery but it may be a few days before he can get out and catch a practice.
Meanwhile, former offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent was elevated to interim head coach and opens a new era for the UAB program. Vincent has taken ownership of the program in a short amount of time, securing the loyalty of the staff and the team, and has hit the recruiting trail hard in securing six commitments within a month of being promoted to head coach.
Vincent spoke recently at C-USA media days about not only keeping the standard set during Clark’s tenure but elevating it further as the Blazers play their final season in C-USA before moving to the American Athletic Conference next year. With the program on stable footing and preparing to receive a larger payout, therefore increasing the athletic department’s operating budget, Vincent is not taking the opportunity to remain head coach beyond this season lightly.
Handle With Care
Dylan Hopkins is the incumbent but Baylor transfer Jacob Zeno is at UAB to compete for a starting job.
Hopkins spent the offseason rehabbing from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder while Zeno took the majority of first-team reps during spring practice. The last time Hopkins saw the field he was leading UAB to a 31-28 upset of No. 13 BYU in the 2021 Independence Bowl. He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Trea Shropshire in the waning minutes and managed a brutal game-sealing drive to cap off the victory.
“It feels awesome (to be back on the field),” Hopkins said. “Last year, every day dealing with the labrum tear and what not, and then getting out of there today. Missing spring was hard, watching the whole time, but getting out today was awesome, especially with some of the new faces out there”
Zeno drew rave reviews from the coaching staff and displayed a cool collectiveness while efficiently running the offense in the spring game.
Hopkins’ experience and success with the Blazers should bode well for the redshirt junior, keeping a leg up in the quarterback competition, but the battle should play on through the early part of the season considering Zeno’s talent.
“Oh, it’s huge,” Hopkins said. “We definitely want competition in this room and especially if someone gets hurt, we always want another guy coming in being prepared. I think (Damon) Stew(art) and Bryson (Lucero) are still looking really good and pushing us too.”
Up Where We Belong
Speaking of quarterbacks, whoever is taking the snaps will need to find someone additional to throw the ball to other than Trea Shropshire.
Shropshire led the Blazers in receiving yards last season (703 yards) and finished with 7 touchdowns and a nation-leading 26.0 yards per catch. He’ll be the focal point of the passing attack but UAB has little experience beyond that.
Tight ends Gerrit Prince and Hayden Pittman graduated, leaving a void at the position, and RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders transferred to Troy during the offseason. Ryan Davis is the only other returning receiver with more than 10 receptions or 100 receiving yards last season (13 catches for 161 yards).
“I think Tejhaun John Palmer, who started the last couple games this season had a great bowl game against BYU, has had a great offseason,” Vincent said. “He’s had a great summer. He’s right as 6-2, 215 pounds and knows the offense inside and out. We got him here in the middle of June last year, he played the national championship game at Snow College and he’s a guy we’re really excited about. I think TJ Jones is a guy that, again, has had a great offseason. We got him last summer and he’s more comfortable now and going to play a big role this year.”
“Ryan Davis is steady and as tough as they come, he’s healthy again,” he added. “Samario Rudolph has had a great offseason, we’re excited about him. You got Fred Ferrier (II) and Jordan Palmer; Ferrier is a guy that I’ve talked about a lot this offseason because of what he does daily. He brings his best daily. He’s a coach’s kid and got a chance to be special and so does Jordan Palmer. So those are the guys that really stuck out and stepped up to the challenge.”
Tejhaun Palmer, Samario Rudolph, TJ Jones and Fred Farrier II provide quality depth but have yet to prove themselves fully in their short time on the Southside. Terrell McDonald and Maleak Bryant have first dibs at tight end but Bryce Damous, Brody Dalton and Dallas Payne could factor into the competition.
Don’t be surprised if true freshman Iverson Hooks finds his way into a few opportunities this fall.
“Iverson Hook, “Strap,” who’s a true freshman, has come in and really done some highlight reel for us also,” Vincent said.
Big Iron
The one constant since UAB reinstated its football program and returned to the field has been its ruthless and suffocating defense. That shouldn’t change this season but there are questions surrounding the defensive front.
Kelle Sanders developed into a solid JACK last season and looks to be joined on the outside by quality special teamers Nikia Eason Jr. and Kyle Harrell. Former Indiana transfer Jalen Mayala also figures into the mix on the outside.
Syracuse transfer Drew Tuazama is a name to keep an eye on, arriving this summer and integrating himself almost instantly.
“We got a new guy who just came in, Drew (Tuazama), he’s really impressed me a lot this summer,” senior linebacker Noah Wilder said. “I feel like he’s been coming along really, really well so I might see some big things out of him. Our JACKs, they get down there and they get nasty with it too. We got some good JACKs coming in: Kyle Harrell, Kelly Sanders, Nikita Eason, I can go on and on with them. Really, all of that front seven, they’re just are some dogs down there. I’m glad to be behind them and have them on my side.”
The Blazers lost starters Tyree Turner, Mi’Cario Stanley and Justin Thomas to graduation, along with edge rushers Alex Wright (NFL 3rd Round draft pick) and Antonio Moultrie (Miami transfer). Fish McWilliams is the lone returner with extensive experience but Kevin Penn and Isaiah Forte should shore up the interior, along with JUCO transfer Tyrique Howard and Joker Gill.
Ends of the Earth
Fall camp is a good time for experimentation and new ideas. This year will be no exception.
The Blazers are short on depth along the defensive line so expect a bit of shuffling to an area with varying levels of experience. UAB returns only a handful of edge rushers so a few middle linebackers and safeties could try their hand at the position to establish more depth.
Incoming skill position players are always fine candidates to experiment at different positions and there are more than enough to satisfy the wanderlust.
With Vincent taking over head coaching duties and Darin Hinshaw promoted to offensive coordinator, new philosophies and different tendencies are to be implemented this year. The running game is solid and few wrinkles could make it unstoppable and the passing game is in position to evolve past a boom-or-bust mentality.
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