College Football Spring Practice: Sun Belt Storylines

College Football Spring Practice: Sun Belt Storylines

This article is part of our Spring Practice Storylines series.

Sun Belt Conference Spring Storylines

Among the many programs swapping conferences, the Sun Belt is one of the few leagues to forego changes heading into the 2024 season. But even though the schools remain the same, there's been plenty of shakeup in coaching and star power this offseason. Regardless, the conference produced two top-eight passers, three top-15 rushers, and one top-eight wideout in yards during 2023 and should continue to churn out valuable fantasy options. 

With only a handful of teams having their quarterback situations figured out and a pair of coaching changes at the top of the conference, there's plenty to monitor in the Sun Belt this spring.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

Returning pass-game core

Quarterback Joey Aguilar took over for Ryan Burger after Burger went down with a hand injury early in the season and never looked back, leading Appalachian State to the Sun Belt Championship and a bowl win over Miami (OH). He finished with the seventh-most passing yards in the country (3,757) and the fourth-most passing TDs (33) but threw an interception in nine of his 14 appearances. Aguilar will get his top two options -- Kaedin Robinson (67 receptions, 905 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns) and Christian Horn (36 receptions, 566 yards, six touchdowns) -- back to headline the WR room. Newcomers William Fowles (Louisville transfer) and Zavier Short (South Carolina transfer) figure to battle with Dalton Stroman and Makai Jackson for work behind Robinson and Horn. Of the offseason additions, William Fowles seems to be the name to keep an eye on after drawing praise from offensive coordinator Frank Ponce this spring. With plenty of talent around him but possibly some questions with the run-game in the wake of Nate Noel's departure, the Mountaineers's success is largely tied to the air attack.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

Freshman phenom back for more

The Red Wolves house arguably the most tantalizing fantasy prospect for 2024 in reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Jaylen Raynor. He is a dual threat, rushing for 380 yards and five touchdowns while adding 2,543 passing yards and a 17:7 TD:INT ratio in 11 appearances after beating out J.T. Shrout and Jaxon Dailey early in the 2023 season. If he can take another leap as a sophomore, Raynor could be one of the best fantasy assets in the conference. Raynor will benefit from the return of almost his entire supporting staff, minus Jeff Foreman, who graduated after a 29-catch, 573-yard season. He'll be throwing to Corey Rucker and Courtney Jackson -- who finished as the top two receivers for the Red Wolves a season ago -- while the team brought in former Texas State quarterback Malik Hornsby as a wide receiver. Considering A-State put up 30 or more points in six of Raynor's 11 appearances, this offense could explode if Raynor avoids the dreaded sophomore slump.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Quarterback battle brewing

If you asked any college football fan about the Chanticleers the past few years, it wouldn't take long for the name Grayson McCall to come up. However, the legendary three-year signal caller and face of the program won't be in Conway this season. Instead, second-year Chanticleer Ethan Vasko and Michigan State transfer Noah Kim figure to duke it out for the vacant starting quarterback slot. Kim was Michigan State's starting quarterback to open up the 2023 campaign but was benched for the team's Week 7 game against Rutgers and then missed the remainder of the season with an injury. He showed flashes of excellence, generating 571 passing yards and a 3:0 TD:INT over his first two games of the year, but fell off hard afterward with three straight sub-200-yard performances. Vasko beat out Jarrett Guest for the starting job once Grayson McCall went down with a head injury and tallied 778 passing yards and a 7:1 TD:INT in four starts while adding 786 yards as a rusher. Kim's power-conference pedigree could give him the early lead for the starting job but don't count Vasko out.

 Georgia Southern Eagles

Heading toward new-look offense

The Eagles are also undergoing some offensive renovations, with passing game coordinator Ryan Aplin -- a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year as a quarterback with Arkansas State in 2011 and 2012 -- being promoted to offensive coordinator. He'll replace Bryan Ellis, who joins Kalen DeBoer's staff at Alabama as a TE coach. Also departed is starting quarterback Davis Brin, who passed for the sixth-most yards in the FBS last season on the second-most attempts. In his stead, Georgia Southern brought in junior Dexter Williams from Indiana to battle incumbent backup JC French. Both quarterbacks possess significantly more running ability than pure pocket-passer Brin, and with a new OC, it's unclear if this offense will be as pass-happy as last season. Williams didn't take the field in 2023 for the Hoosiers and was ineffective as a passer in limited 2022 action. He amassed 184 passing yards and a 2:2 TD:INT, completing merely 34.2 percent of his attempts over four appearances. However, he added 165 yards and a score on the ground. French showed more passing chops, completing 13-of-16 attempts for 122 yards, a TD and a pick as a true freshman. It's also worth noting the Eagles retained their top two tailbacks, Jalen White and OJ Arnold, who could each shoulder more of the offensive load in 2024.

 Georgia State Panthers

Facing wide receiver deficit

Nearly all of the offensive skill positions will look drastically different for the Panthers in 2024. Out are elite dual-threat QB Darren Grainger and star running back Marcus Carroll, but in are Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Zach Gibson and running backs CJ Beasley (Coastal Carolina transfer) and Domonique Thomas (Clemson transfer). Georgia State will also be down their top-3 receivers from 2023, Robert Lewis (877 yards, 7 TDs), Tailique Williams (615 yards, 6 TDs), and Jacari Carter (276 yards), who all hit the transfer portal following the coaching changes. They have yet to bring in players to fill those roles. As it sits now, Cadarrius Thompson and Ja'Cyais Credle are the only wideouts on the roster to catch five passes last season, with the rest of the wide receiver room combining for five receptions and 55 yards in 2023. While somebody will have to catch passes in 2024, this is a tough group to project.

 James Madison Dukes

Dukes making due post-Curt Cignetti

In five seasons, Cignetti took the Dukes from the FCS to the forefront of Group of 5 football with a 19-4 record over two years at the FBS level. His accomplishments caught the attention of Indiana, who offered him the program's head coaching job, which Cignetti accepted. He took 1,000-yard WR Elijah Sarratt, starting tight end Zach Horton, and both Kaelon Black and Ty Son Lawton -- who shared backfield duties in 2023 -- with him to Bloomington. The team also lost reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Jordan McCloud to Texas State. Holy Cross (FCS) head coach Bob Chesney filled JMU's HC vacancy after bringing the Crusaders to four straight NCAA Playoff appearances. Since taking the job, the Dukes have landed Washington's Dylan Morris at QB and North Texas standout Ayo Adeyi at tailback. Morris has served as the backup to the NFL-Bound Michael Penix for two years after going for 2,458 yards and a 14:12 TD:INT as the Huskies starter in 2021. Adayi was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2023 on a staggering 7.1 yards per carry and sets up to be JMU's top back. Chesney has also added receiving talent from Mississippi State (Nakai Poole) and UConn (Cameron Ross) to complement some of the team's returning options. Up to this point, Chesney has done an impressive job filling out the bare roster he inherited, but he's got massive shoes to fill following Cignetti.

 Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

Familiar faces in QB battle

The Ragin' Cajuns haven't had a comfortable answer at QB the past two years, having no player pass for more than 1,700 yards while three separate players have logged 1,000-yard passing seasons. Ben Wooldridge, who won the starting job in 2023, has sustained a season-ending injury in back-to-back seasons and, when healthy, still split work with one or both of Chandler Fields and Zeon Chriss.  Fields and Chriss have also battled injuries, with Chriss sustaining a broken leg right after obtaining starting status in 2023. Now healthy, Chriss transferred to Houston, leaving Wooldridge and Fields to battle for signal-calling duties for a third consecutive off-season. While Fields bested Wooldridge in 2022, Wooldridge got revenge in 2023 and has been the superior option, statistically, when healthy.

 Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Unproven WR corps

The Warhawks' season was sent into a spiral after starting quarterback Hunter Herring suffered a season-ending collarbone injury in Week 2. UL-Monroe went 0-10 sans Herring and failed to score in double figures three times following the injury. Thankfully for new head coach Bryant Vincent -- formerly the offensive coordinator at New Mexico -- Herring will be available and is expected to return to his starting role. However, it's incredibly unclear who he'll pass the ball to. Over half of the Warhawks' 2023 receiving yards were lost from the departures of Tyrone Howell (graduation), Dariyan Wiley (Nevada) and Bugs Mortimer (Western Michigan). Add in Alfred Luke transferring to Missouri State, and there's not much to be excited about in the wideout room. Outside of Davis -- who should be the top pass-catcher after going for 28 receptions, 222 yards and two scores last season -- there's an abundance of unproven youngsters.

 Marshall Thundering Herd

No Rasheen Ali, no problem

When healthy, Ali has been the lifeblood of the Thundering Herd's offense for the past three seasons. In 2021, he was tasked with a staggering 296 touches, turning them into 1,743 yards (5.9 yards per touch). In 2023, he handled 240 touches with 1,348 yards from scrimmage (5.6 yards per touch). Replacing a player of that caliber and reliability is nearly impossible, but the team has made some moves to make the shift much easier. To start, they've made what looks to be an upgrade at quarterback, with 2023 starter Cam Fancher transferring out to FAU and Mitch Griffis and Braylon Braxton brought in to compete with Cole Pennington for the starting job. Griffis opened the 2023 season as Wake Forest's starter but was replaced after nine starts due to poor play. He spent four seasons with the Demon Deacons. Braxton spent the past three years at Tulsa, two of which were spent backing up Davis Brin, and posted 1,133 yards and a 10:2 TD:INT ratio in 2022 with 145 rush yards and five scores before struggling in 2023 as part of a QB rotation. Additionally, they bring back Ethan Payne, who was a change-of-pace option behind Ali last season, while bringing in Jordan Houston from NC State, who talied 136 carries and 25 receptions in 2022 before deciding to redshirt in 2023 after opening the season as a co-starter. While there will almost certainly be bumps in the road, the Thundering Herd's offensive attack sets up to be more well-rounded in 2024.

 Old Dominion Monarchs

Potential sparks for an experienced offense

The Monarchs preserved most of their passing-game production from a season ago, retaining the same quarterback room of starter Grant Wilson and backup Jack Shields and returning their top three receivers from 2023 in Remello Murphy (502 yards, three touchdowns), Kelby Williams (451 yards, two touchdowns) and Isiah Paige (43 receptions, 445 yards). Even with all the familiar faces, a pair of names could surprise in 2024. Old Dominion hasn't traditionally utilized tight ends in the passing game but went out and got Patrick Conroy from Merrimack in the transfer portal. Conroy didn't see the field in 2023 but could be a valuable weapon for the Monarchs. At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Conroy logged 33 receptions for 678 yards (20.6 avg) with 12 touchdowns across the previous two years.  He even handled a few carries in his time at Merrimack, giving him an intriguing combination of size and athleticism. Another name to keep an eye on throughout the spring is Dominic Dutton. He appeared in 11 games for ODU last season and saw 30 targets. However, the looks resulted in nine catches for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Dutton, a former sprinter at South Carolina, is a speedster with big play upside, just scratching the surface of his capabilities. 

 South Alabama Jaguars

New QB set to lead USA

Carter Bradley has been one of the elite quarterbacks in the Sun Belt over the last few years. Now out of eligibility, the keys to the offense are set to go to rising sophomore Gio Lopez. As a true freshman, Lopez appeared in five games, racking up 475 pass yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, completing 67.2 percent of his attempts. He showcased dual-threat upside, with 154 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. Lopez has the traits to be a strong fantasy asset with a strong supporting cast. Stud wideout Jamaal Pritchett is back, and 2022 standout pass-catcher Devin Voisin is expected to return at some point after tearing an ACL in early September. The duo gives Lopez a pair of experienced and talented receivers to rely on, while TE Thomas Jones should act as a safety blanket after racking up 27 receptions for 235 yards last year. Technically, Lopez will have to compete with Bishop Davenport, who didn't play in 2023 and served as Utah State's backup QB in 2022, but head coach Major Applewhite already indicated that Lopez is the favorite to land the starting role, meaning it's his job to lose.

 Southern Miss Golden Eagles

QB transfer prompts competition

Quarterback play was a weak point for Southern Miss last season, with Billy Wiles struggling as the team's primary starter. True freshman Ethan Crawford began to eat into Wiles' workload late in the season and was mildly successful, collecting 246 passing yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception, but he only completed half of his attempts. Head Coach Will Hall decided to shake the QB room up, bringing in Florida State backup Tate Rodemaker. Rodemaker got his first extended look in four seasons with the Seminoles during 2023, taking over for Jordan Travis after Travis got hurt. Rodemaker compiled 351 passing yards and two scores over two starts before sustaining an injury of his own. Rodemaker finished the season with five touchdowns and no interceptions overall. Crawford got an early leg up on Rodemaker for the starting role in the team's spring game, leading a touchdown drive capped off by a 50-yard touchdown pass while Rodemaker didn't score and threw an interception. Although Wiles is still on the roster, expect a two-man race between Rodemaker and Crawford for the starting job.

 Texas State Bobcats

Experienced replacement for Finley under center

The Bobcats return most of their offensive firepower from 2023 but made a change at quarterback from TJ Finley, now at Western Kentucky, to Jordan McCloud of James Madison. McCloud is essentially locked into the team's starting role and arguably will have more weapons with Texas State than he did with the Dukes. Ismail Mahdi was one of 14 players in the nation to rush for at least 1,300 yards while tallying 275 yards through the air and 11 total touchdowns. With Kimani Vidal, Marcus Carroll, Nate Noel and Frank Gore Jr. all out of the conference, Mahdi looks to be the clear top tailback in the Sun Belt. While wideout Ashtyn Hawkins (55 catches, 874 yards, three TDs) has graduated, leading wideout Joey Hobert and Kole Wilson are back after each logging eight touchdowns last season. To fill Hawkins' role, the Bobcats brought in Beau Sparks -- who caught 74 passes for 723 yards and 7 TDs as a freshman at Utah Tech --  and senior Jaden Williams from Boston College (career totals of 42 receptions, 570 yards and six TDs). This offense holds enough top-end talent and depth to keep up with anybody in the Sun Belt and should foster plenty of fantasy-friendly performances.

 Troy Trojans

Massive turnover after back-to-back conference titles

The Trojans will look drastically different in 2024 after losing head coach Jon Sumrall to Tulane. On top of the coaching change, starting quarterback Gunnar Watson graduated, starting running back Kimani Vidal turned pro, top WR Jabre Barber transferred to Texas A&M and pass-catcher Deshon Stoudemire also graduated. Chris Lewis -- who went for 735 yards and 10 TDs last season -- is undergoing treatment for a form of bone cancer in his leg and could miss the 2024 campaign. This offense hardly resembles the group that led the Trojans to an 11-4 record a season ago. Watson's backup, Goose Crowder, will battle redshirt freshman Tucker Kilcrease for the starting role, while Vidal's backup, Damien Taylor, seems the likeliest candidate to top the running back depth chart. Behind Taylor is ECU grad transfer Gerald Green and returners Jarris Williams and Jordan Lovett, each of whom will compete for touches come fall. If Lewis can't play, expect Devonte Ross to lead the wideouts, with Payton Higgins, Landon Parker and MJ Johnson mixing in. There's not much clarity in the Trojans' offense, given the significant turnover.

RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only College Football Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire College Football fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
Cameron Wilhorn
Cameron Wilhorn writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire
College Football Fantasy Five: Fantasy Winners with New Head Coaches in the SEC
College Football Fantasy Five: Fantasy Winners with New Head Coaches in the SEC
College Football Spring Practice: SEC Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: SEC Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: ACC Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: ACC Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Big 12 Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Big 12 Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Big Ten Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Big Ten Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Mountain West Storylines
College Football Spring Practice: Mountain West Storylines