B/R's Conference USA All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 11, 2021

B/R's Conference USA All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century

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    Memphis' DeAngelo Williams
    Memphis' DeAngelo WilliamsCARLOS OSORIO/Associated Press

    No college football conference has shape-shifted quite as much as Conference USA has since the start of the 21st century. The league once laid claim to Army, Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, TCU, UCF and others, but now it is filled with the likes of Florida International, Middle Tennessee, North Texas and UTSA.

    As a result, its All-21st Century team is quite literally all over the map.

    A total of 17 different programs are represented on this 26-man roster. Houston leads the way with four selections while Memphis and Louisiana Techthe former left the league before the 2013 season; the latter joined in 2013have three players each.

    Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:

    • The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
    • Only seasons in which the program was part of the Conference USA counted. Only one school (Southern Miss) has been in the league from start to finish, but a total of 26 programs have spent at least some time in C-USA in the past two decades.


    B/R's All-21st Century Series


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    Houston's Case Keenum
    Houston's Case KeenumRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Pick: Case Keenum, Houston

    With all due respect to Rakeem Cato, Brandon Doughty and Mason Fineeach of whom was named either C-USA's Offensive Player of the Year or C-USA's Most Valuable Player in at least two seasons—this really could not have been an easier decision.

    Case Keenum threw for 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns in his college career. You could throw away his entire sophomore season (5,020 yards, 44 touchdowns) and he would still be Conference USA's all-time leader in passing yards and would rank second only to Cato in passing touchdowns.

    It's not just the C-USA leaderboard, either. Keenum is literally more than a mile ahead of every other quarterback who has ever played college football. Hawaii's Timmy Chang is No. 2 in career passing yards with 17,072. That still leaves him 2,145 yards (or 1.22 miles) behind Keenum.

    Houston's star threw for at least 5,000 yards and 44 scores in each of 2008, 2009 and 2011, finishing eighth and seventh in the Heisman votes in '09 and '11, respectively. (No other Conference USA quarterback* has finished top-10 in the Heisman vote in the 21st century, but this guy did it twice.)

    Keenum eclipsed 500 yards in a single game six times in his career and went over the 400-yard plateau 19 times. He had a nine-touchdown performance against Rice (all nine touchdowns were scored from at least 18 yards out). And in the final game of his college career, he put up 532 yards and three scores in a bowl-game victory over a Penn State defense which had limited its previous 12 opponents to 162.2 passing yards and 0.75 passing touchdowns per game.

    *Just to preemptively clear up any potential confusion on this note, Marshall was still part of the Mid-American Conference when Byron Leftwich placed sixth in the 2002 Heisman vote. 

Running Back

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    UCF's Kevin Smith
    UCF's Kevin SmithReinhold Matay/Associated Press

    The Picks: DeAngelo Williams, Memphis; Kevin Smith, UCF

    For a league that hasn't had a team finish a season ranked higher than 18th in the AP Top 25 since 2004, Conference USA sure has churned out a lot of quality running backs.

    Heck, this league put East Carolina's Chris "CJ2K" Johnson, Tulane's Matt Forte and UCF's Kevin Smith into the NFL in the same year.

    Of that trio, there's no question that Smith made the least impact in the NFL, rushing for just 2,346 yards and 17 touchdowns in five seasons with Detroit. But in one season with UCF, he rushed for a still-third-best-all-time 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2007. He carried the ball 450 times that season, eclipsing 170 yards on the ground in nine of 14 games played. In just three seasons, he racked up 4,679 yards and 45 scores.

    Those career numbers pale in comparison to what DeAngelo Williams did at Memphis, though.

    Despite merely rushing for 684 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman, Williams finished his college career with 6,026 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns. In each of his junior and senior seasons, he had at least 1,948 yards and 18 touchdowns and averaged better than six yards per carry. It's a shame he only played in 11 games that final season (2005), too, because his per-game rushing pace (178.5 yards) was about on par with what Smith would do in 2007 (183.4).

    Williams' career yardage total is good for seventh-best in FBS history.

    Both Williams (seventh in '05) and Smith (eighth in '07) finished top-10 in a Heisman vote.

    Two other guys who must be mentioned before we move on: Southern Mississippi's Damion Fletcher and Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary. The former rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his four collegiate seasons, finishing second to Williams in C-USA history with 5,302 career yards. The latter was a freight train who rushed for 32 touchdowns in 2017 and scored 66 times in his three seasons with the Owls. He's ninth in FBS history in career rushing touchdowns, but every other player in the top 17 spent four years in college.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

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    Florida Atlantic's Harrison Bryant
    Florida Atlantic's Harrison BryantMark Brown/Getty Images

    The Picks

    Wide Receiver: Roddy White, UAB; Jarett Dillard, Rice

    Tight End: Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic

    With each passing year, UAB figured out how to better utilize Roddy White's immense talent in an otherwise anemic offense.

    After making just 14 receptions for 236 yards and two scores as a freshman in 2001, White went on to lead the nation in receiving yards (1,452) and scored 14 touchdowns as a senior. In both his junior and senior seasons, White had more than twice as many receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as his closest teammate.

    Jarett Dillard was in a similar boat early in his college career at Rice. As a sophomore in 2006, Dillard made 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and 21 touchdowns. The rest of the team combined for 1,536 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

    Dillard got a little more help the following two years, culminating in a 2008 campaign in which he and James Casey each went over 1,300 yards. But Dillard never stopped scoring touchdowns, finishing his four years with the Owls with record 60 receiving touchdowns. Western Michigan's Corey Davis (52) is the only other player in FBS history with more than 50 such scores.

    And in 2019, Harrison Bryant joined running back Kevin Smith as just the second non-special teams player from Conference USA to be named a consensus All-American. He led all FAU players in yards from scrimmage that season, making 65 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns on an 11-win squad.

Offensive Line

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    UTEP's Will Hernandez
    UTEP's Will HernandezSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer, Houston; Wade Smith, Memphis

    Guard: Will Hernandez, UTEP; Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky

    Center: Josh LeRibeus, SMU

    As has been our approach with the Group of Five leagues throughout this series, we're letting the NFL draft serve as our guide for the offensive linemen.

    At the top of that list is former UTEP guard Will Hernandez, who was quite the diamond in the rough. Even though the Miners went 0-12 and had the lowest scoring offense among all 130 FBS teams in 2017, Hernandez became Conference USA's highest-drafted offensive lineman of the 21st century, going 34th overall. (It was his run-blocking for Aaron Jones the previous season that really got him on the NFL's radar.)

    The year before Hernandez went 34th, another C-USA lineman went 38th. That was Forrest Lamp, who spent most of his college career as Western Kentucky's left tackle before NFL teams fell in love with his potential as an interior lineman. In each of his final three seasons of protecting the blind side of Brandon Doughty and Mike White, the Hilltoppers averaged better than 44 points per game. A torn ACL suffered prior to the start of his rookie year delayed the start of Lamp's NFL career, but he started all 16 games at left guard this past season for the Chargers.

    Houston's Sebastian Vollmer went late in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft, but immediately became a key contributor for the New England Patriots. Because of an injury to Matt Light, Vollmer started at left tackle in the first game of his rookie season. By Year 2, he was a second-team All-Pro right tackle.

    Wade Smith was taken midway through the third round of the 2003 NFL draft, at which time he became the first offensive player selected from Memphis since 1994, when WR Isaac Bruce was the brightest star of a three-player draft class. Smith eventually became a Pro Bowl lineman with the Houston Texans.

    And SMU's Josh LeRibeus is the choice at center. The third-round pick in the 2012 draft made just 15 starts in his NFL career, but he was a key interior lineman for the Mustangs when they went through what was at the time their best stretch of football (2009-11) since getting the so-called "death penalty" in the 1980s.

Defensive Line

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    Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson
    Louisiana Tech's Jaylon FergusonRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Picks

    Defensive Line: Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech; Marcus Davenport, UTSA

    Defensive Tackle: Dontari Poe, Memphis; Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech

    It hasn't yet translated to the NFL, but Jaylon Ferguson was a wrecker of worlds while with Louisiana Tech. At the end of his 50-game run with the Bulldogs, he had racked up 45.0 sacks and 68 tackles for loss. Since the NCAA started officially tracking those stats in 2005, Ferguson ranks No. 1 in the former and is sitting at No. 3 in the latter.

    And yet, the title of "highest drafted defensive end in C-USA history" belongs to UTSA's Marcus Davenport, who went 14th overall in 2018.

    Davenport's career numbers (21.5 sacks; 37.5 tackles for loss) barely hold a candle to what Ferguson did, but he just got better and better each season and seemed to have a lot of room left for potential growth. He was a talented run-stopper with both the length and strength to potentially become an elite edge rusher with enough coaching.

    The highest-drafted player in C-USA history, though, was Dontari Poe.

    The Kansas City Chiefs took the defensive tackle from Memphis with the 11th pick in 2012, however, that was more a product of the outrageous athleticism he displayed at the draft combine than it was a product of some dominant collegiate career. Memphis went just 5-31 overall and consistently struggled on defense in his three seasons there, but when the nearly 350-pound nose tackle ran the 40-yard dash in under five seconds, let's just say people noticedand it mattered more than the grand total of five sacks he had in college.

    And then it's back to Louisiana Tech for Vernon Butler at the other defensive tackle spot. He was in on 168 tackles in his college careerincluding 28.5 tackles for lossprior to becoming the No. 30 pick in the 2016 draft.


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    Southern Miss' Jamie Collins
    Southern Miss' Jamie CollinsSteve Coleman/Associated Press

    The Picks: Jamie Collins, Southern Mississippi; Shawn Jackson, Tulsa; Alex Highsmith, Charlotte

    For a while at the beginning of this century, Southern Mississippi was the unofficial Group of Five Linebacker U. Rod Davis, Michael Boley and Kevis Coley were named C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons from 2003-05, and then Gerald McRath stretched that run to four out of five years in 2007.

    But the Golden Eagles' best linebacker was Jamie Collins.

    Collins transitioned from defensive back to linebacker after his sophomore season and developed into a hybrid of hyper-awareness. Over his final two years in Hattiesburg, he made 190 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks with 14 passes defended and five forced fumbles. He pretty much had to do everything on defense for that winless Southern Miss squad in 2012, but he rose to the occasion. He probably should have been named DPOY, even though the team's defense was dreadful.

    Shawn Jackson was also one of those stat-sheet stuffing linebackers, doing anything and everything Tulsa asked of him from 2010-13. He had a total of 400 tackles, 53.5 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks, which are remarkable numbers in their own right. Per Sports-Reference, Jackson and Wisconsin's Chris Borland are the only players since 2005 with at least 400 tackles and 50 tackles for loss.

    Now throw in the "other" stuff Jackson did so well: nine interceptions, 14 other passes defended, six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and three defensive touchdowns. He seemed to be involved in every play for four straight years.

    And for the third linebacker spot, we're going with Charlotte's Alex Highsmith, who actually spent most of his time in college at defensive end before converting to outside linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His progression from a no-name prospect to a great run-stuffer (18.5 tackles for loss with just 3.0 sacks in 2018) to a great pass-rusher (21.5 tackles for loss with 15.0 sacks in 2019third-best sack total in the nation that year) was quite impressive.

Defensive Back

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    MTSU's Kevin Byard (20)
    MTSU's Kevin Byard (20)Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Cornerback: D.J. Hayden, Houston; Amik Robertson, Louisiana Tech

    Safety: Quintin Demps, UTEP; Kevin Byard, Middle Tennessee

    D.J. Hayden was one of the best JUCO transfers in recent history.

    After two years at Navarro College, Hayden ended up at Houston and became quite the shutdown corner. He broke up 11 passes, recorded a pair of interceptions and forced five fumbles in his first season with the Cougars. The following year, he picked off four balls and had two pick-sixes prior to suffering a life-threatening chest injury during practice. Despite that medical concern, Hayden was taken 12th in the 2013 draft.

    Louisiana Tech's Amik Robertson also developed a reputation for breaking up passes. From 2017-19, Robertson had 14 interceptions to go along with 34 passes broken up. He also had at least 60 total tackles and seven tackles for loss each season.

    And the Bulldogs were much better off because of his presence in the defensive backfield. In both the year before Robertson arrived and in the year after he departed, they allowed at least 33.6 points per game. But in the three years with his help at cornerback, they improved from 25.4 to 23.0 to 21.8 in that category.

    In three seasons in Conference USA, UTEP's Quintin Demps made 217 tackles and 15 interceptions. He also gradually became an impact player on special teams, returning 22 kickoffs and 15 punts for a combined 692 yards in his senior season.

    MTSU's Kevin Byard also made 15 interceptions in Conference USA19 if you include the four picks (with two pick sixes) that he had as a freshman while the Blue Raiders were still in the Sun Belt. He was named first-team All-Conference as both a junior and senior and was a first-team All-Pro safety in just his second year in the NFL.


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    East Carolina's Chris Johnson
    East Carolina's Chris JohnsonNick de la Torre/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Kicker: Cairo Santos, Tulane

    Punter: Thomas Morstead, SMU

    Returner: Tyron Carrier, Houston

    All-Purpose: Chris Johnson, East Carolina

    Cairo Santos was a consensus All-American in 2012, going a perfect 21-for-21 on field-goal attempts, albeit while missing one of his 27 extra-point tries. That perfect percentage on the field goals put Santos in rarefied air among college kickers, though. He and Boston College's Nate Freese (20-for-20 in 2013) are the only players in the past 20 years to try at least 18 field goals in a season and make all of them. (Some lot of good it did Tulane, though. The Green Wave went 2-10 that year.)

    Prior to becoming exclusively a punter in the NFL, Thomas Morstead was also SMU's lone kicker for three years. He was always better at the punting, though, and by going 164th in the 2009 NFL draft, he is the only C-USA punter taken in the top 200 of a draft in this century.

    Tyron Carrier's speed made him a great possession receiver (320 catches for 3,493 yards and 22 touchdowns with Houston). However, he was an even better kick returner, taking seven kickoffs to the house while accumulating more than 3,500 yards in that discipline. The seven touchdowns tie Carrier with Rashaad Penny, Tony Pollard and CJ Spiller for the most in FBS history.

    And we had to get Chris Johnson on this team somewhere, because CJ2K was darn near CJ3K in his final season at East Carolina. He had 1,423 rushing yards, 528 receiving yards, 1,009 kick-return yards and 24 total touchdowns in 2007. That's 2,960 all-purpose yards at a rate of 227.7 per game. And he saved one of his best performances for last, going for 408 total yards and two touchdowns in a Hawaii Bowl victory over Boise State.