There was no guessing what UAB’s identity was last season.
The Blazers tried to pound the ball on offense and rough their opponents up on defense. While UAB had some success with their game plan, it only led to a 7-6 record. Regardless, their defense was at the top of C-USA. UAB ranked first in scoring defense (23.2 PPG) and second in total defense, giving up an average of 360.6 YPG. This also came after a late head coaching change in June when Bill Clark retired and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent took over as interim coach for a one-year stint.
Against three of the top five scoring offenses in the league (UAB was the fourth), the Blazers held those teams well below their scoring averages. The defense was mostly stout when it needed to be.
So, what will that defense be returning in 2023 as UAB joins the AAC?
For starters, the Blazers will have familiar playmakers across the defensive line in Fish McWilliams and Drew Tuazama. Tuazama led the team last season with six tackles for loss and five sacks. The sacks were 13th in the league. The redshirt senior also added 33 total tackles. McWilliams finished just behind Tuazama with 32 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs while adding two sacks.
Tyrique Howard should also return and will look to provide more of a spark after securing 18 total tackles last year.
At linebacker, Michael Fairbanks II will be the only starter from last year’s core who returns. Playing the SAM position, Fairbanks had 43 total tackles to go with 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Jackson Bratton sat behind last season’s leading tackler in MLB Noah Wilder on the depth chart and showed potential while on the field. He finished with 31 total tackles.
Nikia Eason Jr. will also be in the mix after coming away with two sacks during his limited action.
The secondary is where the Blazers are bringing back the most experience. Cornerback Mac McWilliams — Fish’s younger brother — and Keondre Swoopes are returning starters. McWilliams had 10 passes defended in 2022 including this 76-yard pick-six:
Swoopes is arguably the top returning guy on this side of the ball for the Blazers. Playing in the hybrid STAR position in UAB’s 4-2-5 scheme that it ran under Clark and Vincent, Swoopes was fourth on the team with 53 tackles, broke up four passes, and snared an interception.
Damien Miller should be stepping into a starting safety role after appearing in nine games last season and posting 20 tackles, a pass breakup, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Colby Dempsey will likely start at the other corner spot and will try to live up to the standard set by Starling Thomas V.
Not only will the Blazers be looking to replace Thomas’ production, but they’ll also be looking to replace eight of their top 10 tacklers. Fairbanks and Swoopes are the only two returners who finished in the top 10 in that category.
Still, even with all of that experience gone, there’s certainly a foundation to build on for Trent Dilfer in his first season. Dilfer took the reins of the program after being hired in November. We’ll see if he can carry UAB to its seventh consecutive winning season, and lean on its defense while doing so.