As the 2023 FCS season inches closer, HERO Sports will look at the five biggest offseason questions for the 2022 quarterfinalists.
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UIW finished 12-2 last year, losing 35-32 to North Dakota State in the semifinals. Here are five questions the Cardinals face entering 2023.
RELATED: UIW Football 2023 Schedule
Can UIW reload again with a new QB and HC?
UIW faced doubts heading into last year after its breakout 2021 season where it finished 10-3 and nearly beat defending national champs Sam Houston in the second round. The Cardinals lost head coach Eric Morris to be Washington State’s offensive coordinator (he’s now the North Texas head coach). And star QB Cameron Ward followed Morris to Washington State.
But UIW answered the doubts in 2022, getting even better. First-year head coach G.J. Kinne and Nicholls transfer QB Lindsey Scott Jr. put together a 12-2 season, advancing to the semifinals and nearly beating NDSU in Fargo, jumping out to a 16-3 lead before losing 35-32. The Cardinals had ample opportunities to win that game for a program-defining victory.
Now, UIW will face some doubts again as it needs to replace its HC and QB for the second year in a row. Kinne took the Texas State head coaching job, and the Walter Payton Award-winning Scott has exhausted his eligibility.
Clint Killough was promoted to HC from associate head coach and wide receivers coach. And the Cardinals landed 6-foot-4 Power Five transfer Zach Calzada at QB. Calzada started 10 games at Texas A&M in 2021, throwing for 2,185 yards, 17 TDs, and nine interceptions, including going 21/31 for 285 yards and three TDs in a win over #1 Alabama. He transferred to Auburn in 2022 but did not see game action before undergoing shoulder surgery.
Three head coaches and three new starting QBs (two of which were transfers) in three years? Can the program ascension continue with that turnover?
Who are the star players?
UIW had 13 selections on the two-team All-Southland Conference.
Only one is back in 2023.
That is First Team DL Steven Parker, who racked up 48 tackles, 11 TFLs, and seven sacks.
Who steps up to be impact players on both sides of the ball? Jarrell Wiley is back as last year’s No. 3 rusher (435 yards, three TDs). The No. 3 and 4 WRs are back in Brandon Porter and CJ Hardy, who combined for over 1,100 yards receiving and 12 TDs. Jaelin Campbell is also back after catching six touchdowns last season. DB Brandon Richard returns as last year’s No. 3 tackler, totaling 79 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and five pass breakups. LB Ricky Rich also returns as last year’s No. 4 tackler (54 tackles and six TFLs).
UIW also brought in impact FCS transfers DL Marcus Brown from Howard (2022 First Team All-MEAC) and TE Dalton Meyer from Sam Houston. FBS transfers can be hit or miss, but UIW has landed 11 FBS transfers this offseason from the likes of Auburn, Iowa State, Texas Tech, USC, Michigan State, and Oregon.
The Cardinals bring back several players with experience and are bringing in a lot of talent overall from the portal. Several of these guys will have to step up to be All-American and All-Conference-level players for UIW to repeat last season’s success.
How does the offensive line look?
UIW lost 12 players to the FBS this offseason, seven who followed Kinne to Texas State. Five of those seven are offensive linemen. And three of those five were All-Southland performers.
The 2022 o-line was an underrated part of UIW’s offense, giving the Cardinals a physical presence and keeping defenses unbalanced as it tried to slow down the pass. Marcus Cooper went for over 1,400 yards on the ground.
It will be a new-look unit in 2023. Stanley Mark returns with starting experience from last year. And Branon Jackson could make an impact as well, a transfer from D2 Texas A&M-Kingsville where he was a First Team All-Conference player.
Does the defense get better?
The defense was above average last year, allowing 24.71 points per game. That ranked No. 38 in the FCS and was an improvement from the 26.92 PPG allowed in 2021.
UIW’s run defense needs to get stronger to make a deep run in the playoffs again, where they would face elite rushing attacks like South Dakota State, Montana State, and NDSU. In the semifinal loss at NDSU, Cam Miller completed only one pass for five yards on 12 attempts. But UIW couldn’t stop the run as the Bison ran for 328 yards to complete the comeback.
A lot of production needs to be replaced as the Cardinals bring back four of its top 13 tacklers.
How do the transfers gel?
As mentioned above, UIW is bringing in double-digit transfers from the FCS, FBS, and lower divisions, including 11 from the FBS.
Last year, the Cardinals brought in four FCS transfers and 10 FBS transfers. Many made big impacts, including QB Lindsey Scott Jr. (Nicholls), WR Brandon Porter (Northern Arizona), DL Steven Parker (Kansas), DL Chris Whittaker (FIU), and DL Olivier Charles-Pierre (Houston).
A large incoming transfer class sees a mixed bag of results. Samford saw a big jump in success in 2022 after landing double-digit FBS transfers. Missouri State brought in double-digit FBS transfers as well to add to its strong returning cast and fell well short of preseason expectations.
UIW has a mix of star power leaving, strong contributors returning, and high-level talent transferring in. How it all gels in the locker room will translate to how successful the team is on the field.