Neil Callaway knew his first recruiting class at UAB would receive a baptism by fire. With 27 seniors gone from the 2006 team, Callaway could see that many of his newcomers would have to play immediately.
Fourteen true freshmen wound up playing as the Blazers went 2-10 in 2007, their first season under Callaway. It proved to be a steep learning curve for many of the young players, but Callaway says they laid a foundation that should have UAB football headed back in the right direction.
"We knew coming out of spring practice that we would have a lot of true freshmen playing," Callaway says. "We actually had a couple more we thought would be in the mix this year, but it didn't work out for them."
Several of the newcomers made an immediate impact, led by wide receiver Mario Wright and linebacker Mike Tashman. Wright, a 6-foot-5, 200-pounder out of Minor High in Birmingham, was the team's third leading receiver, with 27 catches for 272 yards and four touchdowns, including five catches each against Tulsa, Memphis, and Marshall. "Mario was primarily a basketball guy, and he didn't start playing football until his junior year of high school," Callaway says. "He's got a lot of potential."
Tashman, a 6-foot, 210-pounder from Hoover High, spent a year at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School before coming to UAB. He was the Blazers' fourth leading tackler, with 64 stops.
Perhaps the two most challenging roles for freshmen fell to Matt McCants and Terence Edge. The 6-foot-7, 295-pound McCants started seven games at left tackle, and the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Edge started eight games at right tackle. Those spots are critical to protecting the quarterback, and they normally are manned by juniors or seniors.
McCants, from Williamson High in Mobile, was a particular surprise because he played only one year of high-school football. "He played tuba in the band until his senior year," Callaway says. "That's quite a story. Matt has very good feet for an offensive lineman, and that is by far his strongest asset."
Edge is from Atlanta, and Callaway knew about him from the coach's time on the University of Georgia staff. "Terence came to our camps at Georgia, and I thought he had a big upside," Callaway says. "He's probably more of a natural guard, but he wound up being maybe our best offensive tackle."
D.J. Reese and Tim Davis also faced major challenges. Reese, a 6-foot-4, 280-pounder from Daphne, Alabama, started 11 games at defensive tackle. Davis, a 6-foot, 260-pounder from Apopka, Florida, started 10 games at the other defense tackle spot. With Tashman starting 10 games at middle linebacker, UAB usually had three true freshmen at the heart of its defense.
Two first-year players have left the program, leaving UAB with 11 redshirt freshmen who will begin play in 2008. "We have Jae Fitzgerald at running back and Marquis Coleman and Jimmie Blair at safety," Callaway says. "Those are positions where we will need them to step up and be impact guys next year."
Callaway is pleased with the 25 signees from his second recruiting class in February 2008. "We signed 11 junior-college guys who I think can give us immediate help," Callaway says. "We lacked depth at a lot of spots, so that was certainly something we needed."
The biggest need was at linebacker, where UAB signed seven players. Early contributions could come from defensive linemen Anthony Barnes and David Decordova, linebackers Kyle Roget and Dominique Roulach, and offensive linemen Ryan Roget and Daniel Seahorn. The Blazers added size at wide receiver, with 6-foot-4 Rodell Carter and 6-foot-2 Mark Ferrell.
Callaway is particularly excited about running back Aaron Johns, who started his career at the University of Alabama and has one year of eligibility remaining. "We actually signed him last year, and there were complications getting him in school. To his credit, he took some courses and should be eligible to enroll this summer. I like our young running backs, but I thought we needed an older guy, and I think he's going to provide some of that seniority."
Among the 14 high-school signees, quarterback David Isabelle, from Huntsville, is one standout. "He's a very athletic guy who also has a good arm and is a good passer," Callaway says. "I think he'll do a lot of good things for us here at UAB before he leaves."