The Conference USA is going to look much different in 2023 as six teams have left the conference and three new teams have joined. Now, the C USA has nine teams heading into the 2023 season.
However, with fewer teams, we should see previous players who weren’t looked at to be in the spotlight and are now classified as the top underrated Conference USA players to hit the national stage.
Top Five Under the Radar Conference USA Players
The players selected here are players who might be transfers looking to earn starting jobs or players who previously might have shown glimpses of greatness but were not ready to take the next step in their development as starters.
Each of these under-the-radar players should play a pivotal role in their team’s success in 2023.
Nick Vattiato, QB, Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee is rolling out a new quarterback with Chase Cunningham moving on from the program. That will leave redshirt sophomore Nick Vattiato as the guy, but he does have some experience playing for the Blue Raiders.
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In 2021, Vattiato was named C USA All-Freshman Team, and he was named the Bahamas Bowl Offensive MVP after starting five games for Middle Tennessee and winning a bowl game. He threw for 1,047 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions (five of them came in his first career start).
Last season, he played just two games, throwing for 293 yards and one interception.
Cunningham’s production will be missed for Middle Tennessee, as he was third in the conference in total offense, but Vattiato has proven to be an effective starter.
What he has going for him is his accuracy and the fact that in the eight games he has played, only three of them saw him throw interceptions. His decision-making has gotten significantly better since his first career start two seasons ago.
The Blue Raiders are expected to be in contention for a C USA title this season, with less competition to deal with.
One question that has been brought up is how Vattiato will fare in his first full season as the starter. In previous games, he has shown himself to be efficient and can make the right reads when presented with the right situation. He will be able to keep Middle Tennessee in games this season.
Mike Franklin, RB, UTEP
UTEP continued to add size to their backfield as they brought junior college running back Mike Franklin to compete with current starter Deion Hankins.
Franklin had a monster season at Contra Costa College, rushing for over 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns last season for the school. His performance was good enough to catch the attention of the Miners and bring him on.
Competition at the running back will be interesting as Hankins appears to be the front-runner as the starter. Franklin looks to be in line as a backup, with freshman Ezell Jolly also set to be in the mix.
What helps Franklin is he is athletic for a 6’2″, 225-pound running back who will be another ground-and-pound back like Hankins. Franklin provides Hankins with support while UTEP doesn’t lose a step in their running back position.
The Miners finished last season as the 54th-ranked rushing attack in the country. Adding Franklin to the mix, with four offensive linemen coming back as starters, expect Franklin to put up good numbers and help UTEP be the top rushing attack in C USA.
Kolbi Fuqua, DB, Jacksonville State
Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez took the Gamecocks to a 9-2 record in his first season with the team while they were still in the FCS. Now in Conference USA, coach Rodriguez will be looking for guys to step up with the competition level improving, which leads to junior defensive back Kolbi Fuqua being a guy ready to up his game.
Fuqua did a little bit of everything for JSU last season, recording 55 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions in 11 games started.
The former Auburn wide receiver has proven to be a great tackler, solid on blitzes, and can be used in pass coverage. Fuqua’s versatility makes him a silent weapon for the defense, which should be able to make plenty of plays.
Watch for him to play with a high motor and keep the Gamecocks in more games than most experts expect them to be in.
Sincere Jackson, LB, Sam Houston
Sam Houston had a lot of injuries they were dealing with on their defense in the 2022 season, including linebacker Sincere Jackson, who was expected to contribute big things last fall.
While attending City College of San Francisco in 2021, Jackson recorded 53 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery, and one interception. He would end up playing in one game in 2022 for the Bearkats, recording six tackles in that game before missing the rest of the season.
Jackson was terrific in that first game with Sam Houston, showing the potential of how great he can be for the program. The Bearkats found replacement Kavian Gaither, who replaced Jackson well, winning WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors a year ago.
Sam Houston has a big challenge with transitioning from FCS to FBS this season, so they certainly hope Jackson can stay healthy and improve the defense, making the linebacking core the strength of the defensive unit.
Craig Williams, RB, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech already has one of the best running backs in the conference, with Marquise Crosby receiving First-Team All-C-USA preseason honors going into 2023. The Bulldogs did bring in running back Craig Williams who could be a game-changer for this season on offense.
Baylor transfer Williams had the best season of his college career last year with the Bears, rushing for 557 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games played. Williams had two games of over 100 yards rushing, including 192 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma.
The Bulldogs brought in a running back who runs a 4.36 40-yard dash, which should already show fans the potential speed Williams brings. It should be safe to say that Williams should be involved in the offense, even if he doesn’t start a single game.
Williams adds to an offense that has plenty of playmakers. He will contribute to making the offense potentially one of the best in the conference. Louisiana Tech should have a strong running game, with Williams being a target that no one should overlook.