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September 10, 2012

Up Next: UAB blazing new path

Had Garrick McGee waited a couple of months, he might be the coach at Arkansas right now.

Just what Razorback fans want to hear after a dreadful loss to Louisiana-Monroe two days ago.

McGee accepted the coaching job at UAB in December after four seasons on the Arkansas staff, the last two campaigns as the offensive coordinator.

Three months later, Bobby Petrino was fired after an investigation into a well-publicized motorcycle accident revealed that his mistress had been given preferential treatment in securing a job with the Arkansas football office.

Arkansas reportedly approached McGee about returning to Fayetteville, but he decided to stick with his UAB gig out of loyalty to the Blazers, the second straight member of Conference USA to invade Williams-Brice Stadium.

UAB (0-1) tabbed the 39-year-old McGee just in time because he was regarded by most analysts as one of the up-and-coming coaches in the industry. He was a finalist for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the nation's top assistant coach, in 2011.

McGee brings UAB to Columbia for a prime-time matchup with South Carolina on Saturday (7 p.m., Fox Sports Net). The following week, the Blazers travel to Ohio State.

"There is no doubt we get the opportunity to go play in one of the top settings in college football, at night and on television," McGee recently said. "The crowd will be all fired up. Just getting the opportunity to go out and perform in a setting like that should fire our whole program up. We have to do things right but we're looking forward to it."

It will UAB's third trip to Williams-Brice Stadium in the last 10 seasons. The last time was 2008, when USC pulled out a hard-fought 26-13 victory.

"We've had wars with those guys," McGee said on Monday during his weekly press conference. "I think they are exactly the same that they've always been. They're very talented. They have one of the best football coaches standing on the sideline in the history of the game, which gives them credibility immediately. They're a very talented football team that runs the ball, throws deep and plays aggressive team defense. They're the same team they've always been."

UAB returns seven starters on offense and four on defense from last season's team that posted a disappointing 3-9 record. The lack of experience on the latter side of the ball showed up in an opening-game setback, 39-29, to in-state rival Troy on Sept. 1.

The Blazers had a bye on Sept. 8, so they have had two weeks to prepare for the Gamecocks.

The Trojans totaled 453 offensive yards, 262 on the ground, an average of 5.8 yards per rush. Troy threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-22 passing.

Overall, Troy averaged 6.8 yards per play.

The UAB defense is led by senior linebacker Marvin Burdette, who continues to move up the school career tackles chart after making 92 tackles as a junior in 2011.

Just like East Carolina, conference brethren UAB must prepare for two quarterbacks - Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. McGee sees major differences between the two signal-callers.

"What the film says is they're a lot more aggressive, a lot more multiple as an offense (with Thompson)," McGee said. "What Thompson gave them is the opportunity to throw the ball more, which gave them a lot more room to run. What Shaw brings to the table is he's a competitor, he's a winner. He's a coach's kid. Austin Brown, our (backup) quarterback, played on the same high school team so we know a lot about him."

Burdette picked up where he left off a year ago and finished the Troy loss with 10 tackles, giving him 259 in his career to rank ninth on the Blazers' all-time list.

UAB allowed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to Troy nine days ago.

"The big and glaring thing is that we have to tackle better," UAB defensive coordinator Reggie Johnson said. "We have physical kids that like to hit. We've got to wrap, grab cloth, fundamental things."

Offensively, the Blazers returned seven starters from a year ago, including quarterback Jonathan Perry, who was 18-of-33 for 317 yards and two touchdowns in the opening-game loss to Troy.

UAB fell behind Troy 17-0 before mounting a rally in the second half.

"We started off slow, but I think we got in a rhythm late in the first half," UAB offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm said. "In the second half we picked it up a little bit and started to make some plays. We would've liked to play better but there were signs that we can be explosive at times. We've just got to make sure we're consistent with it and take care of the ball when we're doing it."

Perry made eight starts last season after injuries forced Bryan Ellis to the sideline. Perry finished with 2,042 passing yards as he completed 174-of-300 passes with 10 touchdowns. He also rushed for 294 yards.

Will Perry have enough time to throw the ball on Saturday with defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor rushing from the edge? McGee is impressed by how much Clowney has improved from last season.

"He is a different player this year. He's much more aggressive," McGee said. "They do a good job of moving him around inside and outside. He disrupts the quarterback a lot. He gets a hand up and the quarterback has to redirect or reset his feet. There were two interceptions in the game against East Carolina that he got his hand up and made the quarterback make another step and he ended up throwing picks. He's disruptive and one of the top players in the country."

However, all four of the new starters are on the offensive line. The list of departing players includes first-team all-Conference USA tackle Matt McCants, a sixth-round choice of the New York Giants. In all, UAB lost four offensive line starters totaling 136 career starts.

Senior Chris Hubbard, a preseason coaches' all-conference selection, is the lone returning starter along the offensive front.

Leading returning rusher Greg Franklin (430 yards on 84 carries in 2011) had 41 yards on six rushing attempts against Troy, while Darrin Reaves had 48 yards and Jonathan Perry 46, giving UAB three rushers with 40-50 yards on the ground.

UAB returns six receivers who saw extensive action last season. One of those is junior Jacki Williams, whose season got off to a good start with six receptions for 157 yards against Troy, an impressive average of 26.2 yards per catch.

Williams registered 58 catches, the fourth-highest single-season mark in UAB history, for 607 yards in 2011. He has caught at least one pass in all 24 games he has played at UAB.

Even though McGee lost his UAB debut, he has seen enough positives from his team since then in practice to stay optimistic about the season.

"We have players who are committed and physically tough, who ran around and competed like they really cared about our program and the direction we are headed," McGee said. "That is the positive.

"What I learned in the off week is they really care and really want to win. We had really tough, hard meetings with them about it and I was impressed with the way they took really tough criticism, coming at them about how to focus, how to concentrate, how to play the game, throughout the game, at a high level."

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