- Associated Press - Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bill Clark wants unfavorable preseason forecasts to bother his UAB players.

The first-year Blazers coach takes over a struggling program with a mission of transforming everything from training habits to the mind-sets on the field. Changing minds of fans and Conference USA will only happen on the field.

UAB is picked to finish sixth in the seven-team East Division.

“If it’s not a motivator, something is wrong,” Clark said. “I would think that would bother them. Somebody has to be picked there and a lot of it is based on past history that doesn’t have anything to do with this team, but it does in the respect of that is what people think of us. The only way to change that is to change it.”

The transition for Clark’s second college head coaching job may take considerably longer than the first. He led Jacksonville State to the FCS quarterfinals in his debut last season, earning another job 80 miles away.

UAB, however, hasn’t had a winning record since 2004. Garrick McGee left to become Louisville’s offensive coordinator after going 5-19 in two seasons.

The Blazers do return eight starters on both offense and defense from a 2-10 team.

“You can’t forget about it, but that has to be your mentality - you have to put it behind you,” wide receiver Jamarcus Nelson said. “You have to have that mentality that you don’t want to go through that again.”

Leading rusher Darrin Reaves skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft and was undrafted before signing a free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers. Jordan Howard’s 881 yards wasn’t far behind him, though.

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Here are five things to watch in UAB’s season:

BETTER DEFENSE: The Blazers ranked 119th nationally in scoring defense last season, giving up 43.8 points and 497.8 yards per game. The Blazers will mainly run a three-man front led by defensive end Diaheem Watkins. Leading tackler Jake Ganus is back at linebacker. The secondary must improve and could get immediate help from newcomers like junior college transfer safety Bobby Baker.

QB BATTLE: Junior Cody Clements left spring as the No. 1 quarterback but has faced stiff competition from redshirt freshman Jeremiah Briscoe. Clements started his career at Washington State and spent the past two seasons at Cerritos College in California. Austin Brown and Jonathan Perry are both gone after divvying up starts last season.

DANGEROUS NELSON: Nelson is a preseason All-CUSA pick. He averaged 20.1 yards on 42 catches with eight touchdowns and also returned a punt and a kick for touchdowns.

PLAYING FAST: Clark brought an up tempo, spread offense to UAB - but values moving fast on both sides of the ball. “We play a fast-paced offense and fast-paced defense,” he said. “We try to play a lot of people. That is just who we want to be every day. It’s how we approach everything. There is a sense of urgency. We are urgent all the time.”

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Hunter Mullins is the preseason special teams player of the year. Placekicker Ty Long is in his fourth year as starter. And Nelson is one of the league’s best return men.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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