- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Football is back at UAB. Now the Blazers need players.

Among the many challenges UAB faces now that it has reinstated its football program - six months after dropping it - is reconstructing a roster that can compete in FBS, maybe as soon as 2016.

The Blazers are not starting from scratch, but it is close enough that coach Bill Clark might want to look toward FBS newbies UTSA and Charlotte to help craft a blueprint for rebuilding his team.

“He’s probably in a better spot than just starting from zero,” said Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, whose team joins FBS and Conference USA - UAB’s league - this season.

FBS football teams are limited to 105 total participants and 85 scholarship players. Most teams are close to those numbers and being substantially below them is a major disadvantage.

There is virtually no way UAB will return with 85 scholarship players. The best it can hope for is to be in the ballpark.

First off, UAB still has some football players on scholarship as it moves toward a 2015 season with no games, though one where it can hold practices.

While many of the Blazers’ best players (such as running back Jordan Howard, who is now at Indiana) have already transferred, there were still 31 players who will be on scholarship in the 2015-16 academic year enrolled at UAB during the recently concluded semester, according to the athletic department.

How many will return is unknown, and the 2015 season will count toward their five years of NCAA eligibility. However, those players could seek a waiver from the NCAA to get that year of eligibility back. So even a player entering his last year of eligibility in 2015 might be able to play in 2016.

UAB did not sign a recruiting class in February, but it still can hand out the NCAA-maximum 25 football scholarships this year. There would be no letters of intent involved. It’s too late for that. But Clark still could have freshman scholarship players on campus when the fall semester starts. Though at this point there are probably few FBS-level high school recruits available.

It is more likely Clark will hold on to many of those 25 spots and use them on mid-year enrollees, either junior college players who can sign in December, high school players who graduate early or other college transfers.

Those players would still count toward UAB’s 2015 class.

In February, UAB can sign another 25 players.

JUCO signees and transfers will be a key for UAB’s rebuild. Going into an FBS season relying on a two-deep filled with freshmen and sophomores is a recipe for failure.

Lambert was hired by Charlotte in 2011 to start a program scheduled to begin playing in FCS 2013, and then move up to FBS. He said the goal was to have an experienced team by 2015.

The 49ers will have 11 seniors and 29 fourth-year juniors this year, Lambert said.

Unless UAB pushes off its relaunch off until 2017, Clark won’t have time to let his players grow up.

“That’s always the tricky part, how do I get age on the team in a short amount of time,” Lambert said.

UAB likely will need to rely on nonscholarship players more than Clark might prefer to in the Blazers’ first year or two back in business. Finding walk-ons who can turn into contributors will be crucial.

UTSA coach Larry Coker said the Roadrunners, who have been playing football since 2011 and joined C-USA in 2013, first started practicing with 50 walk-ons.

“We had some really good walk-on players here that turned out to be good football players that could play any place I’ve been,” said Coker, who was once head coach at Miami.

Being in Texas gave Coker a huge pool of players from which to find hidden gems and late-bloomers.

“I think UAB’s probably the same way,” Coker said. “A lot of good players in Alabama and that area.”

The big difference is the 49ers and Roadrunners played FCS schedules in their first seasons, Charlotte for two years and UTSA for one. If UAB does return to Conference USA as expected, the schedule the Blazers face would be more difficult.

On the bright side, Lambert said, UAB should be able to draw better recruits - even with the program’s near-death experience.

“They are at a little bit of an advantage because everybody knows who they are and where they’re going,” he said. “It’s not like they’re recruiting to a I-AA team.”

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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