SAN ANTONIO – Slowly but surely, UTSA football is getting a little more respect as it looks ahead to its seventh season in school history.
The Roadrunners are picked to finish second to Louisiana Tech in Conference USA’s West Division in a preseason poll conducted by a panel of media members who cover the league.
UTSA was pegged to finish fifth among the six teams in the West in the same poll last year. The Roadrunners went 6-7 overall and 5-3 in C-USA play last season, their first with Frank Wilson as head coach, and finished second to Louisiana Tech in the West race.
UTSA junior running back Jalen Rhodes shrugged off the poll results Saturday after helping former teammate Jarveon Williams with a camp for kids at Universal City Park.
“It is what it is,” Rhodes said. “I’m really looking forward to the season and ready to get out there and show everybody that we can win conference, and we deserve it.”
UTSA played in its first bowl last year, losing to New Mexico in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
“Coach Wilson continues to build and make strides,” Stewart said. “We hope to continue that this season and take that next step. We went to a bowl game last year, but we’re going to take the next step and hopefully be eligible for one again this season and win it.”
With Williams gone, it will fall on Rhodes to carry the brunt of the Roadrunners’ running game. Williams finished his career as the all-time leading rusher in the program’s brief history, gaining 2,353 yards in four seasons, including 900 last year.
Rhodes ran for 827 yards on 157 carries for a 5.3 average last year, and set a school single-season record for rushing touchdowns with nine. He had his best game against Southern Miss, rushing for a career-high 165 yards on only 14 carries and tying the UTSA record with three TDs.
Rhodes has looked forward to being UTSA’s featured running back since he started getting playing time as a freshman.
“I’ve been ready for it,” said Rhodes, who graduated from Rowlett High School in 2015. “I’ve been waiting for a few years. I’m ready to get my opportunity and ready to help my team to be successful.”
Stewart, a senior wide receiver, had mixed emotions about C-USA’s preseason media poll.
“I’m glad we’re not last like last year,” he said, forgetting that UTSA was picked to finish ahead of North Texas. “Of course, we’re not OK with second. We want to compete for a conference championship. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Stewart was the Roadrunners’ leading receiver last season with 36 catches for 682 yards and five TDs. His brother, senior Kerry Thomas Jr., was second with 35 receptions for 555 yards and eight TDs. Both brothers graduated from A&M Consolidated High School in College Station.
So, what’s it like playing on the same team with his brother?
“It’s so much fun,” Stewart said. “He’s the reason I came to UTSA. It’s truly a blessing that he’s on one side and I’m on the other side. We both get to make plays for the same university. You can’t script it better than that.”
UTSA players report to camp July 31 and start practice the next day. The Roadrunners open their season against Houston at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 at the Alamodome.
“The morale of the team is up,” Stewart said. “We had a good spring and a good summer. Everybody is looking forward to getting started. We have 30 new guys coming in between freshmen, walk-ons and guys that transferred in.
“Basically, camp is a time for us to build and work on our team and not focus on the first opponent. Just focus on us and build up the camaraderie of the team. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Senior Dalton Sturm, from Goliad, goes into fall camp as the incumbent quarterback. A former walk-on, Sturm has started UTSA’s last 20 games in a streak that dates to the 2015 season. He is on the 2017 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award preseason watch list. The award is given to the country’s top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback.
Sturm passed for 2,170 yards and 20 TDs last year. He completed 169 of 299 attempts (56.5 percent) and was intercepted six times. Sturm also rushed for 313 yards and four TDs.
“Dalton has made tremendous strides since the spring,” Stewart said. “Even Manny (Harris), Bryce (Rivers) and Brandon (Garza), all our quarterbacks have looked good. We’re excited to see them compete during camp.”
Wilson was an assistant coach at LSU for six seasons before landing his first head-coaching job at UTSA in mid-January 2016. He succeeded Larry Coker, who coached the Roadrunners for their first five seasons before getting fired in early January 2016.
Rhodes praised Wilson for the impact he’s had on the players.
“He’s a hard-working man and he always tries to get the best out of you, so it’s hard not to respect that,” Rhodes said. “He’s always upfront with everyone. He takes care of his business and he expects that from his players.”
Stewart said Wilson is as much a mentor to his players as he is a coach.
“He’s not just focused on us as football players,” Stewart said. “He cares about us as people. He’s a genuine person. The person he is in front of the cameras is the same person he is off the cameras. He cares for us and he genuinely wants the best for us.
“He harps on our grades and our academics. He stays on us about the little things, like keeping the locker room clean. He talks about how that aspect of our lives translates to reality, when we get to the real world, the little things and details. That’s why I think it’s easy to follow him.”