BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- UAB coach Neil Callaway feels his program is headed in the right direction. He also knows winning
games is the only way to prove it.
Callaway has gone 15-33 in four seasons with the Blazers, who are seeking their first winning season since 2004. Quarterback Bryan Ellis, running back Pat Shed and defensive tackle Elliott Henigan lead a team that had 13 seniors listed atop the depth chart in the spring.
"We've made progress. We know we have a lot of hurdles to overcome," Callaway said. "All the pressure is always what you put on yourself, not coming from the outside. You work hard and make progress, and that's what we've done."
The Blazers went 4-8 last season, with losses at Tennessee and
Mississippi State by a combined four points. Callaway hired former Clemson and Memphis head coach Tommy West to turn around a defense that is thin at defensive end but has nine players returning who started multiple games last season.
Callaway says he thinks it's the best collection of talent he's had on that side of the ball. West's task is to improve a group that ranked 105th nationally against the pass, 95th in scoring defense and 80th in total defense.
The Blazers gave up 54 points to East Carolina, 49 in a win over
Southern Miss and 42 to Central Florida.
"There's no question we've got to play better defense," Callaway said. "There's no question we've got to quit giving up so many points, giving up big plays. There's no question we've got to do better. I do think we'll be better, but time will tell. We'll see how it goes."
Henigan and linebacker Marvin Burdette, who had a team-high 114
tackles, lead the defense, along with safety Chase Daniel. Daniel
has battled injury problems the past two seasons.
Henigan had 55 tackles and 15.5 stops behind the line in 2010.
Sophomores Connor Boyett, a seven-game starter, and Chris Walton
are the only returning scholarship defensive ends.
Walton received a medical redshirt last season after playing in three games. UAB doesn't have a quarterback question this season.
Ellis took over from David Isabelle -- who later transferred to Alabama A&M -- in the fourth game. He wound up passing for 2,940 yards and 25 touchdowns -- but was also intercepted 12 times.
"He's got to be smarter," Callaway said. "You want to be aggressive, to throw the ball, to try to make plays, but at the same time you've got to make sure that you don't do any dumb things."
Shed might be UAB's busiest player. He led the Blazers with 847
yards rushing but also had a team-high 47 catches for 471 yards and
returned kicks and punts. Plus Georgia transfer Dontavious Jackson
is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer.
They'll have four seniors blocking for him on the line, including All-C-USA tackle Matt McCants. Patrick Hearn is the top returning receiver, but Callaway said uncertainty at tight end means there could be more three- or four-wide receiver sets.
"We're going to be better in every area except tight end," Callaway said.
The Blazers also signed two kickers who are trying to shore up a
spot that was an Achilles heel last season, with five missed field
goals in a double-overtime loss to Tennessee and a miss in the
final minutes of a 32-31 defeat to Florida Atlantic.
"We're a better football team," Callaway said. "Time will tell with our record on how that goes. Ultimately I know how you're judged and gauged."
He added that he likes the chemistry and leadership on the team.
"For the first time, I think we've got a group of guys -- more than one or two guys -- that are trying to step up and lead and do things the right way," he said. "It's kind of catching on and overlapping into the chemistry of this football team."
UAB opens the season at Florida on Sept. 10. The Blazers also host a Southeastern Conference team when Mississippi State visits Legion Field on Oct. 8.
"We have a lot of talent coming back, a lot of guys with experience playing in this league," Ellis said. "We're all coach Callaway's players now. There's no one in the program that knows anything other than coach Callaway's way, and that will definitely be a benefit to us."