The 2016 football campaign was one to remember for University of South Alabama fans. The season included the first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent, the initial victory against a nationally ranked team and a second trip to a bowl game.
However, head coach Joey Jones is only concerned with the present. He enters his ninth year roaming the sidelines at Ladd-Peebles Stadium with perhaps his best roster. In the latest Sun Belt Conference preseason poll, USA was selected to finish fourth.
“We’re looking forward to the season,” said Jones, who is 48-42 since starting the Jaguar football team from scratch. “We feel like we have a really good team assembled, with probably the most depth we’ve ever had at each position.
“It starts with the line of scrimmage. On our offensive and defensive lines we have bigger guys who can play. The schedule is challenging — as it always is for South Alabama — but we’re really excited about it and looking forward to the opportunities we have.”
Appalachian State collected seven of 12 first-place votes and is the preseason choice to win the title, with 136 points. The Mountaineers are followed by Troy (127 points, two first-place votes) and Arkansas State (122, one first-place vote). The Jaguars are next with 98 points, while Louisiana-Lafayette rounds out the top five, posting 95 points and a first-place vote.
“I’m really excited about this team,” Jones said. “For the first time we have real depth at every position, which is very exciting for our staff. We knew going into the season as we looked at our depth chart there were guys behind the No. 1s and No. 2s who can play. It’s very exciting to know that as a coach, because in [NCAA] Division I football there tends to be some injuries from time to time; we’ve had our share of them. It’s good to see that we have depth. That’s a reassuring thing.”
• The SBC coaches also announced preseason honors for players. Senior defensive back Jeremy Reaves and junior offensive lineman Noah Fisher were named to the first-team roster, while senior running back Xavier Johnson and linebacker Darrell Songy are on the second-team list.
Reaves, who was all-league last year, has been named to both the Jim Thorpe Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch lists. Last year, he was credited with 85 total tackles, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. The safety begins his final year at USA among the top five in three different statistical categories on the school’s all-time list.
As a sophomore, Fisher started all 13 contests, with all but one of those coming at right tackle. He received an 85 percent mark for the year, including four contests with a mark above 90 percent, the highest on the squad. He returns to a line that includes Dominic Esposito and Harrison Louden.
Johnson has received national preseason recognition for the second straight year as he was named to the Paul Hornung Award Watch List. Johnson, who earned second-team preseason honors at both running back and special teams, enters the 2017 campaign ranked first at South Alabama in several career categories — rushing yards per game (61.8), 100-yard rushing games (9), kickoff return average (25.32), kickoff return touchdowns (2) and all-purpose yards per game (93.6).
In his first season with the program, Songy made an immediate impact as he led the Jaguars with 100 tackles, the sixth-highest season total in school history. He started all but one of South’s 13 games and was credited with seven stops behind the line of scrimmage. His best performance of the season came in USA’s bowl game as he posted a career-high 16 tackles against Air Force.
Junior tight end Maaseiah Francis is on the watch list for the John Mackey Award. He played behind NFL draftee Gerald Everett, finishing with 18 receptions for 261 yards and two touchdowns. He is preseason all-conference in two publications.
Jones said the quarterback competition is tight. Dallas Davis appeared in 11 games, passing for 2,706 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Right now Cole [Garvin] and Dallas are neck and neck,” Jones said. “Dallas is coming back off an injury and has looked really good the last two or three days, and Cole has had some great practices. Those two, to me, are really shining.”
The final returning starters are defensive linemen Zach Befort, Chason Milner and Tyree Turner, safety Neiko Robinson and kicker Gavin Patterson.
• The Jaguars kick off the season Saturday night at Ole Miss. The game, which starts at 6:30 p.m., will be shown on ESPNU. The Rebels are stumbling into the season with the resignation of head coach Hugh Freeze and the potential for NCAA penalties looming.
“If I were on that side of the table, I would have my kids fired up and ready to play,” Jones said. “I think they are going to come out swinging because they’ve gone through some tough times. They will be ready to play, I promise you.”
The season does not get any easier, as the next opponent is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are ranked in the Top 10 in several polls. That first home game of the year will be on Friday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. and be carried on ESPN2.
“We’ve got to run the football,” Jones said of his biggest concern going into the year. “I think some of our inconsistency last year was because we couldn’t run it. There were times when we were hot throwing it and we would light people up, and there were times we weren’t quite as hot throwing it.
“We could never go to the running game and control the clock and the game. We started working on that in January; we’re going to run the football better. If we do that we will be playing for the conference championship and if we don’t it’s going to be a grab bag.”
• With the addition of two new outlets, USA football radio broadcasts will now reach nearly 3 million listeners. New stations within the network include WZGX 99.1 FM in Birmingham and Hoover plus WZZN 97.7 FM in Huntsville, Decatur and Athens.
Jag football will be available locally in Baldwin County on 99.5 The Jag FM, while WRKH 96.1 FM will provide coverage in Mobile, Pensacola and Gulfport. Other stations returning include WBMH 106.1 FM (Jackson, Grove Hill), WFMH 95.5 FM (Hamilton, Jasper, Tupelo), WOAB 104.9 FM (Dothan, Enterprise, Ozark), WVRV 101.5 FM (Montgomery, Prattville) and WVRV 97.5 FM (Troy).
Game day coverage will begin two hours prior to kickoff with the broadcast team of J.D. Byars, Pat Greenwood, JT Crabtree and Tommy Hicks remaining intact another year. All broadcasts will once again be available through the iHeartRadio app as well.