South Alabama head football coach Joey Jones doesn’t mince words when asked the importance of the Jaguars’ spring practice, which was scheduled to begin on Monday.
“This is probably as critical a spring as any that we’ve had because there are so many new guys and we lost so many guys from last year,” Jones said. “It’s very critical. We all think they’re this or that before they get here, but once they’re here, that’s when you find out. We may be high on a safety but when he gets here we find out he’s an outside linebacker, or maybe we thought a guy was a cover corner and we find out he’s better as a safety. We have to sort those things out in the spring. We have to develop depth. My goal is to be at least two-deep at every position when we finish spring. If we’ve got three-deep, that’s great, but a minimum of two deep.”
The Jaguars, who finished last season 6-7 with an invitation to the inaugural Raycom Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, lost 31 seniors. Several of those players were starters or played significant minutes for the Jags and many played key roles for the team for more than two seasons.
Jones and his staff countered the loss by recruiting seven players from UAB’s disbanded program — with two more set to enroll for the summer semester — and signing four junior college transfers. The Jags also produced what many believe is the program’s most talented recruiting class.
The Jags’ 15 days of spring practice, which will continue until the team’s annual Red and Blue spring game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium at noon on Saturday, April 11, will also allow a fresh coaching staff to work together on the field for the first time. Bryant Vincent, a former quarterbacks coach for the Jags, returned at the end of the regular season from UAB, where he was offensive coordinator for one season. He takes on the same role at USA, where he was able to coach the team in the bowl game.
Also joining the staff: Richard Owens (UAB), Tyler Siskey (Alabama) and Tracy Buchannon (Colquitt County High). Siskey will coach wide receivers, with Tim Bowens, who coached receivers last season, moving to a position coaching running backs. Owens will coach tight ends and Buchannon will coach inside linebackers, meaning Mike Adams, who coached the position last season, will coach outside linebackers and defensive ends this year.
The Jags lost 18 starters from last season’s team, hence the urgency and importance placed on this spring practice by Jones and his staff.
“My challenge to them all winter has been, ‘we’ve done some good things here and there’s no doubt we’ve gotten some national recognition, being the team that has made a bowl game the quickest of a new program,’” Jones said. “All those things are great … and there were some good things that happened (last year), but we challenged them that we want to be great. Our whole deal is that to be great, it’s not about athleticism anymore. Our first year in Division I we probably didn’t have enough athletes and that was a factor. Now we have enough athletes to where it’s going to come down to the mental side of it. I think if we can develop that strength between now and next fall, we can do some great things.”
Replenishing the starting lineup and building depth throughout the roster is his first priority, but Jones said they will also have to identify the team’s starting quarterback and his backup, as well as finding someone to handle kickoff duties — someone who can consistently kick the ball in the end zone, limiting returns.
Some progress will be limited based on injuries and/or players rehabbing from recent surgeries. The injury list includes QB Cody Clements (UAB transfer), WR Marvin Shinn, OL Steven Foster, TE Braedon Bowman, OL Jared Maldonado, OL Clay Machen, TE Caleb Hayman, DB Devon Earl, LB Cordivdo Grice and LB Kalen Jackson.
Here’s a quick look at each of the positions heading into spring:
QB: Clements started for UAB last season and figures to be to be the frontrunner, but missing spring opens the door for returnees Hunter Vaughn and Matt Floyd. Running back should be a deep position with the return of Terrance Timmons and Xavier Johnson and the additions of Dami Ayoola (former starter at Illinois as a freshman), D.J. Vinson (UAB) and former JUCO All-American Tyreis Thomas. At wide receiver, the position is also deep with returnees Shinn, Danny Woodson II, Cameron Broadnax and Claude Garrett, as well as the addition of JUCO transfer Tyrone Williams, Josh Magee’s return (this summer) after a year at UAB.
Chris May and Chris Scelfo are back on the offensive line and UAB transfers Lee Dufour and Cameron Blankenship add help along with Machen, Foster and Noah Armstrong. At tight end, Bowman leads the way and the addition of UAB’s Gerald Everett gives the Jags a good one-two punch. Hayman and DeMarrion Buford-Hughes are also added to the mix, along with JUCO transfer James Bynes.
On the defensive front, Tre Alford and DeMarion Harper return, with Dondre Chanet and Jacob Chaffin. Jones said there are three others arriving for fall practice who will be in the mix. At OLB/DE, Jimmie Gipson III is the top returning player. Linebacker finds the need for players to step forward, including Grant Powell (who loved there from QB last season), Grice, Demarius Rancifer and others. The secondary should be deep with Earl, Roman Buchanan, Margo Reed, E.J. May, Antonio Carter, Nigel Green and others making their returns, along with JUCO transfer Quinton Lane. There are also incoming freshmen, including St. Paul’s Jalen Thompson, who could make an impact at the position in the fall.
The kicking game loses long snapper Austin Cole and returner T.J. Glover as well as Jereme’ Jones, and finding a new set of returners will be important. Alex Hopson should step in as long snapper. Corliss Waitman, redshirted last year, will challenge for Brandon McKee’s punting job as well as kickoff duties. Walk-on Alexander Theodore may figure in the kickoff competition. Aleem Sunanon is the leader and returner as the team’s field goal kicker.
Practice started Monday and continued Wednesday, both drills in shorts. The team will practice in helmets and shoulder pads on Friday and in full pads Saturday. Scrimmages are set on March 28 and April 4 (at Murphy High School), with the spring game April 11.
The original version of this article reported that UAB transfer Austin Chipotelli was in the running for the QB position. However, it appears he is no longer with the team.