Photo | Scott Donaldson/South Alabama Strategic Communications
The 2018 football season opened with a lot of promise for the University of South Alabama (USA). Taking over as head coach was Steve Campbell, who had led both Delta State University and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to national championships.
Awaiting the Jaguars, though, was a formidable schedule that included eight teams that would go on to play in postseason bowls. The result was a 3-9 record and a fourth-place finish (2-6) in the Sun Belt Conference’s (SBC) West Division.
The Jaguars are not dwelling on the past. Their focus is on the season opener this Saturday at Nebraska. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. on ESPN.
“We’re very excited about getting started with the 2019 campaign,” Campbell said. “Our guys have been working tremendously hard since January in preparation for this upcoming season.
“It will be very challenging, but it’s a schedule that we really look forward to playing. We’ve got a great home schedule and an outstanding schedule on the road. We’re really looking forward to this upcoming year.”
Picking up honors
The Jaguars have 10 starters back among the 40 returning varsity letter winners.
“I really like this football team,” Campbell said. “They like each other; they have fun being around each other. We have tried to institute a culture of being unselfish and playing for your teammate. It’s not about you; it’s about the guy next to you. These guys believe that and live that; they care about each other. My experience has been that when you have teams that are like that, they have a lot more of a chance to be successful.”
Three members of the USA squad have been selected to preseason all-SBC teams. Seniors Tyree Turner (6-1, 305) and Tra Minter (5-9, 205) were both picked to the first-team unit on the defensive line and as a return specialist, respectively, with junior Kawaan Baker (6-1, 210) chosen as a second-team wide receiver.
Turner has been named preseason all-Sun Belt by four publications this summer (Phil Steele Publications, Athlon Sports, Lindy’s and Street & Smith’s) after being second-team all-league a year ago. As a junior, he posted 51 total stops including 10 for loss with four sacks to go along with three quarterback pressures.
“We emphasized this year, making the time count but don’t count the time,” Turner said. “We’ve got to do it, so we put everything we have into it, and do it 100 percent.”
Minter was chosen second-team all-league both as a return specialist and all-purpose back in 2018. He has been named second-team preseason All-America by The Sporting News, while earning preseason all-Sun Belt recognition as a return specialist or all-purpose back from Phil Steele, Athlon and Lindy’s. Minter is a preseason candidate for the Paul Hornung Award and was also named to the Doak Walker Award watch list.
Last season, he stood third in the conference with an average of 24.48 yards per kick return and averaged 15.2 yards per punt return. Minter paced the league and was among the top 10 nationally with 150.25 all-purpose yards per game a year ago.
“We’re very excited for the season,” Minter said. “We’ve been putting it all together for fall camp. We’re getting used to the heat, staying focused and mentally prepared and taking coaching. Our attention to detail has been very good and responding to adversity very well.”
Baker led the team in scoring with 78 points, was second on the squad in rushing and receiving yards and receptions and finished third with 839 all-purpose yards to be named honorable mention all-Sun Belt. A preseason second-team all-conference selection by Phil Steele, Athlon and Lindy’s, he hauled in 33 receptions for 494 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 251 yards and nine scores a season ago.
At quarterback is Davidson High product Cephus Johnson (6-5, 220, sophomore), who played in eight games last year. He completed seven of 19 passes for 120 yards and three touchdowns.
“I feel like my confidence is growing every day,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to get too comfortable. I just want to feel like I want to get better at something every day.”
Other returners on offense are right guard Roy Albritton (6-2, 335, senior), center Brian Ankerson of Theodore (6-1, 295, junior), left guard Hadon Merchant of Fairhope (6-3, 320, sophomore) and right tackle Troy Thingstad of St. Paul’s Episcopal (6-5, 280, senior).
Ankerson has been named to the Wuerffel Trophy watch list. The honor goes to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision player that best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement. He has been nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and named to the Rimington Trophy watch list as well.
The other returning defensive starters are nose tackle Jordon Beaton (6-1, 310, senior); linebacker Nick Mobley (5-11, 215, sophomore) and cornerback Jalen Thompson (6-0, 185, senior).
The Jaguars will appear a minimum of four times on ESPN’s networks. South’s non-conference matchup at home against Memphis on Sept. 14 can be seen on ESPNU. The Jags will return to ESPNU on Thursday, Oct. 3, when they host Georgia Southern. ESPN2 will broadcast the annual “Battle For The Belt” at Troy on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
USA’s first two home games against Jackson State (JSU) and Memphis will get underway at 6 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively. The matchup with JSU will be broadcast on ESPN+.
The Jaguars’ contest against Georgia Southern — their first at home in Sun Belt action — is set for a 6:30 p.m. start, with game time at Troy scheduled for 7 p.m. South’s Sept. 21 visit to Alabama-Birmingham will be broadcast at 2:30 p.m. on the NFL Network.
Home field advantage
USA has called Ladd-Peebles Stadium its home since the program began in 2009. That will all change next year when the Jaguars move into their new on-campus home.
The Department of Athletics has announced all suites and loges at the Hancock Whitney Stadium have been sold in advance of the Jaguar football program’s inaugural game at the facility.
South will open the 25,000-seat stadium on Sept. 12, 2020, against Grambling, with other home games that season including matchups against UAB and Troy.
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