Photo | University of South Alabama Athletics

Junior punter Corliss Waitman punted 17 times for an average of 36.5 yards in 2017, averaging 51.9 yards on 10 kickoffs.

The University of South Alabama’s football team enters a new era this Saturday, when the Jaguars kick off the 2018 campaign at 6 p.m. versus Louisiana Tech at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

For the first season since the USA gridiron squad was formed in 2009, Joey Jones will not be roaming the sideline as head coach. Following a disappointing 4-8 record, a change was made in the program and Steve Campbell was handed the reins.

Campbell grew up just down the road in Cantonment, Florida — a paper mill town outside Pensacola. At his first media conference, he said USA has always been a part of his life.

“I always said that if [South Alabama] were to ever start football, it’d be a gold mine and with as well as their other programs had done, once they started football, South Alabama could take off and there’s no telling how far they could go,” he said back on Dec. 7.

Successful career

Campbell has been a winner as a player and a coach. In his 19 years as a head coach, his clubs are a combined 159-53. He has never had a team with a losing record.

He recently completed a four-year run at Central Arkansas, where the Bears went 33-15. This includes a 10-2 record last year that earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs. He was the Southland Conference’s Coach of the Year.

He first gained notice at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Over 10 seasons, the Bulldogs went 87-22 and won the national junior college title in 2007. He was twice named the national JuCo coach of the year.

The winning continued when he traveled to northern Mississippi to take over at Delta State University. In 2000, DSU won the NCAA Division II national title and he again earned national coach of the year honors.

He earned a bachelor’s degree while playing at Troy University. In 1987, he was part of the Trojan team that won the NCAA Division II championship. Campbell also earned a master’s degree while serving as an assistant coach at Auburn.

Veteran squad

The new USA coaching staff has a lot of talent to work with. The Jaguars have 55 returning players who have earned varsity letters — this includes 29 on offense, 22 on defense and four with special teams.

Of those players, seven starters are back on offense (position, height and weight in parentheses): seniors Noah Fisher (OL, 6-5, 315), Cole Garvin (QB, 6-1, 205), Tyler Grimsley (OL, 6-3, 295), Sam Harris (WR, 5-7, 180), Malik Stanley (WR, 6-3, 220) and Jamarius Way (WR, 6-4, 215); and junior Ryan Alexander (OL, 6-3, 305).

On defense, the Jaguars have another seven returning starters: seniors Malcolm Buggs (S, 5-9, 205), Sean Grayer (DE, 6-2, 255), Nigel Lawrence (S, 5-11, 190) and Darian Mills (CB, 5-11, 185); juniors Tobias Moss (CB, 5-9, 180) and Tyree Turner (DL, 6-1, 290); and sophomore Riley Cole (LB, 6-3, 240).

Veterans on special teams include seniors Gavin Patterson (PK, 5-7, 195) and Corliss Waitman (P, 6-2, 205).

Early recognition

The preseason honors are piling up for Waitman, who was selected second-team All-America by Sports Illustrated after averaging a school-record 45.24 yards per punt (first in Sun Belt Conference and eighth in the country). The honor is the second All-America and eighth preseason accolade for Waitman, who was also named preseason third-team All-America by Athlon Sports and is preseason first-team all-SBC. He was named to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which honors the nation’s top collegiate punter. 

Joining Waitman on the first-team SBC squad is Patterson. On the second-team list are Way, Turner and senior linebacker Bull Barge (LB, 5-10, 225).

Patterson, who has also received first-team all-league recognition from Athlon Sports, Lindy’s and Phil Steele Publications, converted 16 of 19 field goal attempts and hit 26 of 27 extra points to lead the team in scoring with 74 points during 2017.

Way, the lone offensive player from South to earn preseason accolades from the Sun Belt coaches and media, started all but one outing for the Jaguars in 2017 while leading the team with 47 catches for 762 yards, three touchdown receptions and 799 all-purpose yards. He is on the Biletnikoff Award preseason watchlist that recognizes the outstanding receiver in college football.

Barge started to see more action at the end of last season, finishing third on the squad with a career-best 77 tackles and two forced fumbles. He was credited with three stops behind the line of scrimmage, including a sack, and had four quarterback hurries.

As a sophomore, Turner led all Jaguar defensive linemen with 28 total stops and four tackles for loss, while sharing the team lead with three sacks. He was also credited with two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Senior Sean Grayer (DE, 6-2, 250) is also receiving preseason honors. He is a candidate for the Wuerffel Trophy (college football’s premier award for community service) and the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. A two-year starter for the Jags, his community service efforts include volunteering at the Wilmer Hall Children’s Home pancake breakfast fundraiser as well as the local Special Olympics meets and USA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Dodgeball Tournament.

Following the games

Jaguar Sports Properties has released broadcast information for the upcoming season. With the exception of the “Battle for the Belt” rivalry game against Troy set to be televised live on ESPN2 on Oct. 23, Jag football home contests will be available on the ESPN+ streaming service — which requires a $4.99 monthly subscription — with J.D. Byars (play-by-play), Pat Greenwood (analysis) and Lauren Velez (sidelines) on the call. The quartet of JT Crabtree (play-by-play), Chris May (analysis), Tommy Hicks (sidelines) and Joe McNulty (engineer/host) will handle duties for the Jags Radio Network.

Byars, Greenwood, Hicks and Crabtree (engineer/host) will call the action on the road.

The flagship radio station is WRKH 96.1 FM, which covers Mobile, Pensacola and the Mississippi Coast. Other affiliates include 99.5 The Jag FM (Mobile and Baldwin counties), WFMH 95.5 FM (Hamilton, Jasper, Russellville, Muscle Shoals), WOAB 104.9 FM (Dothan, Enterprise, Ozark), WVRV 101.5 FM (Montgomery, Prattville), WVRV 97.5 FM (Troy) and WZZN 97.7 FM (Huntsville/Athens/Decatur).