The University of South Alabama made history by becoming the youngest NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision team to ever reach a bowl game in 2014. The Jaguars, though, were unable to repeat the success last season, finishing with a 5-7 record.
A new campaign means new hopes for the future. Those dreams turn into reality this Saturday when USA kicks off the 2016 campaign at Mississippi State. The game starts at 11 a.m. and will be broadcast on the SEC Network and via radio by the new 99.5 FM The Jag.
“I want to say how excited I am about this football season,” said Joey Jones, who has served as head coach for each of South’s eight seasons. “This team has really come together. I know sometimes coaches get up and say things like that, but I mean it deep from the bottom of my heart. It’s been a great transformation since January. I think we all realize what happened last season.”
After a recent scrimmage, Jones discussed what he feels the team needs to improve on offense before the first game in Starkville.
“Number one offensively, we need to get all the guys out there that are going to be playing on Saturdays,” Jones said. “We’ve been working three groups and giving everybody a chance. We’ve just been trying to look at guys one last time before we get to our one- and two-deep.
“Secondly, we are running the football well. Our guys on defense have been going against the offense for a few weeks so they kind of know the plays and formations and have a little bit of an advantage there. We’re doing some good things in our blocking. Our quarterbacks are throwing the ball better. Protection has broken down a couple of times and we have to fix that. Overall, though, I think we are on the right track. I think the defense is just a little bit ahead of the offense right now.”
Quarterbacks — Dallas Davis has been selected to start. As a reserve in 2015, he threw for 108 yards and one touchdown. “Dallas is truly the most selfless guy we have on the team,” Jones said. “He doesn’t care who gets the credit; he wants our team to win.” His backups are Cole Garvin and Evan Orth.
Running backs — Much of the load will be carried by Xavier Johnson, who rushed for 956 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He is on the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award and is on the preseason second-team all-SBC squad. “The preseason honor is nice, but I know I just have to keep working and pushing myself and the other guys to do the same,” Johnson said. Also looking to contribute are Tyreis Thomas (552 yards, 2 TDs) and Dami Ayoola (119 yards), who were second and fourth on the team, respectively, in 2015.
Offensive line — Having played in all games last year are left tackle Curtis Williams (second-team all-SBC with 42 knockdown blocks), right tackle Noah Fisher and right guard Steven Foster. Joining them are center Dominic Esposito and left guard Steve McKenzie.
Tight ends — Gerald Everett (41 receptions, 575 yards, 8 touchdowns) started every game last year. He is on the John Mackey Award preseason list and is a first-team, all-conference preseason selection. “I definitely set it aside,” Everett said of the honors. “I’m focused on what my coaches expect from me and what my team demands of me. I’m not worried about what others are looking for me to do.” Easton Marshall played in five games, but did not make a catch. James Bynes led all Jaguar receivers in the Red-Blue spring game with four catches, including a 55-yard touchdown reception.
Wide receivers — Josh Magee is on the second-team all-SBC squad after averaging 21.9 yards per catch and scoring three touchdowns. Jones said Tyrone Williams would have been a starter in 2015, but he missed the entire season. Other key players are Kevin Kutchera, Sa’Mory Collier and Jordan McCray.
Kickers — Aleem Sunanon was on the preseason all-conference team after scoring 80 points. However, he graduated in December and did not pass enough credits in graduate school to be eligible. Gavin Patterson will now take over the position.
Coach Jones has been very pleased with this unit. “Our defense is playing at a real high level right now, which is very comforting,” he said. “As a head coach, you want everything great to happen on offense and defense, but the defense is really getting after [the offense]. We’re really good right now on defense.”
Cornerbacks — Jeremy Reaves has been named to the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list and is on multiple first-team all-SBC teams. As a sophomore, he had 96 total tackles and eight stops for loss. “When he came in as a freshman we stuck him on the field and he didn’t say a word,” Jones said. “Last year he got into a starting role and he almost seems like a senior now.” Quinton Dent will hold down the other side of the field.
Linebackers — The Jags return two letter winners in Bull Barge and Roman Buchanan (who played safety for the last three seasons). Buchanan’s 67 total tackles were the fourth-highest total for USA, and he was named second-team all-conference as a defensive back. “We felt that the most valuable player on our defense, the guy we need to make the most plays, is our ‘Stinger’ linebacker position, our weakside linebacker,” Jones said. “This will be Roman’s fourth year to start. He’s the headiest player we have.” Barge had 36 total tackles last season. At the “Mike” position will be Darrell Songy.
Secondary — Starters returning from last year are Kalen Jackson (96 tackles) at “Husky” and Devon Earl (57 tackles, two fumble returns for touchdowns) at “Rover,” although Jackson was a linebacker last fall. Jackson has been voted to the second-team all-conference preseason list. Other veterans are Nigel Lawrence and T’Qwan Robinson.
Defensive line — Starting at nose tackle is Zach Befort; at defensive end are Randy Allen and Chason Milner; and at defensive tackle is Sean Grayer.
Punters —Corliss Waitman will handle the duties.
High hopes for 2016
Jones said coming off last year’s losing record he has no doubt his Jaguars are underrated.
“The proof is in the pudding. We have to go out there and prove it,” he said. “We have one of the tougher schedules in the country — everybody has talked about it — from the standpoint of where we play in the Sun Belt and some other games out of conference that include two SEC teams and a San Diego State team that was the Mountain West champion. There is no doubt we are much improved. I don’t want to compare year to year but I know we have improved overall as a team right now.”