Photo | University of South Alabama
There has been a lot of movement on the South Alabama football roster since the end of spring practice, and others have taken notice. The Jaguars open fall drills Thursday for the 2022 season and there will be a lot of new players taking reps during the workouts.
There will also be elevated expectations, at least from those outside the program. South Alabama, in a vote of the league’s coaches and sports information directors (one vote per school), is predicted to finish second in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division. The league now has 14 teams, compared to 10 a year ago, and thus, seven-team divisions. The Jags’ in-state rival Troy has moved over from the East to the West, and nearby Southern Miss has joined the league and will also play in the West Division. Old Dominion, Marshall and James Madison have been added to the East.
But the focus Thursday and moving forward will be internal as the Jags look to improve on last year’s 5-7 overall mark and 2-6 Sun Belt record and make a run at living up to the expectations placed on them in the preseason, if not exceeding them.
If South Alabama is to enjoy that kind of success, head coach Kane Wommack, entering his second season in charge, said there is at least one aspect of the Jags’ approach that must improve.
“Consistency is a huge piece of what we have to do,” he said at last week’s Sun Belt Football Media Days gathering in New Orleans. “This has been a program that over the years, and this has been in a short amount of time, we have had big moments in our history. We’ve won big games. You think about my first year there as defensive coordinator in 2016 — we play Mississippi State and go beat them in Starkville. And No. 19 San Diego State comes into our place and they go home with a whooping from Mobile, and then certainly we have been to bowl games and all that stuff.
“But consistency is what we have lacked in our program and that’s something we build every single day. Against the best teams in our conference this past year, we went toe to toe with those teams and I think for the most part we weathered the storm into the fourth quarter, but maybe we were more excited to be in that moment as opposed to expecting to be in that moment.
“You look about where we were with Louisiana, who has been the standard bearer in our league the last four seasons, and you lose after missing a field goal, 20-18, against those guys. [We went to] double overtime against Coastal Carolina. We have to start changing the dynamic of our program from weathering the storm to we’ve got to start embodying the storm itself. We’ve got to start inflicting our force and our will onto our opponent. And when we get in those big games and those big moments you expect to be there and not just be excited that we’re just in it at the end of the game. That’s an exciting challenge for us.”
The Jags are expected to have a deep and talented defensive unit this season, with solid players up front, in the middle and in the secondary. Safety Keith Gallmon and cornerback Darrel Luter Jr. are first-team preseason All-Sun Belt picks and they have plenty of help from returning players and players added from the transfer portal.
There have been plenty of additions on defense, including safeties Rickey Hyatt (Kentucky), Jalen Jordan (Ole Miss) and Marvin Martin (Kansas State); defensive end Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge (Oklahoma); and DL C.J. Person (Indiana). James Miller (Indiana) made his presence known in spring drills and is expected to be a starter at linebacker, where the Jags also boast D.K. Bonhomme (Indiana) and returnees Quentin Wilfawn and A.J. DeShazor, as well as signee Chrystyile Caldwell.
On offense, the key areas are the offensive line and the running back position, as well as who is going to step forward as the team’s quarterback. Desmond Trotter, who has been a part-time starter in his career with the Jags, returns, along with Toledo transfer Carter Bailey. Following spring drills it would appear one of them will emerge as the starter for Game 1.
At running back, the Jags’ top two rushers from last season, Terrion Avery and Bryan Hill, are back, but they have lots of company. Former Alabama Mr. Football selection La’Damian Webb, who was injured in the spring (broker foot), is expected to be ready at the start of the season. He transferred in from Jones College in Mississippi. Mississippi State transfer Omni Wells and Virginia Tech transfer Marco Lee will join the group, and freshman signee Braylon McReynolds of McGill-Toolen is also available, along with Damean Bivins, who has battled injuries in the past but had a solid spring.
Up front on offense, the Jags have signed Dontae Lucas (Florida State), P.J. Mixon (Jacksonville State) and James Robinson (Tennessee), as well as former St. Paul’s defensive line standout Daniel Foster-Allen (Auburn) who is moving to the offensive line. Returnees up front include Trey Simpson, James Jackson, Antawn Lewis, Anterrious Gray and Josh McCulloch.
At wide receiver, look for Jalen Wayne to lead the way, while the Jags are loaded at tight end, including Ole Miss transfer D.J. Thomas, a former Saraland standout, who had a terrific spring. Other tight ends include Lincoln Sefcik and Brandon Crum.
“If you look at our season last year, some of our challenges and adversity to being inconsistent and successful was in the run game,” Wommack said. “We did some dynamic things in the pass game because of guys like Jalen Wayne and Jalen Tolbert. Our tight end corps is not just a bunch of blockers, we have some true dynamic receivers in that room as well.
“From an offensive line standpoint, I think that was probably the biggest overhaul that we had, along with our running back position. We have since brought in three Power 5 transfer players at the running back position, along with our two leading [returning] rushers in Terrion Avery and Bryan Hill. We got the most dynamic player in the city of Mobile in Braylon McReynolds coming in who will be able to help us in a multitude of different facets. We have to establish a run game to be a consistent, championship program, better than where we were a year ago.”
Wommack added he is optimistic based on what he has seen thus far and during the Jags’ summer programs.
“We have improved in pretty much all facets of our program,” he said. “If you look back to where we were 18 months ago, it was not a broken system; the cupboard was not bare. There were certain things that we had to do culturally, talent, schematically to improve our football program and we have taken steps in that direction. But from Year 1 to Year 2, we have improved really in every area. What that means remains to be seen. That’s why you play the games themselves.”
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