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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 123: South Alabama

South Alabama didn’t rush into things: the Jaguars took things slow, didn’t overplay their hand, stayed cool while other F.B.S. wannabes rushed through the motions while climbing the ladder. The university christened its program in 2009 against a seven-game slate of military academies — not Army and Navy, but Hargrave, Louisburg and Fork Union — and junior colleges. A year later, the Jaguars added four F.C.S. programs into the mix. The end results remained the same: young and untested South Alabama started 17-0, outscoring its 17 opponents from 2009-10 by a combined score of 734-171. Not a misprint. South Alabama knew one thing before it started this whole endeavor: you aren’t spotted a touchdown because you moved to the F.B.S. quicker than the rest. That might get you a few headlines, but a rapid climb isn’t worth the ink if you’re not ready once you arrive.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Mobile, Ala.

Nickname
Jaguars

Returning starters
14 (5  offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
N/A

2010 record
(6-4, 0-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

N/A

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    Texas-San Antonio
  • Sept. 8
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 15
    at N.C. St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Mississippi St.
  • Sept. 29
    Troy
  • Oct. 13
    at Arkansas St.
  • Oct. 20
    Florida Atlantic
  • Oct. 27
    at La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 3
    F.I.U.
  • Nov. 10
    at North Texas
  • Nov. 17
    Middle Tennessee St.
  • Nov. 24
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Dec. 1
    at Hawaii

Last year’s prediction

Again, not applicable. No longer a Countdown first, after Texas-San Antonio broke the seal, and not a last, with Massachusetts and Texas State still to come.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The winning streak reached 19 games before South Alabama suffered its first defeat in program history: the Jaguars opened last season with wins over West Alabama — likely the best victory on the season — and Lamar before dropping back-to-back games to N.C. State and Kent State, the latter by only eight points. South Alabama would go on to lose another two games, including a 41-10 loss to Cal Poly in the season finale, handing the program the worst record in its three-year history: 6-4. The underlying issue nearly throughout the season was a drop in offensive production: the Jaguars averaged 24.4 points per game, nearly 17 points per game fewer than in 2010. Part of that has to do with the beefed-up schedule, of course.

High point A 20-10 win over West Alabama in the season opener. It was a rivalry win, I suppose. This was also the best team the Jaguars would beat all season: West Alabama would end the regular season at 8-3, earning a berth in the Division II playoffs. The Jaguars also topped the pesky Roadrunners, setting up a heated rematch in this fall’s season opener.

Low point It’s hard to rag on the Jaguars for losing to N.C. State — they only trailed by 14-3 at halftime — but it was the first loss in program history, so it warrants a mention in this spot. It’s a two-way tie for the season’s worst loss: Georgia State in double overtime and Cal Poly by 31 points.

Tidbit A few more details on the death of Kurt Crain, the former Auburn great who was one of Joey Jones’ first hires back in 2008. As I wrote about two days ago, Crain was found dead in his home on Tuesday. Per Tommy Hicks, who covers South Alabama sports for the Press Register, Crain died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hicks also provided some more background on Crain, writing: “Last season, Crain suffered with prostatitis, an infection of the prostate, which required at least three surgeries during the season. The illness forced him to miss the Jags’ game at North Carolina State and he also missed some practices. Crain, a Birmingham native, had said he lost 32 pounds in the early stages of the disease and the treatment. Most of his prostate had been removed.” Said Jones, “We’ve lost a great man, coach and mentor at the University of South Alabama.” Terribly upsetting news.

Tidbit (schedule edition)  Since beginning play in 2009, South Alabama has played two games against active F.B.S. competition, a third against a new member of the F.B.S. and another pair of games against a program poised to jump to the F.B.S. in 2013. The Jaguars are 2-3 in these games, with four of the five occurring last season. In 2011, U.S.A. lost to N.C. State (35-13), Kent State (33-25) and Georgia State (27-20 in double overtime) — as touched on last week, the Panthers are joining the Sun Belt next fall. The Jaguars got past Texas-San Antonio, 30-27, on Oct. 6; in 2010, the Jaguars beat Georgia State by 39-34.

Tidbit (weight edition) One issue raised in yesterday’s Texas-San Antonio preview was the Roadrunners’ lack of desirable size along the offensive line. My theory was that line play — offensive line play in particular — is the last thing to gel for newly-founded programs like U.T.S.A. and South Alabama. The Jaguars are in the same boat as the Roadrunners: in last year’s season finale, South Alabama put out a starting offensive line with an average weight of 277 pounds. On the defensive line, the Jaguars’ three-man front averaged 273 pounds. That’s small for a 3-4 defense.

Former players in the N.F.L.

Like Texas-San Antonio, the Jaguars have a valid excuse.

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in Mobile, Ala.
1. Hank Aaron.
2. Ozzie Smith.
3. Willie McCovey.
4. Jake Peavy.
5. Amos Otis.

Coaching

Joey Jones (Alabama ’89), 23-4 after four seasons with the program. Jones has been with U.S.A. for five years, spending that first season — like Larry Coker’s at Texas-San Antonio — practicing and evaluating talent but not actually playing any games. The impact Jones has had on and off the field can’t be overestimated. In addition to leading the program to a stunning start, Jones helped U.S.A. reach its 85-scholarship requirement in four years and served as the point man in the university’s $10 million construction of an on-campus field house. Jones is South Alabama football; he’s the face and the heart of the program. He’s also a bit of an Alabama legend — if not more than a bit. Jones ranks among the finest receivers in Alabama history: an all-SEC pick as a senior, he was named to the legendary program’s all-decade team for the 1980s. After concluding his playing career, which included stints in the U.S.F.L. and N.F.L., Jones coached at three Alabama high schools — at Mountain Brook High School from 1996-2005, compiling a 101-27 record — before being tabbed as the head coach at Birmingham Southern in 2006, helping that Division III program christen its program. That experience has come in handy at South Alabama, where Jones went through a similar rigmarole: building a staff, roster, mentality and more — building a program, in short — from scratch, to wildly successful results. The job Jones has done with the Jaguars is nothing short of outstanding. He’s an up-and-coming coach at the forefront of an up-and-coming program. It’s a tremendous fit.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Jones made a change at offensive coordinator, hiring former Southern Mississippi tight ends coach Robert Matthews to replace Greg Gregory, who was let go after last season. Matthews’ arrival signals a turn to a spread, no-huddle attack similar to the one run to great effect in Hattiesburg by Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson. It’s not a stretch to call his  overhaul the largest factor behind South Alabama’s ability to challenge the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. In all, Jones’ staff features three coaches with prior experience as a full-time assistant on the F.B.S. level: Matthews, defensive ends coach Brian Turner and wide receivers coach Jerry Mack.

Players to watch

The Jaguars have an incumbent starter at quarterback, but don’t let that fool you: Matthews would have been foolish to simply hand the job over to sophomore C.J. Bennett rather than open the position up to competition. Instead, Matthews put all of South Alabama’s quarterbacks on even ground during the spring, looking for one of Bennett, freshman Trey Fetner and junior Myles Gibbon to step to the forefront of this offense. While Bennett does hold the edge in the competition, he’ll need to continue fending off Fetner once the Jaguars return to the practice field in August.

It was a struggle for Bennett last fall, when he completed less than 55 percent of his passes with more than twice as many interceptions, 17, as touchdowns, 7. Neither is Bennett particularly mobile, which would be an added benefit in the new spread offense. While not a run-first spread, Matthews does want an Austin Davis-like quarterback in shotgun — Southern Mississippi’s former starter wasn’t a burner, but he was a surprisingly effective weapon as a runner.

Even if Bennett outplayed Fetner during last month’s spring game, look for the freshman to earn snaps in specific packages come September. This is partly due to Fetner’s running ability, which trumps what Bennett brings to the table, but also because Fetner played in a no-huddle offense in high school. While South Alabama’s system is undoubtedly more complex, having some familiarity with what Matthews is asking of his offense does give Fetner a slight leg up on his competition. If I had to guess, I’d say that Fetner is the program’s future at the position.

The Jaguars have great depth in the backfield, but does depth matter when the offensive line fails to consistently open up holes in the running game? It’s not a chicken-or-the-egg argument: line plays comes first, followed by solid numbers on the ground. South Alabama does have enough talent to take advantage of the opportunity, should the line take a step forward. The Jaguars return last year’s three leading rushers in sophomores Kendall Houston (558 yards), Demetre Baker (491 yards, team-best 9 scores) and J.J. Keels (142 yards). Freshman Terrance Timmons, who made a few nice plays as a pass-catcher during the spring game, is another option. As is former Memphis transfer Brandon Ross, who could end up as the Jaguars’ top back if he can remain healthy.

Receivers wanted. Must have hands, speed, experience in a spread offense. Only the latter quality is negotiable. South Alabama returns more than a few of last year’s contributors out wide — the top three receivers, in fact — but whether this group can excel in Matthews’ attack is a somewhat overlooked aspect of the Jaguars’ move to a new system. Last year’s starters, like Bryant Lavender and Corey Waldon, will have every opportunity to retain their starting roles. But there’s ample opportunity for the rear guard to make a move into the rotation, as we saw during the spring. Jereme Jones had a nice spring game, as did freshman Anthony Ingram. The staff is also high on incoming freshman Akeem Appleton, who was on campus in time to participate in spring drills.

South Alabama is desperate for help in the secondary. To help matters, Jones is relying heavily on a few additions off the JUCO ranks. In all, U.S.A. signed seven defensive backs in February; three of the seven are fresh off a JUCO stop, led by cornerback Darius Morrow. There’s a spot for Morrow, one of the standout defenders of the spring, to step into a starting role: Gabe Loper returns at cornerback, but the Jaguars must replace Anton Graphenreed, one of two starters lost off last year’s defense.

Morrow and fellow JUCO transfers Anthony Harris and Charles Watson weren’t brought in for depth; they were brought in to log major minutes in the U.S.A. secondary, and if Harris and Watson are anything like Morrow, the trio will help the Jaguars shore up a questionable defensive backfield. The defense also returns starting safeties Charles Harris (81 tackles) and B.J. Scott (48 tackles), as well as Loper and most of last season’s two-deep. Where the secondary needs to improve is in simple consistency; a few more turnovers would be nice, but Jaguars should take it one step at a time. As of today, even with JUCO help on the way, Jones must look at a games against N.C. State, Arkansas State and Hawaii and shudder.

The news gets better as you move closer to the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars, who run a 3-4, have nice depth at linebacker: U.S.A. brings back the entire two-deep from the second half of last season. This group is extremely strong in the middle, where both senior Jake Johnson (team-best 83 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and junior Enrique Williams (62 tackles, 1.5 sacks) have all-conference potential. That pair will be flanked by outside linebackers Clifton Crews (35 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and Ken Barefield, as they were for every game last season.

There’s little reason to think that U.S.A. will alter its starting four at linebacker, though sophomore Ben Giles could throw a wrench into those plans. Giles, who earned some playing time as a freshman, had a strong enough spring to potentially push himself into a significant role — with Johnson and Williams entrenched in the middle, Giles could very well trump Crews or Barefield to move into a starting spot.

What U.S.A. really needs is an improved pass rush, so here’s looking at you, Pat Moore. Another JUCO transfer who was on campus during the spring, Moore is looked at a potential difference-maker for the U.S.A. pass rush. Due to his lack of prototypical size for a 3-4 end, Moore translates as either an edge rusher at outside linebacker or with his hand on the ground in clear passing downs. No one player had more than three sacks last fall; Moore will be counted on to bolster South Alabama’s paltry pass rush.

He has the potential to stand out on an otherwise pedestrian defensive front. Randon Carnathan and Romelle Jones shared end duties last fall, with help from Alex Page, but neither stood out. Montavious Williams started all 10 games at nose tackle, but his lack of size is a detriment: at only 265 pounds, Williams would need to get Nikita Whitlock-like penetration in order to be successful. He’s no Whitlock, Wake Forest’s bowling ball of a nose tackle, though Williams did a better job getting pressure last fall than his partners along the defensive line. One player to watch at nose tackle is freshman Rodney Thomas, who at 290 pounds has more size to stand up at the point of attack.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line South Alabama’s offensive line should be an issue all season. Consider the confluence of negative circumstances: a young, unproven, untested and undersized line taking on a different caliber of athlete with this ramped-up schedule. The Jaguars return a pair of starters in senior center Trey Clark and sophomore right guard Melvin Meggs, but will need to replace a trio of departed seniors in Brian Krauskopf, Jon Griffin and Chris Brunson. In a sense, South Alabama’s ability to stay healthy up front last season is to this season’s detriment; that the same five started every possible game limited the number of snaps for this year’s potential starters, perhaps slowing the new group’s growth in the new offense. As a whole, the line’s youth is a concern: Clark is the lone senior at Jones’ disposal, so look for at least two sophomores to grab a starting role.

One player to watch is former Alabama transfer Darius McKeller, who has the size to be an imposing strong side blocker should he be past the wrist injury that ended his career in Tuscaloosa — that’s Alabama’s story, and it’s sticking to it. Another SEC transfer, former Kentucky lineman James Elliott, could also step into a major role if he’s able to gain an N.C.A.A. waiver allowing him play this season. As of now, that’s still up in the air. There is some good news, however. That U.S.A. is altering its offensive game plan roughly levels the playing field for the entire line; basically, even if the line returned more than two starters the group would be starting nearly from scratch. Now’s an opportunity for Jones and the Jaguars to rebuild the offensive line in a new image.

Game(s) to watch

Texas-San Antonio stands out, for several reasons. As does marquee September dates at N.C. State and Mississippi State, which will provide the Jaguars with some nice regional exposure. South Alabama begins Sun Belt play at home against Troy on the final Saturday of September, and in a nice twist — if you’re an optimist — won’t play back-to-back conference games on the road. But neither will the Jaguars play back-to-back conference games at home, on the other hand. South Alabama ends the season with a road trip to Hawaii, giving the Jaguars 13 games on the year. That’s a good thing for a young program.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I’m very torn on South Alabama. On one hand, you see a young program clearly accustomed to a high level of success. U.S.A. has a winning attitude: this team expects to win, thanks to the last three years, and this separates it from the three other former F.C.S. programs transitioning up to the F.B.S. level. There’s also much to like about the coaching staff, beginning with Jones, who led South Alabama past the typical growing pains associated with building a program from scratch. And finally, there’s the idea that this program is somewhat far along in the process. Compared to Texas-San Antonio, at least, the Jaguars are a well-oiled machine. But the good vibes surrounding the program — there’s much to like in the big picture — are tempered by the issues plaguing this team heading into its F.B.S. debut. Since the program’s birth three years ago, the Jaguars have played only two teams of consequence, losing both times. They haven’t beat any team worth writing home about. This team has never faced a stretch like the one it’ll take on in September and October: N.C. State, Mississippi State, Troy and Arkansas State. The offense will encounter a steep learning curve with the new system. South Alabama wants what’s coming, but I don’t think the Jaguars are ready for what’s coming — yet. Like the Roadrunners, there’s reason for optimism. But for South Alabama, the first step will be a doozy.

Dream season South Alabama continues its torrid pace against the new level of competition: 8-4, 5-3 in Sun Belt play.

Nightmare season The Jaguars aren’t ready for the F.B.S. — not yet, at least. After notching wins over Texas-San Antonio and Nicholls State to start the year, South Alabama ends the season on a 10-game losing streak.

In case you were wondering

Where do South Alabama fans congregate? As with U.T.S.A., the options are fairly limited. Begin with Jags Jungle, as a reader pointed out below. There’s Jaguars Report, which should theoretically cover South Alabama recruiting. There’s Thunder Jags, which also does a good job covering the football team on a daily basis. Newspaper coverage can be found at the Web site of the Mobile Press-Register.

South Alabama’s all-name nominee CB Sir’Vegias Steele.

Word Count

Through two teams 6,504.

Up Next

Who is No. 122? The 10 coaches on the staff at the next program on the list hail from 10 different states: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas, Missouri, Washington and Oklahoma.

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Comments

  1. Greg says:

    Memphis? Texas State?

  2. Joel says:

    Tough one…a cursory scan of the coaching staffs indicates that it’s neither of the new FBS programs, and I don’t think Memphis fits either. Paul’s Twitter said he was googling New Mexico–that’s another possibility.

  3. Batjag says:

    Nice write up! However, you missed on the links section. Jags fans congregate at http://jagsjungle.com/

    Paul: Adding it above. As always, let me know if I miss someone.

  4. Name says:

    It’s not UMass or Texas State.

  5. Eksynyt says:

    I’m going to guess New Mexico. The definition of a moribund program and now dealing with the fallout of the disastrous Mike Locksley regime. Paul, will you continue to call the weekly coaches hot seat spotlight the 2012 Locksley? I think it fits.

    Paul: Until another coach comes along and takes that mantle, it’ll be called the Locksley. Maybe I’ll hyphenate it with another deserving coach one day.

  6. Ezra says:

    wha? already? Bumping into the Countdown– already in progress!– is like waking up after accidentally sleeping the week before Christmas and finding your siblings already a pile of wrapping paper into the opening of presents.

    For maximum discombobulation, add the discovery of another program jumping to D-1A (I knew about UTSA, TxState, and UMass, but had no idea U.S.A. was also on the up and up).

    Yikes; the off-season gets shorter every year.

  7. Joe says:

    Nice write up!
    Unfortunately, I agree about the step up in schedule strength.
    If we win 4 games this year, I think we should be ecstatic.
    But that is a brutal row to hoe for a young program like ours.

    A bit surprised you didn’t list Rommelle Jones as our one strength on the DL. Even when I take off my redwhiteandblue colored glasses, he looks like he could be a starter for any team in the SunBelt.

    Thanks for the write up!
    Joe
    USA c/o ’99

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