After Bill Clark’s departure for UAB, offensive coordinator John Grass accepted an offer to become the new head coach of the Jax State football program. He guided them to a solid signing day through the tumultuous off-season, and hired a coaching staff with a good mix of youth and experience that he hopes will continue to build on the success of the previous fall. Hopes are high in Jacksonville, Alabama, and fans and players alike have their sights set on Frisco.
1. What is the status of RB Troymaine Pope?
The rising junior is currently recovering from surgery to repair a gunshot wound to his right bicep that he received while attempting to find cover after gunfire broke out in the parking lot of AJ’s Sunset Grill in Anniston the morning of July 6. While the injury is non-life threatening, it remains unclear how much of fall camp he will miss.
Pope is coming off a solid sophomore campaign where his “flash-and-dash” style complemented the bruising style of workhorse DaMarcus James. In 2013, he played in 14 games racking up 633 yards (third on team) and tied quarterback Eli Jenkins with eight touchdowns (tied for second on team). He also flashed his versatility by catching ten passes out of the backfield for 138 yards and scoring a touchdown on his only pass attempt of the season on a 53-yard bomb.
Pope’s versatility and talent are integral to the Gamecocks success this season. We wish him a complete and speedy recovery from this injury and hope to see him on the field soon.
2. Who will be under center for JSU this fall?
With two quarterbacks already vying for the starting position coming off the Gamecocks’ record-setting year, the addition of an SEC transfer has further muddled the already unclear waters of who will start. Both Max Shortell and Eli Jenkins split time as the starter last season and with them they bring experience and knowledge of the playbook. However, former Georgia quarterback Christian LeMay didn’t transfer to ride the pine and looks to make a push for the job during fall camp.
Shortell appeared in ten games for JSU after transferring from the University of Minnesota. In those games, he threw for 1,608 yards and six touchdowns while completing 57 percent of his passes. The senior is a true pocket passer with good size, a strong arm and the strength to shrug off arm tackles. Fans saw flashes of brilliance from Shortell, but inconsistent play and injuries hindered him from solidifying the number one spot.
Jenkins looks to be the heir apparent coming off his strong postseason performance and into fall camp. He threw for 887 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 953 (second on team) and eight touchdowns (tied for second on team) while playing in 14 games. The redshirt sophomore grew progressively each week and developed into a multi-faceted weapon that can cause any defense fits.
LeMay is the lone enigma of the group. He only appeared in five games in a Georgia uniform and does not have enough measurable stats to be compared to the other two players in the race. He is a gifted athlete, as his SEC pedigree and high school stats suggest, but his position on the depth chart could be determined by what he shows in practice and how quickly he picks up the playbook.
3. Can this year’s defense improve upon last year’s performance?
Last year, the Gamecocks experienced a defensive renaissance under Coach Bill Clark’s attacking defensive scheme. The “Red Bandits” saw a spike in turnovers and registered a total of 52 sacks, a gaudy number considering they had 13 sacks the season prior. While the majority of the 2013 unit returns and has added quality depth with several SEC transfers, the linebacking corps will lack the experience of last year’s senior-laden group.
New headman, John Grass, has said he wants the defense to continue to be aggressive and fans can take solace knowing that this JSU defense could be primed to surpass last year’s unit. Enter co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell. Before coming to Jacksonville, Blackwell had been the defensive coordinator of the Fordham Rams since 2012. Last season his defense led the FCS in takeaways (40). If the players can pick up the system quickly, this could be a long year for opposing offenses.
4. How will the Gamecocks fair in their season opener against Michigan State?
“We’ll be ready going into that game. We plan to pull an upset…no, we will pull off the upset.”
– Junior cornerback Jermaine Hough
Hough’s assurances were audacious enough for Lindy’s Sports to put them in their annual college football preview this spring. It is inspiring players have confidence going into a big game, even if guarantees like the one above make fans hold their breath.
It does not seem Hough is alone in his belief, however. On July 3, Bleacher Report came out and put Michigan State on their preseason upset alert. The Spartans have a history of starting off slow and struggling against early season opponents they should dispatch with little or no effort. Another reason JSU could pose a threat is that while Jacksonville State’s offense stays largely intact, the vaunted Spartan defense, ranked first in the nation in total defense a year ago, returns only five starters.
Anything can happen on any given Saturday (remember Ole Miss), but Michigan State will be the best opponent the Gamecocks have faced to date. The Gamecocks are prepared to try and make a deep run in the FCS playoffs and look to make a statement early. This Jax State team is motivated and fueled by a fan base that is hungry, and the likelihood of being overlooked has put a chip on their shoulders. Look for JSU to give the Spartans a fight.