We survived, OVC football fans. The college football season is upon us.
In 2013, first year coach Bill Clark and company lead the Gamecocks to an 11-4 season, finishing 3rd in the OVC and receiving an at large bid into the FCS Playoffs. JSU eventually lost to Eastern Washington in Spokane to end the campaign for a young team with tons of poise and upside looking ahead.
Then, the coaching carousel came calling. UAB announced Clark would be its next head coach in January. Lucky for the Gamecocks, record-breaking offensive coordinator John Grass was ready to make the transition to head coach.
Coach Grass has just one year of experience at the college level, but the expectations for him are high. The media has pegged the Gamecocks as conference favorites, and Jacksonville State is a consensus Top 10 team at the FCS level.
Jacksonville State hits the field with a new coach and tons of talent. Can they handle the pressure as the OVC favorite?
Coach Grass’ specialty is offense, and it showed last year. The Gamecocks broke numerous national, OVC, and school records last year thanks to JSU’s fast-paced spread offense.
The Gamecocks have seven returning starters on offense. DaMarcus James is one of the best running backs in the nation, and All-American center Max Holcombe brings veteran leadership to the offensive line. The Gamecocks should have the best offense in the OVC this year.
With an entirely new coaching staff, the defense is the question mark for Jacksonville State. During my first interview with Coach Grass, he said he wanted to keep Clark’s multiple, aggressive defense. Fordham defensive coordinator David Blackwell and Auburn analyst Brandon Hall have joined the team as co-defensive coordinators.
Jacksonville State lost a number of starters during the offseason, including junior safety Pierre Warren to the NFL. JSU has only one returning starter in the defensive backfield and four total on defense.
The heart of the defense is defensive tackle Caleb Lawrence, a stout run stopper and tenacious pass rusher. Senior linebacker Ben Endress is back as a starter after losing his starting spot in 2013. The front seven will be the key to the defense’s success in this year.
Special Teams: B
The kicking game will see a new kicker this year in Connor Rouleau, but Australian punter Hammish MacInnes returns to guide the freshman place kicker.
Running back Troymaine Pope and receiver Josh Barge will return kicks. Both had a few muffed returns during the season. Rest assured special teams coach Aashon Larkins has given them extra reps during the offseason to shore up the return game.
If Rouleau can get dialed in early in the season, expect a successful year for the special teams squad.
It is no surprise the key players for JSU are those that had the biggest impact during last year’s playoff run. The offense will revolve around James’ ability to break tackles and get consistent yardage in the running game. Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Eli Jenkins appears to have won the starting job again this year over FBS transfers Christian LaMay (Georgia) and Max Shortell (Minnesota).
On defense, the Gamecocks will rely on its defensive linemen to get consistent pressure on the quarterback and stop the run. Additionally, former All-OVC cornerback Jermaine Hough will need to lead the fresh faces in charge of covering the slew of talented receivers in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Jacksonville State will have a great year if…
The running backs will need stay healthy, and Jenkins must continue to mature as a quarterback. The defense will need to average under thirty points allowed per game for the Gamecocks to have a chance at another playoff run.
The Gamecocks will struggle if…
The key players mentioned above will need to stay healthy early in the season to give JSU a chance at the conference title. The receivers were mired with injuries last year, and James had a few games where he did not look his best. Starting the season against two physical teams in Michigan State and Chattanooga will keep the trainers and ice tubs busy.
How does OVC Nation think the Gamecocks will fare in 2014? Let us know in the comments!