Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State went far in 2015. A 13-2 record, including an overtime loss to SEC opponent Auburn and playing for the FCS national championship, was the best season in school history.
The question for the Gamecocks will be how far can they go in 2016 after losing four starters in the secondary, two on the the offensive line and their record-setting running back.
In JSU’s spring game, the defensive backs provided excellent coverage to keep quarterbacks on the move, and the offensive linemen opened holes for Cedric Miller, a 5-9, 185 pound redshirt freshman, to rush for two touchdowns.
“We have a lot of guys that have an opportunity that were redshirted and not in the mix last year,” said head coach John Grass. “We want to see what those guys can do and how well they can block and tackle.”
There will be holes to fill on both sides of the ball. The biggest loss on offense is running back Troymaine Pope, who set school and Ohio Valley Conference single-season rushing records with 1,788 yards.
Pope’s average of 8.2 yards per carry led FCS. Miller, a two-star recruit, will be asked to carry a load of the running game with four of last year’s top five rushers gone. That includes Pope, Miles Jones (739 yards), Josh Clemons (413 yards) and Christian LeMay (259 yards). Senior Jarren Johnson, who rushed for a mere 73 yards in 2015, is the only returning running back with significant carries from the year before.
However, the Gamecocks should be effective in the passing game. Eli Jenkins, the STATS FCS All-America first-team quarterback, and Josh Barge, touted as one the best wide receiver in the country by Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman, both return for their senior seasons.
Despite tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder last August, Jenkins passed for 2,788 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,000 yards last season, combining with Pope to become JSU's first tandem to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Jenkins sat out spring practices as he continued to recover from offseason shoulder surgery.
Barge, meanwhile, caught 92 balls for 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Jenkins and Barge could put up even bigger numbers this season if the Gamecocks shore up the offensive line.
Transfers are expected to give the Gamecocks the opportunity to reload instead of rebuild. Five enrolled in January, including tight ends B.J. Hammond (Mississippi State) and Jonathan Curry (Purdue), cornerback Pat Porter (Washington State), safety Al’Dreecous Wilson (Jones County, Miss. JC) and Tramel Terry (Georgia).
“We got some new guys in at the break that we want to see what they are about and see their skill sets,” Grass said. “It (gave) them a chance to learn the system, since it is totally different than where they have come from. To catch on to the terminology and how we do things is good for them.”
The additions of Porter and Wilson address the turnover in the secondary. Cornerback Jermaine Hough, free safety Folo Johnson and strong safety DeBarriaus Miller will graduate along with backups Rashod Byers (3 INTs) and Brandon Bender (2 INTs).
“When you lose four out of five starters, you come into the spring saying, ’OK, we are athletic back there, but we have to get some experience back there,’” Grass said.
JSU hopes to avoid the experience of losing again in the FCS championship game. The Gamecocks remember the outstretched arm of Hough being a centimeter from Carson Wentz’s leg. Any closer and he would have prevented North Dakota State’s quarterback from finding the end zone.
Plays like Wentz’s 11-yard touchdown run in a 37-10 victory left a bad taste. JSU hadn't lost an FCS game in 15 months.
But a new start awaits on Sept. 1, when JSU kicks off the regular season against North Alabama.
10 FCS TEAMS TO WATCH IN 2016
An early look at STATS’ top 10 FCS teams in 2016 with ASN-affiliated teams in bold:
- North Dakota State
- Sam Houston State
- Northern Iowa
- Jacksonville State
- Charleston Southern
- South Dakota State
- Coastal Carolina*
- The Citadel
*—Transitioning to FBS and playing this season as an FCS independent
Above: Eli Jenkins led Jacksonville State to the No. 1-seeded team in the FCS playoffs last season.Can he do it again? (Courtesy JSU Athletics)