South Alabama's stint as the new kid on the block in the Sun Belt Conference was short lived. They went 2-11 as a FBS transitional team their first season playing a full Sun Belt schedule. By their second season in the conference, they improved to 6-6 with the additions of Texas State and Georgia State joining to become the latest newbies in the league. As USA prepares for the 2014 season, they are picked to finish third in the conference which welcomes two new members in Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and welcomes back two former members in New Mexico State and Idaho.
The Jaguars defense played well overall last season, but had problems giving up big plays. After improving they ended the season with a three-game winning streak, including a 30-8 win over conference co-champion Louisiana-Lafayette, to become bowl eligible. Despite a tenacious social media blitz by Jaguar fans, the team did not receive a bowl invitation in their first season as a full FBS member eligible for post-season play.
First year defensive coordinator Travis Pearson, who replaces Kevin Sherrer who went to Georgia after only one season as the Jaguars defensive coordinator, had 13 seniors from the defensive front seven graduate last season. So some new faces will have step up to fill the cleats left by a large senior class. Here are a few defensive players of note going into the 2014 season.
Qudarius Ford, Cornerback
Ford may only measure up 5-foot-9 and 170-pounds, but the senior plays much bigger. He earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors last season by College Sports Madness after finishing second on the team with 76 total tackles, third on the team with six passes broken up, and two interceptions after starting all 12 games. He also blocked a punt against Tulane giving the Jaguars the lead for good against the Green Wave. He was named to the second-team All-SBC team by conference coaches and media.
Roman Buchanan, Safety
As a freshman, Buchanan played in all 12 games while starting in three of them at strong safety. He was credited with 35 tackles, three passes broken up and an interception. He made his name known early with a clutch performance against Tulane last season when he came off the bench to collect five unassisted tackles and a key fourth-quarter interception that led to field goal and an eight point lead against the Green Wave.
Jerome McClain, Defensive Line
McClain also returns to the defensive line this year which graduated several seniors last year. He appeared in all 12 games last season, his first with the team, and recorded 34 tackles, 4 1/2 of them for a loss, and 3 sacks. The 6-foot-3 290-pound senior was named to the second-team All-Sun Belt Conference team by Athlon Sports and third-team honors by Phil Steele. The strength and conditioning staff named McClain as one of the most improved individuals in the strength and conditioning program after the spring.
Maleki Harris, Linebacker
Harris will start at linebacker in the Jaguar defense and also is expected fill the a leadership position left by former Jaguar linebacker Clifton Crews who graduated. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior started 10 games but appeared in all 12 games last season. He finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles, 8 1/2 for a loss, led the team with seven pass break-ups, 2 1/2 sacks, three quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and an interception. His numbers were good enough to place him in the top 15 in the Sun Belt in both tackles for loss and passes defended. He was named to the second-team All-Sun Belt Conference team by SBC coaches and media, Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.
Montell Garner, Cornerback
Garner, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior cornerback, started all 12 games last season and collected 60 tackles, three for loss, five passes broken up, and led the team and tied for sixth in the conference with three interceptions. He also finished in the top 15 in the conference in passes defended. He was also named to the second-team All-Sun Belt Conference team by both Phil Steele and Athlon Sports.
Wildcard: Jesse Kelley, Defensive Line
The coaching staff is looking for a big season from Kelley on the defensive line after graduating several seniors last season. Kelley, a 5-foot-10, 275-pound senior defensive end, started all 12 games last season with 34 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Phil Steele tabbed him to the fourth-team All-Sun Belt Team while the coaches and SBC press voted him the Second-Team All-SBC team.
These returning players must assume leadership roles early in the 2014 season to continue the momentum from the end of the 2013 campaign. They have the skills necessary and after a strong spring/summer training schedule, we can expect great things from these experienced returners.
Check back soon, we'll introduce you to the five offensive players you need to know for the 2014 season.