As they watched fellow in-state program UAB shut down (temporarily) last season, the South Alabama Jaguars looted the Blazers. They were able to gain an offensive coordinator and several important players for the 2015 season and beyond. Some of the transfers were able to find their niche on the Jaguars team, but others were not. Overall, this experiment seemed to be a bit of a wash in the first year.
With that said, let's take a look at the 2015 South Alabama season and grade the team.
For a team that scored 34 points in a win over a good San Diego State squad, the offense never really played as well as many expected it to perform. The running game was one of the biggest all or nothing teams in the nation, with the ability to break any run for a touchdown or lose yards.
Xavier Johnson had a healthy 6.6 yards per carry average, but much of that was his freakish ability to find his top gear in a step or two. Johnson and Tyreis Thomas combined to give the Jaguars 1,508 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, over 75% of the rushing total for the team. The duo returns for 2016 so if they can find consistency next fall, the run game could be among the best in the Sun Belt.
Quarterback Cody Clements struggled to find the consistency that he had with the Blazers in the 2014 season, only completing 52.8% of his pass attempts. The inability of Clements to connect with any consistency to anyone that was not a former UAB player was remarkably bad.
It is stunning to see just how heavy the South Alabama passing game leaned towards former UAB players Gerald Everett, Josh Magee, and D.J. Vinson. Receiving passes from fellow UAB transfer Cody Clements, the trio accounted for 87 receptions, 1,272 yards, and 11 touchdowns on the year. The rest of the receiving corps combined for just over 1,100 yards and four touchdowns.
No one expected to see South Alabama come out and dominate on defense, but no one saw the Jaguars defense getting absolutely dominated this season either. The defense gave up 37.2 points per game, giving up 35 or more points in half of their games played. To put things into perspective, Idaho put up 45 points on the Jaguars this season.
Finally getting to see the playing field after making the transfer from Texas Tech, linebacker Blake Dees made the most of his one season with South Alabama. He ended the season with a team-high 102 tackles on the season, the only player to break 100. Sophomore defensive back Jeremy Reaves turned into a player to watch with 96 tackles and 8.0 tackles for loss from his spot in the secondary.
The biggest positive moving forward for the Jaguars defense is the fact that six of the top nine tacklers from 2015 are back next season. Linebacker Kalan Jackson, yet another UAB transfer, should be among the team leaders after making 72 tackles in his junior season.
Special Teams: B+
If there was a group that exceeded expectations for the 2015 season, it was the special teams group. Aleem Sunanon in particular had a very good season in making 16-19 field goal attempts, 6-7 from 40+ yards. In addition, Sunanon also punted the ball 31 times for an average of over 40 yards.
Brandon McKee also handled punting duties with an average of almost 40 yards, including 11 punts of over 50 yards. Combined, the punt coverage team allowed 31 punts to be returned for a 14.0 yards per return average. That is not good at all.
Running back and kick returner Xavier Johnson was electric with an impressive 31.4 yards per return average on the season. That included a 100-yard return for a touchdown. The kickoff coverage team was excellent with teams barely getting 20 yards per return on the year, despite a kickers only earning a touchback on 20% of kickoffs. Normally, when a team has to cover that many kickoffs, the average is much higher.
There is no reason that this team should not have been bowling this season. Instead, the Jaguars are sitting at home because of an embarrassing loss to Texas State and a habit of underachieving all season long, save the SDSU win. This team had talent all over the roster, but was unable to come together on a regular basis and get to six wins. Anything below a bowl berth has to get a C- at best.
Team MVP: Gerald Everett
The tight end stepped in immediately and found his niche as the favorite target of Clements. His 41 catches, 575 yards, and eight touchdowns all led the Jaguars in 2015 and got him some attention from the NFL. He showed up more and more as the season progressed and is already among the best tight ends in the Sun Belt. He will be back for his senior season in 2016 and should be projected as one of the best tight ends in the nation.
The biggest issues moving forward for South Alabama are fixing a broken defense and finding a way to integrate new offensive weapons with old much better. With a new quarterback under center in 2016, I would expect to see many more of the non-UAB options getting more looks in the passing game. The Sun Belt is open for South Alabama to find their way into the top four and future bowls. All they have to do it take it.