Joey Jones is entering year nine in Mobile and this will be the program’s sixth year as an an FBS member. Although they appear to field one of the most Fun Belt’s most talented squads yearly, USA has not been able to get over the hump. South Alabama has lost at least six games in four straight seasons and have yet to top six wins in a single season. It’s a program that has been knocking on the door, but at some point Joey Jones is going to have to cash in to get this program over the hump.
USA lost a decent bit of talent off last year’s squad and the passing game has some big questions that need to be answered. The running game looks like it will be the backbone but depth is certainly an issue. Meanwhile, the defense will carry the water this fall. The talent is there to have the best defense in the Sun Belt.
Dallas Davis is back behind center for the Jags and he’ll be entering his second season as a full-time starter. The junior completed 57% of his passes last season with a mediocre 11-to-12 TD/INT ratio. However, Davis flashed a lot of potential last season as he topped the 300-yard mark three times and appears to have a good connection with coordinator Bryant Vincent. The key to this offense will be Davis’ development. If he struggles early, do not be surprised if Marshall transfer Cole Garvin is thrown into the lineup.
Xavier Johnson is back for his senior season and he will leave Mobile as the program’s all-time leading rusher. The Tampa native has been starting since he was freshman and has put up at least 5.4 yards per carry each season. Last year he was named second team All-Sun Belt after rushing for 831 yards and 10 touchdowns. Finding depth will be a key for the staff this season. USA will be depending on JUCO transfers Tra Minter and Tywun Walters to make an immediate impact.
The wide receiver group was ransacked by graduation and now South Alabama enters a total rebuild on the perimeter. I could envision tight end Maaseiah Francis emerging as the top target this fall after pulling in 18 receptions for 261 yards with a 75% catch rate. The staff went all in on JUCOs as Malik Stanley, Jahmmir Taylor, and Jamarius Way will get snaps right away. Expectations are still high for sophomore Jordan McCray after catching seven balls as a true frosh.
The offensive line gets three starters back and will be led by senior center Dominic Esposito and junior tackle Noah Fisher. Both players have all-conference potential and Miami transfer Tyler Grimsley should immediately join the offensive line rotation. This group led the way for a very successive rushing attack last season (62nd rushing S&P+, 42nd in success rate, 44th in adjusted line yards). Meanwhile, pass protection was a significant wart and must be addressed going into 2017.
This was a unit last year that had their moments as they held four opponents to 20 points or less. However, they then would give up 40+ to ULM and FCS Nicholls. It was a Jekyll and Hyde group as second year coordinator Kane Wommack will be looking to find more consistency this fall.
The Jags will start with a solid defensive line. This appears to be the deepest front in the Sun Belt as South Alabama will be able to be a legit ten deep. Tyree Turner is the best of the group as the sophomore recorded 50 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman. He’ll be joined inside by seniors Tre Alford and Zach Befort who will platoon at the nose position. Meanwhile, Power Five transfers Finesse Middleton and Rocel McWilliams will be joined by juniors Sean Grayer and Chason Milner on the edge. This group combined for 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year. This is impressive depth for a G5 program.
At the next level, leading tackler Darrell Songy returns for his senior season. Songy posted a team high 100 tackles last year to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss. He’ll be backed up by Bull Barge this year as the junior had 54 tackles last year in a mainly backup role. Next two Songy inside, USA will be very green as redshirt freshman Riley Cole and sophomore Taji Stewart are competing for time. At USA’s husky position (LB/DB/Nickel spot) there is a wide open competition as USA could be fielding a freshman here.
The secondary will paced by free safety Jeremy Reaves as the Pensacola, Florida native enters his senior season after being a first team all-conference selection last fall. Reaves produced a lot of havoc last season as he had 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, and three interceptions. Fellow senior Neiko Robinson joins Reaves in the back as the former JUCO transfer posted 64 tackles last year. However, corner is a big worry as USA will be without junior Jalen Thompson this fall and will be counting on some very young players.
Gavin Patterson returns as USA’s top kicker after going perfect on extra points last fall. However, Patterson was fairly inefficient in the field goal department as he was 1-for-5 on attempts from 40+. Corliss Waitman broke in as a freshman last year and averaged 36.5 yards per punt on 17 attempts. That’s not great.
In the return game, Xavier Johnson is electric on kickoff returns and he’ll be one of the most feared returners in college football. We won’t know about the punt returning spot until USA opens up the season against Ole Miss in Oxford.
There is no question that the passing game is a huge worry for the Jags heading into 2017 and USA must find answers at the wide receiver position. It appears that JUCO transfer Jamarius Way has made a huge impact during training camp.
The south Florida native went to Ellsworth CC in Iowa the last two seasons and posted a very respectable 40 receptions for 594 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. Nearly 28% of grabs going for scores is pretty efficient and 14.9 yards per catch isn’t bad either. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Way will be an imposing force on the outside. If he lives up to the camp hype, he’ll be USA’s top wideout this fall.
Finessé Middleton arrived on the South Alabama campus after spending three years in the Louisville program. In his first season playing in Mobile, the defensive end recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He was a preseason third team All-Sun Belt selection and the program has high expectations for the Alabama native.
Middleton has the potential to record double-digit sack numbers as he’s the best pass rusher on the defense. With Tyree Turner likely demanding double teams inside, there will be plenty of isolation situations for Middleton. If able to make this impact, it will release a lot of pressure off of the brand new corners.
I believe it’s a fairly huge year for Joey Jones as South Alabama has yet to record a winning record since becoming a full time FBS member. We’ve seen four straight years with this program finishing with exactly seven losses and only two of those seasons have resulted in a bowl appearance. If this occurs again, we could be headed towards a coaching change in Mobile.
Yearly, it seems like South Alabama has one of the most talented rosters in the Fun Belt. But for whatever reason they just cannot seem to get over the hump. The schedule is brutal out of the stretch as the Jags get Ole Miss and Oklahoma State to open the season. Both teams could have their way with USA’s inexperienced corners. After a winnable FCS game, USA has a significant home tilt with Idaho then tricky road trips to Louisiana Tech and Troy. If the Jags don’t survive the brutal start, it could be a long season in Mobile. However, there will be plenty wins on the table in the last six weeks of the season.