The Jacksonville State Gamecocks say they're using their short fall season to prepare themselves for a run at the Ohio Valley Conference championship during the potential spring season.
The problem is, the better their two best offensive players perform, the more they risk losing them before the spring season. Like other top seniors, quarterback Zerrick Cooper and tight end Trae Barry must decide between returning this spring or moving on to training for the 2021 NFL Draft. They can even come back next fall because the NCAA is giving all players an extra year of eligibility due to interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cooper (6-3, 225) and Barry (6-7, 245) are on the 2021 Senior Bowl Top 250 watch list, have NFL size and skills, and are coming off their best games of the season. As Jacksonville State beat North Alabama, 24-17, this past Saturday to improve to 2-1, Cooper accounted for 290 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, tying the school record with his 61st career touchdown pass in just his 28th game since a 2018 transfer from Clemson. Barry had his fourth career 100-yard game (104) on five receptions.
Head coach John Grass plans to have NFL discussions with Cooper and Barry following the fall season, which concludes Friday night at FIU. The Gamecocks are seeking to rebound from a subpar 2019 campaign, when they finished 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the OVC. They won five straight conference titles from 2014-18.
"We're using these four games as getting us ready for the spring," starting right guard Michael Shaddix said. "Last year, that wasn't Jacksonville State football, that's not who we are, that really hurt everybody on the team to not be competing for the OVC championship. That"s like our first goal, to get to the OVC championship, and then the Road to the Frisco (FCS playoffs) is the next one."
Cooper, who will turn 23 this offseason, has shown great development, cutting down on turnovers with a 67.1 percent completion rate that's improved by more than 7 percent over the last two seasons despite Jacksonville State returning an inexperienced wide receiver group. He's also rushed for five touchdowns to give him 17 in his Gamecocks career.
His one experienced returning pass catcher was Barry, who appears recovered from a knee injury that shortened his 2019 campaign. The FCS level has done well to produce NFL tight ends in the last decade, and Barry has length and athleticism to work over the middle or split outside.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Trae Barry photo courtesy of Matt Reynolds/JSU Athletics)