South Alabama went 6-7 last season, but the Jaguars played in a bowl game for the second time in three years and also claimed victories over Mississippi State from the SEC and Mountain West champion San Diego State. The problem for head coach Joey Jones’ team lately has been posting a losing record against Sun Belt teams. South Alabama gets a shot against two more Power 5 teams this fall in Ole Miss (SEC) and Oklahoma State (Big 12), but another goal should be emerging as a contender in its own conference. To do that, the Jaguars will need several newcomers to have an early impact and for the offensive and defensive lines to play better.
Previewing South Alabama Football’s Offense for 2017
South Alabama has offensive strengths, but they don’t necessarily mesh. The Jaguars return one of the Sun Belt’s most productive quarterbacks, but no experienced wide receivers. They have a potentially record-breaking running back, but the offensive line must improve its run blocking to utilize his abilities.
Quarterback Dallas Davis led the Sun Belt in total offense at 268.3 yards per game. As long as he returns to full strength after offseason shoulder surgery, Davis should be among the conference’s best quarterbacks. But no wide receiver with at least 10 receptions or 100 receiving yards returns, so expect tight end Maaseiah Francis to be a primary target.
Running back Xavier Johnson is a steady producer, rushing for 831 yards and 10 TDs last season. He enters his senior season only 362 yards shy of the career school record. He will get help from bruising junior college transfer Tywun Walters, but the one-two punch may be hampered by a line that struggled to open holes last season. At least three potential starters have been limited by injuries during the offseason, so their healthy return could determine the flexibility and performance of the line. The addition of Miami transfer Tyler Grimsley may help.
Previewing South Alabama Football’s Defense for 2017
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Injuries to last season’s defensive line should benefit this unit. Former starters Jimmie Gipson and Tre Alford both sat out 2016, but they are back. And some of their replacements also return to create good competition and a deep rotation. Louisville transfer Finessé Middleton and Tyree Turner should remain key cogs after solid performances last season. Toss in Missouri transfer Rocel McWilliams and some young talent, and the defensive line could be the most improved unit on the team.
Linebackers Darrell Songy and Bull Barge are a dependable duo. Songy led the team with 100 tackles last season, and he’s the best leader on the defense. Redshirt freshman Riley Cole impressed the coaches in the spring. USA’s linebackers were instrumental in the team’s third-down defense, which ranked in the top 25 nationally last season.
Jeremy Reaves is among the league’s most versatile players. He earned All-Sun Belt honors as a nickel back in 2015 and a cornerback in 2016, and now he moves to safety to anchor a pass defense ranked ninth nationally last season. The rest of the secondary is relatively young but talented.
Previewing South Alabama Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Gavin Patterson is accurate enough, but his range is limited. He made 10-of-12 field goals from 40 yards or less but missed all four attempts beyond 40 yards last season. USA ranked third nationally in punt coverage, but it must replace its all-conference punter. Corliss Waitman should get the job. Johnson is a solid kick returner.
Coach Joey Jones has an odd track record in recent years. While some successful Sun Belt schools take their lumps in non-conference play and pile up wins in league games, USA has done the opposite. The Jaguars have a 6–3 non-conference record over the past two seasons, including upsets of Mississippi State (2016) and San Diego State (2015 and ’16). But their back-to-back losing marks in Sun Belt play have hampered progress.
USA can squeeze into its third bowl game in four years, but health is a big factor. Injuries on the offensive and defensive lines scrambled the depth chart last season, and some players are still recovering. The offense has standouts in Davis and Johnson, but both will be wasted if the line does not develop. It points to a season similar to last year, when the Jaguars were potent on a given day but inconsistent over the long haul.
National Ranking: 103
Sun Belt Prediction: 4
(Darrell Songy photo courtesy of Bobby McDuffie/South Alabama Athletic Media Relations)