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Countdown to Kickoff: South Alabama ready for fresh start in 2018

South Alabama enters 2018 with a new head coach leading the Jaguars. 

Joey Jones, USA’s first head coach, who led the Jaguars for nine seasons pushing them through the transition from FCS to the Sun Belt with a 52-50 overall record, resigned after the 2017 campaign. South Alabama finished the year with a 4-8 record. 

The Jaguars hired Steve Campbell as their second head coach in school history. Campbell was previously at Central Arkansas and led the Bears to back-to-back 10 win seasons and FCS playoff appearances in 2016 and 2017. Campbell went 33-15 in four seasons at Central Arkansas. 

Campbell will have to revamp an offense that struggled in 2017. The Jaguars were second to last in the Sun Belt in total offense (334.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (19.8 points per game), and dead last in rushing offense (97.2 yards per game). South Alabama finished 125th out of 129 FBS programs in rushing offense and 111th in total offense. 

The Jaguars have an experienced returner in the backfield to help the run game. South Alabama loses its leading running back from 2017, Xavier Johnson (445 yards and six touchdowns), but Tra Minter returns, who ran for 341 yards and one touchdown last season. 

Luckily for USA, its passing game was better than its running game in 2017. The Jaguars finished in the middle of the pack of the Sun Belt with 237.1 yards per game. South Alabama has Cole Garvin returning, who threw for 1,490 yards and seven touchdowns, but also threw seven interceptions last year. Dallas Davis, who threw for 1,355 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, left the team in the spring. But redshirt freshman Cephus Johnson stepped up in Davis’ absence. 

South Alabama’s passing game will be aided by returning receivers Jamarius Way and Sam Harris. Way hauled in 47 passes for 762 yards and three touchdowns, while Harris recorded 570 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

The Jaguars will need stability in their offensive line for them to have any success in 2018. South Alabama’s all-Sun Belt selection Noah Fisher, who made 30 starts for the Jaguars and played left tackle in 2017, transferred to Tulane in May.

The Jaguar defense was better than the offense last season. South Alabama finished ninth in the Sun Belt in total defense and 84th in the nation. 

Campbell looks to replicate the success he had at Central Arkansas by bringing the Bears’ defensive coordinator Greg Stewart with him to South Alabama. Stewart’s defense finished No. 23 out of 123 FCS teams in total defense by giving up 318.8 yards per game. After giving up 55 points to Kansas State in their season opener, the Bears only gave up 14.3 points per game in its final 11 contests. 

USA’s front seven has experience returning, but those returners haven’t done a ton for the Jaguars. 

Where South Alabama lacks in front-seven potential, it makes up for it in the secondary. The Jaguars have a potentially solid secondary that could be one of the bests in the Sun Belt. South Alabama loses its leading tackler from 2017: Safety Jeremy Reaves, who amassed 104 total tackles and added three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 tackles for loss. 

They will, however, have key secondary contributors returning in cornerbacks Darian Mills and Tobias Moss, safety Nigel Lawrence,, and nickel cornerback Malcolm Buggs. Lawrence was the team’s second-leading tackler  with 83. Mills tallied 36 total tackles and 13 pass breakups, Moss recorded 28 tackles and two interceptions, and Buggs notched 38 tackles. 

Additionally, the secondary will have Neiko Robinson and Jalen Thompson return from injury and Notre Dame transfer Spencer Perry will be added to the fold alongside redshirt freshman A.J. DeShazor, who was rated the Jaguars’ third best recruit in the 2017 class per 247Sports.

South Alabama’s defense has a chance to aid the Jaguars to a much better 2018 with the talent returning, especially in the secondary. 

The Jaguars return two key specialists: junior punter Corliss Waitman and junior kicker Gavin Patterson. Waitman was the eighth best punter in the nation in average yards per punt with 45.2 yards per punt. Gavin Patterson converted 16 of his 19 field goal attempts.

South Alabama is expected to have a similar record in 2018 according to ESPN’s football power index, which predicts it to finish 4-8.

The Jaguars begin the season at home against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 1. South Alabama then travels to Stillwater, Okla. to take on Oklahoma State on Sept. 8.

The Jaguars return home to take on Texas State on Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. inside Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. This is the first meeting between the two teams since 2015 when the Bobcats beat South Alabama, 36-18, at Bobcat Stadium. 

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