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South Alabama faces huge upgrade in competition to start FBS transition
South Alabama coach Joey Jones says his team has gotten “bigger and faster and stronger” even since this time last year. Then again, so has the competition.
The Jaguars are beginning a two-year transition to Football Bowl Subdivision this season, visiting teams like North Carolina State and Kent State. It’s a far cry from the prep schools, junior colleges and other small programs the Mobile school has faced in going 17-0 in its first two seasons of football and more than quadrupling opponents’ points.
“We started building this program three years ago from scratch and you try to make a lot of good decisions along the way,” Jones said. “I feel like our program has come leaps and bounds from then until now. But we also realize we’re going to play Division I football competition that’s going to be much tougher.
“The last couple of years we had a few games walking out on the field, we knew we were going to win. Our kids want to be playing Division I schools and playing great competition. It’s a little scary on one side but also exciting on the other.”
Jones, a longtime high school coach and former Alabama wide receiver, also led a startup program at Birmingham-Southern.
South Alabama is allowed to have 85 scholarship players and will start counting as a Division I opponent for Football Championship Subdivision teams this season.
The Jaguars will be eligible to compete for the Sun Belt Conference title and a bowl berth in 2013.
“I believe they’ll (have) an impact on this league on Day 1,” said Troy coach Larry Blakeney, whose team has won at least a share of the past five Sun Belt titles. “I think they’ve done some very smart things down there. They’ve got money, spent a lot of money, got good facilities, got a big city to recruit to. They’ll make things tough for the Sun Belt teams from Day 1.”
The Jaguars open the season Sept. 1 against Division II West Alabama with a roster that features several transfers, including starting free safety B.J. Scott (Alabama), running back Demetre Baker (Georgia) and linebacker Jake Johnson (Virginia Tech).
Quarterbacks C.J. Bennett and Myles Gibbon have both started games. Bennett passed for 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions as a redshirt freshman, starting the final three games. Gibbon is a Canadian who started the first two games last season and the opening six in 2009 before a season-ending injury.
Jones said Bennett held a lead in fall camp for the starting job but Gibbon is still contending.
“C.J. has great pocket presence and when the bullets are flying around him he has a knack for being able to slide and make a throw,” Jones said. “He’s extremely accurate, very knowledgeable about where to go with the football. The only negative C.J. has is he’s 6 foot tall
“Myles is getting better and better. He has good size and runs really well and gives us another dimension if he goes into the game.”
Most of the key offensive players are back, but leading receiver Courtney Smith signed a free agent deal with the New York Jets.
Kendall Houston ran for a team-high 891 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Baker, who left Georgia after a redshirt season, should make an immediate impact in the backfield.
Scott is one of three transfers in the secondary. He spent three seasons at Alabama, redshirting in 2009, after coming in rated as the nation’s No. 3 defensive back prospect by Rivals.com.
“He’s got great range,” Jones said. “He understands the game, he’s very physical hitting receivers and tackling running backs. He’s a great presence back there in our secondary.”
Cornerback Damon Smith comes in from Western Michigan, where he started six games last season, and safety Gabe Loper played for a Mississippi junior college.
Johnson led the team with four sacks in 2010, while Enrique Williams’ 48 tackles was tops in the 10-game season.
Now, the question is how those players will fare when the opponents are bigger, stronger and faster than the Jaguars are used to.
“We’ve got big expectations this year,” tight end Paul Bennett said. “Everybody’s kind of questioning us about who we are and who we’ve played the past two years. I’m ready to end those questions. We are just looking to have a breakout year.”
By JOHN ZENOR, The Daily Reporter