by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

If the big on-line University of Phoenix decided to have a football team (after all, U. of P. has already put its name on one of the country’s premier stadia--niversity of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale AZ; home of the NFL Cardinals), this is about what its team would look like in its fourth year of development. South Alabama, founded in 1963 and playing basketball in the Sun Belt Conference since 1978, inaugurated its football program in 2009, going 7-0 vs. a schedule made up of military prep schools and junior colleges, making Mobile's historic Ladd-Peebles Stadium (above left), home of the annual Senior Bowl, its home base. In 2010, the Jaguars were 10-0 playing a slate of FCS, Division II, and NAIA teams. Last season, USA was 6-4 as the Jags dipped their paw into the waters of the FBS for the first time, losing 35-13 at N.C. State and 33-25 at Kent State.

The coach all along has one of the favorite sons of Montgomery, AL. He is Joey Jones (right), a one-time star WR for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama who also got a taste of the pros with the Birmingham Stallions of the old USFL and briefly with the Atlanta Falcons. The South Alabama administration knew exactly what it was looking for in Jones, someone with roots in Montgomery, schooled by the Bear, and with experience in building programs—something that Jones had done both at the high school level and as the first head coach of Division III Birmingham Southern. True to his football upbringing, Jones has constructed his USA program with firmness and discipline, with an eye toward being competitive in the Sun Belt in just the programl’s fourth season.

That would be quite an accomplishment, even though the Jags are ineligible to win the league title this season. Last year’s losses at N.C. State (the Wolfpack led only 14-3 at the half; USA collected 4 sacks and forced 3 fumbles in the game) and Kent State (the Jaguars fought back from a 33-0 third-quarter deficit to make a game of in the 4th) showed that Jones’ team might not be so easy to be overrun this year as a kindergartener at the FBS level. Indeed, defense is the strength of the 2012 team, with nine starters back from 2011. The backbone of that 3-4 unit is a veteran core of LBs, led by sr. ILB Mike Johnson (83 tackles, 2 sacks), jr. ILB Enrique Williams (62 Ts), jr. OLB Ken Barefield (above left; 56 Ts), and jr. OLB Clifton Crews, who often lines up in the “Jack” OLB/DE pass-rush position. And there is some LB depth behind that quartet. Jr. DEs Alex Page (2½ sacks LY) and Romelle Jones (2 sacks) need to continue their development up front if the Jags are going to exceed last year’s too-small total of only 15 sacks.

The secondary has been an area of concern for Jones since the football Jaguars’ inception, as USA posted only 8 interceptions in 2011. There appears to be hope for improvement, as promising early-enrolling juco CB Darius Morrow nailed down a starting job in the spring. Sr. Charles Harris (83) collected 38 tackles last season, while the other projected safety starter--B.J. Scott--is a former University of Alabama player who had 48 Ts in 2011 in his return year after injury.

There is much greater concern on offense than defense for this Jaguar team, which is transitioning this season from a power running attack to a no-huddle spread in the style of Oklahoma State and Southern Miss. That’s where new offensive coordinator Robert Matthews has been working in recent seasons, the last two in Hattiesburg. Matthews will also tutor the OL, which returns only two starters and is a major concern as the Jaguars step way up in class. Says HC Jones, “We’ve got to continue to find guys there, and we’ve got guys who are capable. But we’ve got to have some guys step up there. I think we’ve got depth everywhere else. If we get some depth on the line, I’ll feel good about where we are [on offense].” Sr. C Trey Clark and soph G Melvin Meggs are the two main pillars up front.

QB must also be a concern, as 6-0 soph C.J. Bennett (right; 53%, 1640 yards, 7 TDs but 17 interceptions) made the normal confidence-testing freshman mistakes last season and now has to learn the new no-huddle scheme. 6-0 RS frosh Trey Fetner flashed potential in spring and figures to get some playing time in the fall. But it goes without saying that Bennett and Fetner are not exactly Denard Robinson or Darron Thomas as spread QBs.

The strength of the attack figures to be its deep RB corps, with 5-10, 215 soph Kendall Houston (558 YR in 2011) and 6-1, 215 sr. Demetre Baker (491) both back. Also, 6-1, 240 power back Brandon Ross returns after missing last season with a torn ACL. Plus, J.J Keels and Julien Valentin impressed in the new offense in the spring.

Receiver has the potential to be another strength, although that unit must also adjust to the new spread and hope that the rebuilt OL and marginal QBing both show in-season development. Top returning WR Bryant Lavender had 28 recs. LY, but no TDs. 6-4 soph wideout Greg Hollinger has been moved to TE in the spread. 5-9 playmaker T.J. Wilson (234 YR and 14 recs. in 2010), who sat out 2011 with academic problems, has been moved from RB to WR in the spread and will also be a key return man for the Jags.

Sr. kickoff specialist Michel Chupuseaux takes over placement duties.

Summary...To say that South Alabama is a work in progress going into its fourth season is an understatement. After playing only seven games vs. a serious red velvet cupcake schedule in 2009, the Jaguars now face a much-tougher 13-game slate (12 FBS foes) in 2012. With what appears to be dubious QBing and a rebuilding OL. Few opponents pull their punches vs. a punching bag. Coach Joey Jones has built his USA team with a solid plan and a steady hand. His defense figures to be stubborn. But touchdowns don’t figure to come easily in 2012. And, if history is any indication, fledgling teams such as South Alabama become younger, smaller and thinner very quickly if they suffer just a few key injuries early. Yes, the Jags figure to take a few serious lickings (e.g., at Mississippi State, and perhaps after the long flight to Hawaii in December). And straight up victories will be few--perhaps very few. But South Alabama appears to have enough coaching, recruiting, raw talent, and defense to avoid major humiliation in its first year in the Sun Belt, and perhaps to be a decent pointspread threat as a big underdog.


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