By: Michael Hanich | Sports Editor
The term ‘defense wins championships’ is a real phrase that has significant meaning for a position group that gets often overlooked because of the offense. For the South Alabama Jaguars (2-10; 1-7 in Sun Belt Conference play), they have much work to do in the remaining offseason to build a potential conference championship program. The program is looking to overcome their worse football season in program history this past college football season. The Jaguars had one of their best-recruiting classes this offseason in the past couple of seasons with Steve Campbell as their head coach. The Jaguars return six starters on the defensive side of the ball with a majority of them coming from one position group. South Alabama was more efficient on the defensive side of the ball last season but not by much. Look for them to make a huge push towards efficiencies and aggressiveness. Some position battles will be going into the early fall camps.
Here is the current state of the Jaguars’ offensive position groups going into the 2020 college football season.
The Jaguars took the biggest hit of departing players on the defensive line. They lost five impact players on the defensive line that have either started or contributed significantly in the past few seasons. The Jags still have some experienced players to take over the starting positions. Among one of the most experienced defensive linemen is senior end Jeremiah Littles. Last season, Littles accounted for 14 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, which is the most among the returning defensive linemen. At the other defensive end, the Jaguars are likely to turn to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer in Jamie Sheriff as the strongside defensive end. In his two collegiate seasons, Sheriff has accounted for 76 total tackles, 50 solo tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, and four pass breakups. Sheriff accounted for 50 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and four pass breakups this season. Redshirt sophomore Charles Coleman III is likely to backup Sheriff at the strongside end while redshirt sophomore Maurice Strong Jr. is likely to back up Littles at the other end.
Nose Tackle / Defensive Tackle
As part of South Alabama’s 3-4 defensive front package, they will need a huge defensive lineman to clog multiple running lanes at the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars played multiple interior defensive linemen last season. Junior Gi’Narious Johnson was among the three tackles playing significantly last season. Johnson accounted for 13 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks this past season. His large frame at 6-0; 300 pounds will give him some size to consistency clog the inside gaps at the line of scrimmage. Whenever South is in their 4-3 defensive front with four down linemen, they could likely utilize Maurice Strong Jr. as their three-technique defensive tackle. This would create a solid defensive line to create serious pressure in the backfield and potentially sack the quarterback. The Jaguars need to get better at stopping the run as they were ranked 98th in rushing yards allowed per game (192.3) last season. The Jags can also rely on their depth with Pearl River Community College transfer in 6-3; 300-pound defensive tackle D’ezekius Chapman to play this season.
Both starters coming back
The entire starting linebacker corps in the Jaguars’ 3-4 defense comes back for the 2020 college football season. At bandit, senior Riley Cole comes back looking to create more chaos with his quick pass rushing abilities. Last season, Cole accounted for 59 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, and three sacks. Cole was third on the team in sacks accounted for and he is the team’s leading returning pass rusher. He split his time as a bandit on the defensive line and a coverage player from the linebacker zones. Junior linebacker A.J. DeShazor comes back as the starting “rover” linebacker where he plays a mixture of linebacker and safety. DeShazor was third on the team in total tackles accounted for with 61 tackles as well as one interception and two fumble recoveries. With some significant transfers during the offseason, senior Sterling Fisher has been practicing from his natural safety position to back up DeShazor as a rover linebacker. Senior Chris Henderson returns to back up Cole as a bandit but will likely play more as a zone and man coverage linebacker than a pass rusher.
Both starters coming back
The Jaguars are in a great position with their returning contributors at the inside linebacker positions. South Alabama returns their leading tackler from last season’s team in junior will linebacker Nick Mobley. Last season, Mobley accounted for 91 total tackles, 43 solo tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and one pass deflection. His ability to move through blocks and scramble from sideline-to-sideline to make the plays needed to stop a driving offense. There might be a potential position battle at the sam linebacker position between senior Roy Yancey and junior Kelvin Johnson. Yancey started the first 11 games at the sam linebacker by accounting for 45 total tackles, 25 solo tackles, and two tackles for loss. Johnson started the last game at the same linebacker for South in the victory against the Arkansas State Red Wolves. He accounted for 59 total tackles, 35 solo tackles, four tackles for loss, and two pass deflections. The Jaguars will have some great at inside linebacker with former Alabama Crimson Tide in senior Shawn Jennings and Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer Quentin Wilfawn contributing this upcoming season.
One starter coming back
Last season, the South Alabama Jaguars were one of the most inefficient teams in defending the passing game. They were ranked 48th in passing yards allowed per game (216.6) but struggled to stop short-to-medium passing schemes. They encountered several starters at the cornerback position. Senior Devin Rockette started the final eight games of the season in place of Jalen Thompson as the main coverage corner. Rockette progressed throughout the season and now the experience to lead the secondary. The Jaguars will need to find a consistent starter after Travis Reed graduating and Gus Nave currently in the NCAA Transfer Portal. The Jaguars can benefit immediately from their junior college transfers in Pearl River C.C. transfer in three-star cornerback Darrell Luter and Coahoma C.C. transfer in three-star safety/slot cornerback Dewayne Betts. These are secondary players that have the most collegiate experiences and can create more consistency in South Alabama’s pass defense.
One starter coming back
The safeties are the last line of defense in most defensive plays. For the Jaguars, they were often called upon too many times last season. The two starting safeties were among the top four leading tacklers on the team. The Jaguars will be without their second-leading tackler (72) and the top-leading solo tackler (51) in D.J. Daniels. South Alabama will return junior boundary safety Keith Gallmon, who was fourth on the team in total tackles accounted for with 59. He also accounted for four pass breakups. Gallmon will be the leader of the deep secondary like Daniels was last season. Senior Try Young will step into the lineup as the starting free safety after he accounted for 44 total tackles and 31 solo tackles last season. Senior Sterling Fisher will be the backup boundary safety and the top safety off the bench much like Young was last season. Northeastern Oklahoma A&M transfer C.J. Thompson and brothers redshirt sophomore Keon Voisin and freshman Jaden Voisin will bring some depth and talent to the safeties.
Final analysis of Jaguars’ defense
This 2020 college football season will be a critical year for the South Alabama Jaguars. Defensively, they must show not only the improvement from the previous two seasons but also the progress towards becoming a defense that consistently stops opposing offenses. Greg Stewart will enter his third season with the Jaguars along with head coach Steve Campbell. The Jaguars will need to get more efficient in stopping opposing offenses from extending drives. There are many different measures for this defense to get more efficient in stopping offenses. They were ranked 90th in points allowed per game (30.7) and 78th in total yards allowed per game (408.9). Making big plays was something that the Jaguars lacked often last season. They only accounted for 72 tackles for loss and 17 sacks last season. While they have great players, they will need to make the big plays for the defense to grow.
There are several options that the Jaguars can take on the defensive line. Jeremiah Littles and Gi’Narious Johnson are two experienced players for the Jaguars that can be called upon to lead the defensive line. They can benefit greatly from the transfers they acquired during the offseason. The Jaguars return all of their starting linebackers from last year’s team. Nick Mobley and Riley Cole will be the player’s to lead the defense on the second level. The linebacker corps will have much impact and talent to spare with their huge depth. The secondary has been hit with graduations and transfers but has remained in good progress for the 2020 season. A mixture of experience, potential, and transfers comes into the front, especially at the cornerback position. The safeties will be strong once again but it will be up to the cornerbacks to pick up the slack left by last year’s inefficacies.