2014 CFN Preview - South Alabama Jaguars
South Alabama WR Shavarez Smith
South Alabama WR Shavarez Smith
Posted Jul 28, 2014

Preview 2014 - It's coming together in a hurry for the Sun Belt's newest star. (Getty Images)

South Alabama Jaguars

Preview 2014

- 2013 South Alabama Preview 

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By Pete Fiutak
- 2014 South Alabama Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Joey Jones
6th year: 31-21
7th year ovarall: 34-28
Returning Lettermen
Off: 24, Def. 18, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 26
Ten Best USA Players
1. TE Wes Saxton, Jr.
2. OT Ucambre Williams, Jr.
3. OT Chris May, Soph.
4. WR Shavarez Smith, Jr.
5. LB Maleki Harris, Jr.
6. RB Jay Jones, Jr.
7. WR Jereme Jones, Jr.
8. FS Terrell Brigham, Jr.
9. PK Aleem Sunanon, Soph.
10. QB Brandon Bridge, Jr. 
2014 Schedule

Sep. 6 at Kent State
Sep. 13 Miss State
Sep. 20 Georgia Southern
Sep. 27 at Idaho
Oct. 4 at Appalachian St
Oct. 18 Georgia State
Oct. 25 Troy
Nov. 1 at Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 8 at Arkansas State
Nov. 15 Texas State
Nov. 22 at South Carolina
Nov. 28 Navy

Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State might be considered the stars of the Sun Belt, but South Alabama showed last year that it’s about to be something special under head coach Joey Jones.

The Jaguars went 2-11 in the first season up in the FBS world, but that 2012 campaign really wasn’t that bad and there were signs that everything was about to change. 2-11 was 2-11, but the team didn’t really play all that poorly. In the same sort of way, the 6-6 2013 team might have been even better than the final record.

There was a rough 42-14 loss to Navy – the great run defense wasn’t even close, giving up a season-high 351 yards and four touchdowns – and that was it for the bad days. No, losing to Southern Utah wasn’t okay but it was a 22-21 gaffe. USA gave Tennessee a tough time in a 31-24 loss, and lost to Troy, Texas State and Arkansas State by a combined four points, meaning that five of the six losses came by a touchdown or less and by a total of 12 points. It was a tight season all the way around with seven games decided by seven points or fewer, and now it’s time to start winning more of the close ones.

How do you win close battles? With experience and a great defense.

The Jaguars return 15 starters including eight on an effective offense that averaged 426 yards per game and six on a defense that did a great job of stuffing and stalling just about everyone buy Navy. There’s work to do on the defensive front after losing all-stars Alex Page, Romelle Jones and Pat Moore, but Jesse Kelley is a good one to work around on the nose and the back seven should be among the Sun Belt’s best led by one of the league’s top linebackers, Maleki Harris.

The defense is going to attack, and keep attacking – dominating in the backfield last season – and the spread offense should be terrific running the ball with all-star caliber blockers Ucambre Williams and Chris May the leaders of a line that gets all five starters back.

So don’t just hand the season over to one of the Sun Belt mainstays quite yet. The relative new guy is going to be even more dangerous.

What to watch for on offense: The Jaguars should own the ground game, but only if new quarterback Brandon Bridge can take off from time to time. Former quarterback Ross Metheny finished second on the team with 604 rushing yards to go along with a team-leading ten touchdowns, but Jay Jones, Cris Dinham and Kendall Houston did their part in a good running back rotation. All three are back, and Bridge is a decent runner for a 6-5, 220-pounder. The key is the line that allowed just 17 sacks and a mere 67 tackles for loss on the season. With everyone returning and with stars at tackle – Chris May on the right side and Ucambre Williams on the left – expect USA to blow past the 2,073 rushing yards it generated last year.

What to watch for on defense: Keep the pressure coming. The Jaguars technically use a 4-3 alignment with the Jack position being used like a hybrid outside linebacker defensive end, and it works. Last season they cranked out 38 sacks and 86 tackles for loss, but the top five pass rushers are gone with tackle Jerome McClain and his three sacks and do-it-all linebacker Maleki Harris needing to be the new stars who can get into the backfield. The defense came up with three sacks or more in nine games and ripped up ULM, Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette for a grand total of 16 sacks over the last three games – all wins.

The team will be far better if… the defense can come up with a stop in the red zone. Giving up field goals is one thing – opponents hit 16-of-20 field goals on the year against the Jaguars – but there were too many times when the D couldn’t come up with a big stop, allowing offenses to score 88% of the time they got inside the 20 with touchdowns allowed 61% of the time. When USA went 1-4 when allowing teams to score four times or more in the red zone and 5-2 when allowing teams to score three times or fewer in close range.

The Schedule: It’s all about the really big Sun Belt games against Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State, two of the best-looking teams in the conference going into the season. Unfortunately, both games are on the road, and both come back-to-back in early November as part of a run of three away games in four weeks and in the midst of a brutal section of five away games in eight dates. Georgia Southern is also going to be dangerous, but at least that’s at home, as is the tough game against Texas State. The non-conference slate is relatively challenging - to say the least - going to Kent State to start the season, hosting Mississippi State, and closing out the regular season at South Carolina before finishing up against Navy.

Best offensive player: Junior TE Wes Saxton. This is a good, experienced offense that should be sound, but it’ll be Saxton who’ll be the gamechanger with a new quarterback stepping in. More like a very big wide receiver than a tight end, the veteran earned all-star honors as a reliable field-stretcher and go-to guy across the middle. While he’ll be one of the team’s key weapons, the real stars could be up front with tackles Ucambre Williams and Chris May sure-thing All-Sun Belt performers.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Maleki Harris. The team’s second-leading returning tackler, he’s fast, active, great in pass coverage and great at getting into the backfield. While he’s not all that big, he’s strong and holds up well. Now he’ll have to do even more as a leader with so much turnover in the linebacking corps and in the front seven. Expect all-star honors as one of the league’s better statistical stars.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Brandon Bridge. Or, potentially, USF transfer Matt Floyd. The big veteran saw a little bit of action last year and struggled throwing the ball, hitting on just 44% of his passes. Even so, he has great size and excellent mobility. He has to replace Ross Metheny, who finished second on the team with 604 rushing yards and ten touchdowns, and completed 62% of his passes in an efficient and effective year. Bridge gets to pilot a veteran offense, and he needs to be the leader and steadying factor.

The season will be a success if ... the Jaguars win seven games. With so many close losses last season, and with so much experience returning, being at least one win better is a must. It’s not necessarily going to be easy with so many tough road games – and a Sun Belt title might be out of the question with the ULL and Arkansas State battles back-to-back – but this is a good enough team to beat Kent State, Idaho, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Georgia State and Texas State. Win five of those six games, and come up with two other victories against teams like Troy, Navy, and in a perfect world, ULL and/or Arkansas State, and it’ll be a great year.

Key game: Sept. 20 vs. Georgia Southern. The Eagles are going to come into the season thinking that they can be the surprise team to challenge for the Sun Belt title. With two straight road games to follow, and with so many big challenges ahead, USA can't give this away. On the flip side, if the Jaguars win this, they should be able to beat Idaho, Appalachian State and Georgia State to go on a nice run before dealing with Troy and the huge battles with ULL and Arkansas State.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Kickoff Returns: Opponents 63 for 1,000 yards (15.9-yard average) – South Alabama 27 for 621 yards (23-yard average)
- Sacks: South Alabama 38 for 254 yards – Opponents 17 for 153 yards
- Penalties: Opponents 83 for 684 yards – South Alabama 64 for 549 yards

- 2014 South Alabama Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players