Still searching for its first win in 2016, LSU enters its home opener with plenty of questions left to be answered. And the Tigers’ opponent, Jacksonville State, proved to be a formidable foe against Southeastern Conference competition last season.
But we have some questions about the Gamecocks, too.
Our Pick 6 series, a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent, returns for another week. Mark Edwards, who covers the Gamecocks for The Anniston Star in Anniston, Alabama, kindly joined us to answer our questions about JSU, the Football Championship Subdivision national runner-up in 2015.
1. Since being hired as the JSU offensive coordinator in 2013 and taking over as head coach in 2014, John Grass has made the Gamecocks into a yearly contender in the FCS and an offensive juggernaut. JSU has accumulated more than 6,000 total yards of offense in all three seasons he’s run the offense, which hadn’t been done by the program prior to his arrival. What have been the keys to Grass’ success in such a short period of time?
John Grass coached high school football for nearly 20 years before he came to Jacksonville State, and he developed a solid offensive philosophy that’s based on running when you want and passing when you want. It’s funny that during the first half of his first game at offensive coordinator, Jacksonville State was struggling at Alabama State, and somebody in the press box said, “That high school offense won’t work at this level.” So, some Jax State folks like to joke about how much they love their “high school offense.”
The bottom line, though, is the personnel. Grass and his staff have recruited great FCS personnel — offensive line, receivers, running backs and a great quarterback in Eli Jenkins.
2. The Gamecocks gave Auburn all it wanted last season in a 27-20 overtime loss, forcing three turnovers and being within 40 seconds of a victory in regulation. On top of a double-overtime win against Ole Miss in 2010, how much confidence did that game give the program about facing Football Bowl Subdivision opponents?
Jacksonville State already was a confident program before the Auburn game, but that game did help the fan base realize the Gamecocks had a good team. JSU finished second in the FCS in attendance last year, and that Auburn game probably helped increase the buzz outside the program. But Jax State takes the FBS games for what they are.
If JSU upset LSU but then laid an egg and lost its opening FCS playoff game, this group would be severely disappointed. I dare say that if they were allowed the choice, they would gladly trade the LSU game for another shot in the FCS championship game.
3. Senior quarterback Eli Jenkins, a preseason All-American and the preseason Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, is the clear star on this Gamecocks offense. He was the FCS Quarterback of the Year in 2015 and was one of just three Division I passers to throw for 2,700 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. Do you think Jenkins can frustrate the LSU defense with his legs and his arm?
Yes, I do. Jenkins is for real. Just ask Auburn, which was one of the teams that tried through a third party to get Jenkins to enroll as a graduate transfer. As a fourth-year starter, his best attribute is that he’ll take what the defense allows, whether it’s running or passing. If he runs the ball 20 times Saturday, it likely will be because that’s what LSU is allowing.
4. With the departures of Troymaine Pope and Miles Jones, JSU found an answer at running back with the addition of Roc Thomas, who transferred from Auburn over the summer. LSU has faced the former five-star recruit once before, but he had a minimal impact in a blowout win for LSU. However, Thomas seems to be reinvigorated by his new team. Why is that and what do you expect from him this season?
It’s just been one game, but JSU seems willing to use him in more ways than Auburn did. Auburn seemed to limit him to certain situations, but Jacksonville State isn’t limiting him at all.
John Grass coached Roc Thomas at Oxford High School through his junior season, and he seems to trust him more than Auburn’s coaches did.
5. Thomas isn’t the only FBS transfer — or Southeastern Conference transfer, for that matter — on the Gamecocks roster. JSU’s other running back, Josh Clemons, is a Kentucky transfer. Two of the Gamecocks three other offseason transfers are from SEC schools, including former LSU wide receiver Kevin Spears. Why is JSU such an attractive destination for players looking to transfer from FBS programs?
Grass says getting players at all levels (high school, junior college and transfers) is about relationships, and there’s no doubt he and his staff have developed great relationships with high school coaches in Alabama and Georgia, especially.
That can pay off when prospective transfers consider another school, ask around, and hear “Jacksonville State” in response. Grass likes to point out, however, that about 85 percent of the guys in his program came in as freshmen.
6. The Gamecocks front seven was stingy against North Alabama, recording five sacks and holding the Lions to 52 yards on 32 attempts. The JSU defense also allowed only 170 passing yards in the season-opener. The LSU offensive line struggled mightily to protect quarterback Brandon Harris against Wisconsin, and Harris was inconsistent when he did have time. Even running back Leonard Fournette was held to low rushing total in the first half. Do you think the Gamecocks can duplicate that success against Fournette, Harris and the LSU offensive line?
Jacksonville State probably doesn’t have the size and speed that a solid Big Ten program such as Wisconsin has, but the Gamecocks have an excellent defense that prides itself on physical play.
Last year’s defense was more experienced, but this year’s group has four preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference performers and some other guys who are talented and should be a force within league play. As for the North Alabama game, keep in mind that UNA essentially sacrificed the run. Most of those rushing attempts were the quarterback scrambling after getting chased out the pocket.
If I had Fournette in my backfield, I wouldn’t sacrifice the run even if I was facing the (New England) Patriots.