By Gene Stanley/Sports Correspondent
A great 2013 season and high preseason expectations have the Jacksonville State University football team entering fall practice in an excited state of mind.
Last year, the Gamecocks finished with an 11-4 record and a trip to the playoff quarterfinals. That success translated into a No. 4 national ranking to open this season. JSU also is the favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the air,” Gamecock football coach John Grass said at the program’s Media Day press conference on July 31. “The 2013 season laid a great foundation. How many teams in the country would love to open the season in the Top 5 and expected to win their conference? But the rankings are based on what we did last year. Right now, we have no teeth. We’ve got a chance to be really good again, though.”
This is Grass’ first season as head coach. He was offensive coordinator last year in Bill Clark’s one and only season as head coach. Clark left for UAB after the season, leaving Grass holding the reins.
As for now, Grass said there is a lot more comfort than last year, with both the coaches and the players.
“We know more what to expect this year,” he said. “There was some reality in making the postseason and now we’re hungry to get back to that level of play.”
Last year’s team was young, so there’s a lot more experience this season.
“It was a special time (last season), watching the young players grow up,” Grass said. “They know more what to expect this year. They know the routines and there’s a lot of comfort in that.”
The Gamecocks will find out in a hurry what they need to work on, with the season opener on Aug. 29 at Michigan State, followed by a game at Chattanooga on Sept. 6. JSU’s home opener is on Sept. 20 against West Alabama.
“I guarantee that there won’t be a playoff game any tougher than those two games,” Grass said. “I love opening with a premier program. We didn’t get to do that last year.”
Grass mentioned that the Spartans were maybe a couple of plays from being in the 2013-14 national championship game.
Instead of pressure, he said that his team will have fun at Michigan State.
“We know going in that there won’t be a better opponent the rest of the year,” he said.
A couple of local players are on the JSU roster in redshirt junior Chad Sharp and freshman offensive tackle Tyler Johnson. A 2011 Westbrook Christian graduate, Sharp saw action last season against Murray State. He was also on the field in the games against Tennessee State and Eastern Kentucky. Johnson graduated from Glencoe High in May.