By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Photo: 2019 Westbrook Christian graduate P.J. Wells might see playing time as a freshman at JSU this fall. (Alex Chaney)
It’s 28 days and counting until the Jacksonville State football team begins its defense of a fifth straight Ohio Valley Conference championship.
At the team’s 2019 Media Day last Tuesday (July 30) at Paul Snow Stadium, head coach John Grass noted that was looking forward to seeing what improvements several of his erstwhile greenhorns will show with a year’s experience under their collective belts.
“Every year is different,” he said. “Last year we only had about 17 or 18 guys who had ever been in a college football game, so we had to grow up quick. This year we have a lot of experience coming back, probably skill-wise as much as we’ve ever had. We’re still a little young up front on both sides of the ball, but I think as those guys get their game reps, we’ll get better as the year goes on.”
Grass is preparing his squad for a potential nail biter against every Ohio Valley Conference opponent, including Austin Pear, Tennessee State, Eastern Illinois, Southeastern Missouri State, Murray State, UT-Martin, Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky.
“Our schedule lines up as it always does – very competitive. I say this every year, but the parity in the OVC gets better every year. Sometimes we get overlooked nationally but with us and [Southeastern Missouri State] winning [playoff] games last year, I think that will help. From top to bottom, I think the OVC will be as strong as it’s ever been. Any of the bottom [four] teams can beat any of the top [four] teams on any given Saturday. I also think our non-conference games [against Southeastern Louisiana, UT-Chattanooga, Eastern Washington and North Alabama] will prepare us for the playoffs.”
The 2018 Gamecocks went 9-4, including a 7-1 mark in OVC action. JSU defeated East Tennessee State in the first round of the FCS playoffs at home before suffering a 55-27 loss at Maine.
Grass acknowledged that redshirt junior Zerrick Cooper will open the season as the starting quarterback but expects redshirt sophomore Zion Webb to provide a stiff challenge. Cooper had the best passing season in school history in 2018, setting program records with 3,416 yards, 32 touchdown passes and 251 completions. His 290.9 yards of total offense per game was also a school record.
“We’ve always had really good competition at [the quarterback position], and I think that’s the case right now. They both have a better understanding of the game. It’s a very competitive relationship between those two but it’s also a healthy relationship, and they push each other every day.”
Both signal-callers have a pair of experienced receivers in seniors Josh Pearson and Jamari Hester. Pearson last season had 67 catches for 1,123 yards and 17 touchdowns. Hester had 59 receptions for 864 yards and 11 TDs.
“Those are two solid guys who bring a lot to the table,” said Grass. “Overall, I think our receiving corps is the deepest it’s been.”
Four local products are members of the JSU roster – junior kicker Parker Holland of Gadsden City along with three freshmen – receiver Brayden Hill of Hokes Bluff and receiver P.J. Wells and lineman Jackson Luttrell of Westbrook Christian.
Luttrell had 70 tackles, including 23 for a loss, 14 sacks, 19 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries and Wells caught 45 passes for 813 yards and 12 touchdowns in helping the Warriors to a 7-4 record and a berth in the state playoffs.
Hill caught 29 passes for 609 yards and eight touchdowns at receiver and had 52 tackles at linebacker to help the Eagles go 11-2 and earn a third straight trip to the state quarterfinals.
Although he normally redshirts the majority of his freshmen, Grass didn’t rule out throwing a youngster or two into the fire.
“I say sometimes that we have a deficiency as a program if we play a freshman, but this is a talented group, and I can definitely see some of those guys helping us depth-wise and getting some snaps.”
JSU opens the season on Aug. 29 at Southeastern Louisiana State. The Gamecocks kick off their OVC schedule on Sept. 28 at Austin Peay.