By Stan Veitch/Sports Correspondent
Heading into the 2015 college football season, there is a lot of excitement around the Jacksonville State program.
That happens after a couple of very successful seasons. The Gamecocks made the Football Championship Series quarterfinals two years ago and missed that game by only nine points this past season after being ranked No. 2 at the end of the regular season.
As JSU sports information director Greg Seitz was making his opening remarks during the team’s annual Media Day on Aug. 6, he twice laughing used the word “pressure” in context with the upcoming football season.
When new JSU President Dr. John M. Beehler, followed, he also used the word in his speech.
Both times, head football coach John Grass was laughing. But when Grass sat down for his opening statement, about the first thing he mentioned was hunger, not pressure.
“We’re excited about the football season starting,” Grass said. “I think everybody anticipates fall going on…and we’re equally as excited about the season starting. We’re equally as excited about the season starting, and we’ve had a great offseason so far.
“We didn’t end the (2014) season the way we wanted to. We’ve come back, I think, with a hunger.”
The Gamecocks lost 37-26 to Sam Houston State in last season’s first round after ending the season with a 10-2 record, the Ohio Valley Conference championship and No. 2 national ranking. In the season prior, JSU lost in the quarterfinals to Eastern Michigan.
However, one of the first questions from the assembled sports writers was about pressure.
“There’s always pressure,” Grass responded. “I’ve always felt like this no matter what level I’ve coached at, no matter if it was my alma mater, Ashville High, a little (Class) 3A school. When I was a head coach there, when I was an assistant there, I felt pressure. I always put more pressure on myself than anybody could put on me because I feel obligated to those players and coaches to do the very best I can.
“I’m just excited. I’m excited about the season. To see the work we’ve put in, I’m excited about watching these guys play.”
The Gamecocks return seven starters on an offense that produced a school-record 510.8 yards per game, including quarterback Eli Jenkins (1,870 yards and 12 touchdowns passing, 813 yards and six touchdowns rushing) and wide receiver Josh Barge (56 catches for 919 yards and four touchdowns).
Also back on offense are running backs Troymaine Pope (715 yards, six touchdowns) and Miles Jones (652, seven touchdowns).
JSU returns nine starters on defense, including tackle Devaunte Sigler, OVC defensive player of the year, and All-American cornerback Jermaine Hough.
The Gamecocks enter the season ranked No. 9 the FCS Preseason Coaches Poll.
Does the preseason hype put more pressure on the players?
“We use it to press forward,” said redshirt junior Chad Sharp, the team’s long snapper who played at Westbrook Christian. “If we do our jobs and win, we’ll continue to be ranked high.”
But does that bring outside pressure?
“It’s a different kind of pressure,” said offensive lineman Kyron Samuels. “We think we have the best team in the country, so it’s self-pressure more than anything.”
This kind of sentiment was echoed around the room.
“We don’t focus on anything the media says about us, good or bad,” said receiver Ruben Gonzalez. “We focus on ourselves and trying to get better as football players.”
Said receiver Dalton Screws, “We ignore the expectations of others but have even higher expectations of ourselves. Our expectations are higher than any that anyone else could possibly put on us.”
JSU kicks off the 2015 season at the University of Chattanooga on Sept. 5. JSU then travels to Auburn University on Sept. 12. The Gamecock’s home and Ohio Valley Conference opener is against Tennessee State on Sept. 19.