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Previewing 2015 South Alabama Football

Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

South Alabama opened their season with a 33-23 victory over division 1-AA Gardner Webb, a team that went 4-8 in 2014. (Turner Gill's Liberty University shut out Gardner-Webb 34-0 last October, for reference.) The game didn't start out that close, as South Alabama raced out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter before lightning forced a half-hour delay in the game. The delay took the edge off of the Jaguars, who struggled on offense until new South Alabama quarterback Cody Clements threw a pick-six interception to give Gradner-Webb a 16-13 lead early in the third quarter. That lead lasted just 15 seconds , as Clements found sophomore running back Xavier Johnson on a screen for a 56 yard touchdown. Johnson later sealed the victory with a 92 yard touchdown run to give him 121 yards rushing on just seven carries and 178 yards of total offense on the day.

South Alabama split carries with four different running backs. Johnson started, but senior Terrence Timmons scored on a 49 yard run on the opening drive. Timmons only gained two more yards the rest of the day, however. Tyreis Thomas, a junior college all-American last season at Dodge City, had nine carries on the day for 56 yards. Former Illinois running back Dami Ayoola ran four times for 9 yards. Clements completed 14 of 25 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, but with two interceptions. Backup freshman quarterback Dallas Davis ran twice, gaining two yards on one carry and getting tackled in the end zone for a safety on the other.

Senior tight end Gerald Vinson led South Alabama in receiving last week with four catches for 75 yards. Senior D.J. Vinson, who moved from running back at UAB to slot receiver for South Alabama, also caught four passes for 22 yards. Senior Danny Woodson II was expected to be South Alabama's top receiver this season, but he's been suspended for the first two games due to academics; he should be back for next week's game at San Diego State.

Last week, senior linebacker Blake Dees was the leading tackler last week with 13. The Jaguars defensive line took a big hit in the offseason when senior defensive end Jimmie Gipson III was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. South Alabama struggled to stop Gardner-Webb's zone read allowing 177 yards on the ground. Did South Alabama overlook their 1-AA opponent with a trip to Lincoln this week? More than likely yes, which should illustrate the danger of overlooking any opponent for the Huskers this season. That being said, after last week's last second loss to BYU, you wouldn't think Nebraska would overlook anybody.

Below, you'll find the preseason preview of South Alabama.

Nebraska Football has a long, storied history that dates back to 1890. South Alabama, Nebraska's second opponent in 2015 has a very brief history. The university is younger than Mike Riley, and didn't even have a football program at any level when Bo Pelini was hired in 2007. Last season was only South Alabama's second season as a full division 1-A program and sixth season overall.  They finished 6-7 on the season, losing the inaugural Camelia Bowl in Montgomery 33-28 to Bowling Green. The Jaguars have never beaten a BCS or Power Five opponent, though they did come close in 2013. (Tennessee needed a goal line stand with under two minutes left in the game to preserve a 31-24 victory over South Alabama.)

Young programs don't have an opportunity to develop depth right away; players crack the starting lineup early because there aren't upperclassmen to beat out.  So they become multi-year starters unless someone younger comes along and bumps them out. That means when those players become seniors, you'll have a very seasoned team performing at their very best.  That was South Alabama in 2014 getting a bowl bid with a senior-laden squad.

The flip side of that is the next year. Welcome to 2015 and South Alabama's five returning starters. You read that right: FIVE.  Problem, right?

Almost always, yes. But not for South Alabama in 2015.  Remember the horror of the dismantling of Alabama-Birmingham's football program last fall? All of those players became free agents, and seven of them headed 250 miles south on I-65. Effectively this quasi-merger of the Jaguars and Blazers (SBN's Bill Connelly calls them the "Jagzars") will make this transition a heck of a lot less bumpy than it would otherwise have been.

Start with quarterback, where senior Cody Clements (6'2" 210 lbs.) put up impressive numbers as a JUCO transfer to UAB last season: 66.5% completion percentage, 2,227 yards, 14 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. Since South Alabama also hired former UAB offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent, for all practical purposes, he is a returning starter - and an upgrade over his 2014 predecessor at South Alabama in terms of efficiency. He's not a threat to run, but he's efficient. Vaughn likes to run a hurry-up, fast tempo offense, and a quarterback like Clements keeps the sticks moving and the ball away from the opponent. If it weren't for the UAB program's demise, the quarterback spot likely would have fallen to 6'2" 195 pound junior Hunter Vaughn who completed 38 of 59 passes last season for 342 yards and a touchdown. The problem with Vaughn was the six interceptions in those 59 attempts. So don't be surprised if South Alabama turns to UAB transfers Austin Chipoletti (5'11" 190 lbs.) or Evan Orth (6'3" 195 lbs.), should Clements go down to injury.

At running back, it's still an ongoing battle between sophomore Xavier Johnson (5'11" 175 lbs.) and senior Terrence Timmons (5'7" 180 lbs.). Timmons finished the 2014 season strong, rushing for 260 yards in the final three games.  For the entire season, Timmons rushed for 403 yards and four touchdowns while Johnson rushed for 438 yards as a freshman. Juco transfers Tyreis Thomas (5'10" 210 lbs.) and Dami Ayoola (5'10" 200 lbs.) are bigger backs.  Ayoola played for Illinois in 2012, rushing 26 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns before transferring to Arizona Western for the 2014 season. Thomas was a NJCAA all-American in 2013 at Dodge City when he rushed for 1,380 yards.

Senior D.J. Vinson (5'10" 200 lbs.) is among those following Clements and Vincent down I-65 after rushing for 670 yards and nine touchdowns at UAB in 2014. But with the depth at running back, South Alabama is moving Vinson back from running back to play slot receiver in 2015.  Senior Danny Woodson II, a 6'1 200 lb. receiver who spent two seasons at Alabama, was bothered by injuries for most of last season, then caught six passes for 122 yards in the Camelia Bowl. The former four-star recruit caught 30 passes last season overall for 382 yards.  Senior tight ends Braedon Bowman (6'4" 220 lbs.) and Gerald Everett (6'3" 232 lbs.; UAB transfer) each caught 18 passes last season for 234 and 304 yards respectively.  Oh, and there's another four-star Alabama transfer available inMarvin Shinn (6'2" 210 lbs.), who caught seven passes for 173 yards as a junior last season.

South Alabama will need to replace three starters on the offensive line, though UAB transfer senior guard Cameron Blankenship (6'5" 285 lbs) will fill one of those open spots. Senior right tackle Chris May (6'5" 290 lbs.) is a three year starter, while junior center Joseph Scelfo (6'1" 300 lbs) is a two year starter. Despite the experience, none of the three are conference award winners.

South Alabama's strength last season was their defense - but that was then, this is now. Only safeties Roman Buchanan (6'2" 210 lbs.) and Antonio Carter (5'8" 190 lbs)  return from last season's starting lineup. Buchanan is going to be asked to lead the defense after a sparkling sophomore season in 2014: 74 tackles and seven pass breakups.  Carter will slide over from nickel back to replace a three-year starter at free safety.  Seniors Margo Reed (5'7" 165 lbs.) and E.J. May (5'10" 180 lbs.) will get the first shot at filling the open cornerback spots, but keep an eye on JUCO transfer Quinton Lane (6'1" 185 lbs.) to make a bid for playing time.

In South Alabama's 4-2-5 alignment, the Jaguars will be looking to find two new starting linebackers this season.  One should be senior Demarius Rancifer (6'4" 205 lbs), who had 26 tackles as a reserve last season, and the other could  will be UAB senior transferKalen Jackson (6'1" 205 lbs.), who missed most of 2014 with a knee injury. Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees (6'0" 245 lbs.) might also make a bid for playing time.

On the line, expectations are high that senior defensive end Jimmie Gipson III (6'0" 255 lbs.) to build on an impressive junior season where he led the team with seven quarterback hurries as a reserve.  Injuries slowed him up in 2014, but in 2013, he earned all-American honors at East Mississippi Community College. Senior Akeem Lewis (6'2" 250 lbs.) should start at the other end.  On the interior, keep an eye on sophomore defensive tackle Caleb Butler ( 6'4" 250 lbs.), who came on strong at the end of the season.  But at 250 lbs., you have to expect that South Alabama will be susceptible to a power running game.

With so many young players and incoming transfers, it's not unreasonable to expect South Alabama to struggle in the early parts of the 2015 season. But with the number of transfers, they might put things together and make some noise later in the season in Sun Belt Conference play. They're probably not a huge threat to challenge Nebraska though, as this looks like the biggest mismatch of the season for the Big Red.