Each week, we’ll revisit the original preseason opponent preview and update things that have changed. For the season opening opponent, there isn’t much to base any updates on, other than reports out of preseason practice. The only real news is that South Alabama head coach Steve Campbell confirmed that sophomore Cephus Johnson will indeed start at quarterback ahead of freshman Desmond Trotter.
This game should be a mismatch; if you are a disciple of Phil Steele, you’ll note that South Alabama is ranked 125th out of 130 division 1-A football teams in his Power Poll. While he thinks that South Alabama will be better than last year, a tougher schedule might mean the same record (3-9) as last year.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to focus on for this Saturday is the weather. Once again, thunderstorms are in the forecast for Nebraska’s season opener.
Looking at a current model run (as of Tuesday night) and it has storms on and off Saturday. I'll keep the best chance in the AM, for now, but some of the #Huskers game may see rain. Still lots of time to pin down if and when, so keep an eye on the forecast. pic.twitter.com/dFvh8XHi4b— Husker Weather (@HuskerWeather) August 28, 2019
Everybody start singing... “rain, rain, go away...the Huskers want to go out and PLAY!”
South Alabama’s only previous visit to Lincoln was the ultimate “let’s all feel better” balm to help soothe the sting of a Hail Mary upset by BYU the week before. The Huskers averaged 7.0 yards per carry on the ground and completed more than 68% of their passes in a 48-9 blowout victory in 2015. The next year, South Alabama did pull off a shocker to open the season, upsetting Mississippi State 21-20 enroute to a berth in the 2016 Arizona Bowl, where the Jaguars lost to the Air Force Academy.
After a 4-8 season in 2017, Steve Campbell replaced the program’s first head coach, Joey Jones... and promptly went 3-9 in his first season at South Alabama. What was weird, according to SB Nation analytics guru Bill Connelly, was that Campbell combined players and coaches that each had a passing background, and implemented a try-to-run-the-damn-ball offense. Note the “try” part, because despite trying, it wasn’t successful Whatever they were thinking, it just didn’t work in 2018.
It might have to in 2019. South Alabama needs to replace the top two quarterbacks as well as two of the top three receivers from last season. Leading rusher Tra Minter (5’9” 200 lbs.) returns for his senior season after rushing for 801 yards and six touchdowns last season, but for this to work, Minter will have to improve on his 4.4 yards per carry average. Junior college transfer Terrion Avery (5’9” 195 lbs.) and four redshirt freshmen round out the running back depth chart.
Redshirt sophomore Cephus Johnson (6’5” 225 lbs.) emerged from last spring as the Jaguars’ top quarterback, but fell to third on the depth chart during preseason practice. He only started one game late in the season, completing just seven of 19 passes for 120 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. Johnson also added 90 yards rushing on 24 carries. He was a clear #1 on the depth chart this spring ahead of redshirt freshman Desmond Trotter (6’3” 215 lbs.).
Junior slot receiver Kawaan Baker (6’1” 210 lbs.) was South Alabama’s leading scorer doing it both rushing and receiving. Baker rushed for 251 yards and nine touchdowns on just 59 carries last season, and caught 33 passes for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomores Jalen Tolbert (6’3” 200 lbs.) and Davyn Fleonard (6’2” 205 lbs.) emerged from spring practice as the other starting receivers; they combined for eight catches and 82 yards last season. Junior college transfer Jamel Thomas (6’1” 177 lbs.) caught 59 passes for 934 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games for Itawamba Community College last season. For lack of anybody else, you have to suspect he’ll emerge in 2019.
A year ago, South Alabama only had seven healthy offensive linemen; basically, anybody who could play did. This year, there’s more depth as four junior college transfers and a bunch of redshirts from last season join in the mix. Senior Troy Thingstad (6’5” 290 lbs.) is expected to move back from left tackle to right tackle this season, but the other three returning starters could find themselves as backups in 2019.
Defensively, South Alabama wasn’t very good in 2018, no matter what statistic you look at. 124th (out of 128 teams) in pass efficiency defense, 122nd in scoring defense and 101st in rushing defense. SB Nation analytics guru Bill Connelly notes that the Jaguars’ rush defense wasn’t that bad, considering that opponents were frequently running the ball with the game under control. And this year, they should be better in that regard.
Senior defensive end Tyree Turner (6’5” 285 lbs.) was a second-team all-Sun Belt honoree last season. His ten tackles for loss led the team and his 51 total tackles ranked fourth. In 2015, he had two tackles against Nebraska, including a tackle of Terrell Newby for a one yard loss. Senior nose tackle Jordon Beaton (6’1” 300 lbs.) also returns after a 30 tackle junior season. Depth at the other defensive end position is going to be improved with the return of junior Riley Cole (6’3” 235 lbs.; 55 tackles in 2017) and senior Rocel McWilliams (6’3” 250 lbs.; 23 tackles in 2017) to compete with senior Taji Stewart (6’3” 250 lbs.; 28 tackles, 3.5 for a loss last season) and junior Jeramiah Littles (6’2” 270 lbs.; 16 tackles, 4 for a loss last season).
The linebacker corps should be improved with the return of junior college transfer Roy Yancey (6’1” 220 lbs.). The 2017 second team junior college all-American was sidelined last season due to a stress fracture, but was back at full speed this spring at strongside linebacker. Sophomore weakside linebacker Nick Mobley (5’11” 225 lbs.) had an impressive first season; he’s the Jaguars’ leading returning tackler with 56 last season.
The South Alabama secondary is in a full-rebuilding mode in 2019 with only senior cornerback Jalen Thompson (6’0” 180 lbs.) returning. Thompson missed 2017 due to academic issues and was hot and cold last season. His 34 tackles, eight pass break-ups and three interceptions last season were offset by nearly just as many misplays. The rest of the secondary is pretty much all new, with three junior college transfers. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Legette, Jr. is also in the mix. That name should sound familiar to older Husker fans; the senior Legette was an all-Big Eight cornerback for the Huskers in 1991. A third round NFL draft pick, Legette spent seven seasons in the NFL with New Orleans, Tampa and San Francisco.
With only 10 starters returning from a 3-9 Sun Belt team, clearly South Alabama is still much in a building mode. The only position that really looks solid at this point is the defensive line; everywhere else, there are questions. Nobody expect much from the Jaguars this season; the Orlando Sentinel ranks South Alabama second to last in division 1-A, ahead of only UTEP. Last season’s Sagarin computer rankings ranked over two dozen 1-AA schools ahead of South Alabama at the end of 2018; there’s not much reason to expect much better in 2019.