By Creg Stephenson |
South Alabama opens football training camp on Friday, with expectations for the program sky-high after a 10-3 record under second-year coach Kane Wommack in 2022.
The Jaguars are picked to finish second in the Sun Belt West Division in 2023 behind defending conference champion Troy, and return 18 of the 22 players who started on offense and defense in the season-ending New Orleans Bowl vs. Western Kentucky. That means there are arguably fewer unknowns heading into the fall than at any time in the program’s 14-year history.
But there are still a few questions that need answering before South Alabama tees it up vs. Tulane on Sept. 2 in New Orleans. Here are 5 of them:
1. How will the pieces fit on the offensive line?
The Jaguars return 47 of a possible 65 starts up front from 2022, with the biggest loss being two-year starter James Jackson at center. Reggie Smith (a 13-game starter at right guard last season) and Mississippi State transfer Reed Buys battled for that spot in the spring, and will likely continue to do so in the fall. Another Mississippi State transfer, Lucas Taylor, might also get a look at center. At tackle, Josh McCulloch on the left side and Adrein Strickland on the right appear to be entrenched as starters. Guard is a bit up in the air, depending on whether or not Smith wins the center job. If so, look for Tennessee transfer James Robinson to start at left guard and Dontae Lucas (last year’s starter at left guard) to slide over to the right side. South Carolina transfer Jordan Davis is being groomed as the eventual successor to McCulloch (a fifth-year senior) at left tackle.
2. Who emerges as the third wide receiver?
Devin Voisin and Caullin Lacy are givens at two of the three receiver spots after combining for 129 receptions, 1,687 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022. Gone, however, is Jalen Wayne, who set a program record with nine touchdown catches last season and is among the school’s all-time leaders in numerous categories. That leaves an open competition for Wayne’s position that will continue into the fall. Memphis transfer Javon Ivory (who totaled 46 receptions, 586 yards and 2 TDs for the Tigers last season) is the likeliest candidate, though he missed much of the spring due to injury. Junior-college transfer Shamar Sandgren and program veteran Jay’juan Townsend are also in the mix, but don’t count out former walk-on Jamaal Pritchett. Coaches love the 5-foot-9 Jackson native, who is often un-guardable in practice and filled in for Wayne when he was injured during the New Orleans Bowl. The Jaguars also return five capable tight ends, so we could see more 2 TE/2 WR formations this year than in the past.
3. Will the Jaguars identify some pass-rushers?
South Alabama totaled 28 sacks in 13 games last season, a number Wommack would like to increase markedly in 2023 (Southern Miss led the Sun Belt with 44 sacks in 2022). Defensive end Jamie Sheriff is the Jaguars’ best at getting to the quarterback, having led the team with six sacks and ranking second with four QB hurries last season. Fellow end Brock Higdon (4 sacks) and various blitzing linebackers and safeties also contributed to the pass rush in 2022, but the Jaguars would like to get more out of the “Wolf” outside linebacker position following the departure of CJ Rias (4 sacks, 11 tackles for loss last year) to the transfer portal. To that end, former inside linebacker Quentin Wilfawn — who missed most of last season after surgery to remove a debilitating bone spur from his neck — has moved outside and is expected to be the primary edge rusher this season. Kansas State transfer Gavin Forsha could also contribute here, as could three younger players coming off injuries — Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge, Dalton Hughes and Lamondre Brooks. Another name to know is RJ Moss, a top signee in the 2022 class who sat out last season for academic reasons.
4. Are there enough snaps to go around at safety?
South Alabama is in the enviable position of having four proven starters for three positions at safety, with Keith Gallmon having returned to health after missing all of 2022 with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in preseason camp. Husky (nickel) safety Yam Banks was a first-team All-Sun Belt pick a year ago after setting a school record with six interceptions and also totaling 11 pass breakups, six tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries. Jaden Voisin (who led the team with 80 tackles last year) is back at rover, as is Jalen Jordan (58 tackles) at free safety. Gallmon was a three-year starter prior to his injury, and one of the top handful of defensive players in the history of the program. The bet here is Gallmon will win back his starting job, with Jordan coming off the bench. Youngsters Rickey Hyatt and Tremel States-Jones will also compete for reps along with incoming transfers Mike Harris (Baylor) and Wesley Miller (Mississippi State), and will certainly be major factors on special teams.
5. Who takes over for Jack Brooks at punter?
This has been a “set it and forget it” position for the Jaguars for the last four years, as Brooks had handled punting chores ever since arriving from Australia in the summer of 2019. However, he chose over the summer not to return for his fifth season, and will instead open a landscaping business in his home country. The original plan was for Brooks to help train incoming freshman Aleksi Pulkkinen (a native of Finland) for a season before Pulkinnen took over in 2024. With that plan out the window, Pulkkinen will now compete with holdover Jack Martin and San Diego State transfer David Delgado for first-team reps in the fall. Delgado also has experience as a holder (a role Brooks filled in 2022 and most of 2021), so he will likely get on the field in at least that capacity. Pulkinnen is certainly the long-term option at punter, though it’s unclear how soon he’ll be ready. So this is a position that bears watching during camp.

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