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Can South Alabama’s 2nd-ever head coach establish what the 1st couldn’t?

Steve Campbell replaces Joey Jones in Mobile, inheriting a team that hinted at major upside but couldn’t ever sustain it.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Jones did one hell of a job in Mobile.

A veteran of the Alabama high school coach circuit, he had just taken over at Birmingham Southern when South Alabama lured him away in early 2008. The Jaguars were starting a program, with the goal of quickly moving up to FBS. They went 23-4 in three FCS seasons, needed one bad FBS season to get things in order (2-11 in 2012), then established an admirably consistent level of competitiveness.

Under Jones, USA finished at least 3-5 in the Sun Belt four times in the last five years. The Jaguars bowled twice. They beat nine-win UL-Lafayette in 2013, two 11-win conference-champion San Diego State teams, claimed an SEC scalp (Mississippi State) in 2016, and handed both Troy and Arkansas State their only 2017 conference losses that didn’t come against each other.

Not bad for a start-up, right? Alabama is a fertile recruiting area, and Jones fielded talented defenses. The Jags finished 72nd or better in Def. S&P+ in four of his last five seasons.

So why isn’t the 55-year-old Jones still the head coach? Primarily because the highs made the losses even more frustrating.

  • They missed out on bowl eligibility in 2015 with a baffling 36-18 loss at 3-9 Texas State.
  • They followed a program-defining win in Starkville with a 24-9 loss to a bad Georgia Southern, then lost at an even worse ULM a few weeks later.
  • Two games before beating Troy last fall, they fell at home to 4-8 Idaho.
  • And just a single week after upsetting Arkansas State in their home finale, they not only lost to a winless Georgia Southern, but lost 52-0.

Jones announced his resignation the Monday following the trip to Statesboro. His team responded by nearly upsetting NMSU to end the season. It was a fitting way for this motivator to go out.

Under Jones, USA became a natural in the Sun Belt, quickly (if sporadically) holding its own. To replace him, the school made an extremely Sun Belt hire.

Steve Campbell was Troy’s starting center when the Trojans won the Division II title in 1987. He led Delta State to the Division II title as head coach in 2000, then spent one season as MTSU offensive coordinator and one as Jackie Sherrill’s line coach at Mississippi State. He won 87 games in 10 years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (90 miles from Mobile), and spent the last four seasons at Central Arkansas. He won 20 games and a Southland title the last two years, reaching the second round of the FCS playoffs each season. Two years ago, his Bears beat Arkansas State.

It’s like his entire career was leading to a Sun Belt gig.

Campbell’s 2017 UCA was defined by a ridiculous passing game. Starting quarterback Hayden Hildebrand completed 67 percent of his passes at 15.1 yards per completion. That has to be music to the ears of USA fans — while Jones often fielded exciting defenses, the offense constantly lagged.

If Campbell’s got the personnel, he’ll move the ball. Either way, South Alabama’s second act has begun.

Offense

South Alabama offensive radar

Not all consistency is good. In each of the last four seasons, USA ranked between 95th and 112th in Off. S&P+. The low point came last year. The Jaguars had to replace their top three wideouts and star tight end Gerald Everett, and two different quarterbacks — Cole Garvin and Dallas Davis — both struggled and got banged up.

The run game was one of FBS’ worst, so while the passing game produced big plays — 6’4 JUCO transfer and leading receiver Jamarius Way averaged 16.2 yards per catch — there weren’t enough consistent options to lean on.

In a roundabout way, last year’s rebuilt passing game is good for Campbell — this year’s depth chart has all the continuity that last year’s didn’t.

  • Davis and Garvin are back behind center.
  • Way and every other outside receiver to catch a pass last year return, as does leading slot receiver Sam Harris, the most efficient option in last year’s corps.
  • The run game ... probably can’t be worse? Starter Tra Minter is the only of last year’s top four backs to return — Campbell inked three freshman backs, including three-stars Carlos Davis and Jared Wilson, who could both play early — but the good thing about ranking 125th in Rushing S&P+ is that there’s almost literally nowhere to fall.
  • The line returns all-conference left tackle Noah Fisher, plus five others who have combined for 30 career starts. Campbell loaded up on linemen in 2018, too. He clearly understands this team’s gravest needs.
South Alabama v Mississippi
Jamarius Way
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Campbell did a potentially fantastic job with his offensive coordinator hire, bringing in Troy co-OC Kenny Edenfield. The 52-year old had OC stints at Nicholls and North Alabama before landing in Troy in 2008. Troy head coach Neal Brown retained him when he took over for Larry Blakeney in 2015, and with Edenfield around the Trojans have ranked 65th or better in Off. S&P+ in six of the last 10 seasons.

It will be interesting to see how philosophies mesh. Campbell’s UCA offense was oriented around big plays, but the Troy offense has been defined by quick passing and extreme efficiency.

I’m not that worried about the receiving corps. Way really is an exciting outside option, and Harris’ marginal efficiency out of the slot was plus-11 percent (meaning he produced a success rate 11 percent higher than normal based on down, distance, and field position).

Plus, USA will have a size advantage over most defensive backfields. Way and fellow WRs Malik Stanley and Jordan McCray are each at least 6’3, redshirt freshmen Davyn Flenord and Jalen Tolbert are each at least 6’2, and freshman Mo Edwards Jr., the highest-rated player in the Jags’ incoming recruiting class, is 6’2. (That will all make the 5’7 Harris seem about 5’2.)

Other than the “can’t get worse” factor, though, there’s no reason to think the run game will be any less of a dead-weight anchor this year. Davis’ marginal efficiency was a decent plus-5 percent (Garvin’s: plus-0.5 percent), but both were frequently asked to make plays in second- or third-and-long, and that catches up to you quickly. They combined to throw more than five passes per game on third-and-7 or more. That’s too much.

Edenfield’s presence suggests USA won’t have problems going with a pass-first, pass-second attack. We’ll see if passing game continuity can overcome a drastic ground game.

Defense

South Alabama defensive radar

Campbell brought his UCA defensive coordinator, Greg Stewart, with him, and with good reason. After allowing 55 points to Kansas State in the 2017 opener, the Bears allowed just 14.1 per game the rest of the way. They recorded 100 tackles for loss, and their 22 percent havoc rate would have ranked third in FBS.

UCA got after you. South Alabama’s defense, while solid, was a bit more on the reactive side. But while there could be some depth concerns up front, Stewart could have the secondary to get pretty nasty against the pass.

USA ranked only 102nd in havoc rate in 2017 but was a strong 31st in DB havoc rate. Five DBs — safeties Jeremy Reaves and Nigel Lawrence, corners Darian Mills and Tobias Moss, and nickel Malcolm Buggs — were among the Jags’ top six in havoc stats (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles).

While Reaves was the leader and has run out of eligibility, he’s the only one. And the Jags should welcome 2016 stalwarts Neiko Robinson (foot injury) and Jalen Thompson (accidental ineligibility) back into the fold, along with Notre Dame transfer Spencer Perry and redshirt freshman A.J. DeShazor, one of the top recruits of the 2017 class.

This is a potentially loaded secondary, in other words. That’s generally a good thing to have in the Sun Belt.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at South Alabama
Neiko Robinson
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

So about that front seven. Eight linemen recorded between 13 and 18.5 tackles last year, and four are gone. There is plenty of experience among those returning — the top three returning ends (Rocel McWilliams, Sean Grayer, and Chason Milner) are all seniors, and the top three tackles (Tyree Turner, Sean Brown, and Jeffery Whatley) are all juniors. Talent is still a question mark, though. If a newbie like three-star redshirt freshman end Jalon Sheffield or JUCO tackle Jordan Beaton were to break through and steal playing time, that might not be the worst thing.

At linebacker, senior Bull Barge leads the way, but the Jags could miss Darrell Songy (five TFLs, four PBUs). If three-star JUCO Roy Yancey were to provide immediate help, that would probably be a good thing. The secondary can handle the bulk of the play-making, but the front seven probably needs to provide something.

Special Teams

Special teams were a strength. Punter Corliss Waltman is one of the best in the country (third in punt success rate), and Gavin Patterson gives you what you need in the place-kicking department (11-for-12 on FGs under 40 yards, 5-for-7 over 40). The rest of the unit was so-so at best, Waltman and Patterson should remain nice weapons as seniors.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Louisiana Tech 70 -6.6 35%
8-Sep at Oklahoma State 19 -24.0 8%
22-Sep at Memphis 42 -17.1 16%
13-Oct Alabama State NR 32.4 97%
TBD Coastal Carolina 118 5.1 62%
TBD Texas State 123 7.6 67%
TBD Troy 78 -5.9 37%
TBD UL-Monroe 107 2.0 55%
TBD at Appalachian State 63 -13.9 21%
TBD at Arkansas State 66 -13.5 22%
TBD at Georgia Southern 106 -3.5 42%
TBD at UL-Lafayette 121 1.3 53%
Projected S&P+ Rk 109
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 112 / 93
Projected wins 5.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.1 (94)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 118 / 107
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / -0.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (79%, 63%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.4 (-0.4)

According to the 247Sports Composite, Jones signed the No. 3 class in the Sun Belt in 2015 and the No. 2 class in 2016. He leaves a lot of former three-star recruits behind, and the Jags’ penchant for upset wins was proof of upside.

On both sides of the ball, USA should have advantages through the air and potential deficits on the ground. And there will be plenty of win opportunities if the strengths are maximized — S&P+ projects the Jags a conservative 109th overall, with seven games projected within one possession.

Campbell’s primary mission is simple: establish the consistency that Jones couldn’t.

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