There might not be anything that says 2020 like the FSU-Jacksonville State game. The Seminoles’ contest against the Gamecocks wasn’t even on the schedule on Aug. 1 and was agreed to in less a week once negotiations began between the two schools. And despite FSU entering its fourth week of its 2020 season, and its third game of the year, this will be Jacksonville State’s first game of the year and one of only four games on their schedule for the entire fall season. This game, just like this college football season thus far, has a strange feel to it.
Jacksonville State, which plays at the FCS level and in the Ohio Valley Conference, is heading into Tallahassee coming of a 6-6 2019 campaign. FSU, of course, is 0-2 and looking for its first win under head coach Mike Norvell.
But don’t let Jacksonville State’s very average season in 2019 lull you into a sense of complacency. This is a program that has been winning big under head coach John Grass, who is 58-18 in his first six seasons leading the Gamecocks. Jacksonville State has won 10 or more games in four of Grass’ six seasons and finished first in the OVC five times, making it at least to the second round of the FCS playoffs every season Grass has been the head coach with the exception of last year. In 2015 the Gamecocks played in the FCS Championship Game, where it lost to North Dakota State. Grass’ .763 winning percentage ranks ninth among active Division I coaches, who have coached in at least 30 games.
Jacksonville State on Offense
The Gamecocks are led by one of the best quarterbacks at the FCS level if not all of college football. Senior Zerrick Cooper, who is 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, mans the controls of the offense for Grass and has been prolific. The former Clemson signee enters his third season as the starter in the Gamecocks spread offense.
Last season Cooper was named second-team All-OVC after passing for 3,404 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also rushed for 320 yards, scoring another six touchdowns. Cooper and the JSU offense had the 14th-best passing attack in the FCS, averaging 296 yards per game through the air. His 6,820 career passing yards are already third-best in JSU history and his 60 career touchdown passes rank second all-time.
Grass lost two of the best receivers to graduation after last season but returns one of the best tight ends in the OVC. Senior Trae Barry (6-foot-7 and 245 pounds) was named preseason All-OVC after an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, which saw him catch 25 passes for 330 yards. As a sophomore, in 12 games, he caught 32 passes for 503 yards. Barry, who was a three-sport athlete in high school, can create matchup problems because of his speed and athleticism. Grass will have three new starters at wide receiver this season.
The Gamecocks are balanced on offense, having run the ball 46 percent of the time last season but were much more successful throwing the ball than running it. They finished 93rd in the FCS, averaging just 123.4 yards per game on the ground. JSU comes into the season without a clear-cut starter at running back, although juniors Josh Samuel (5-11 and 215 pounds) and Uriah West (6-0 and 225 pounds) are listed at the top of a depth chart that features four names. Samuel is a transfer from Western Kentucky, where he ran for 639 yards as a freshman. West played in 11 games last season and totaled 137 yards on 19 attempts.
Preseason All-OVC right guard Michael Shaddix (6-4 and 295 pounds) leads a JSU offensive line that has three returners back who started at least 11 games in 2019. JSU offensive line is small compared to that of the lines at the FBS level. The Gamecocks average just 6-3 and 295 pounds up front.
Jacksonville State on Defense
Jacksonville State was average on defense a year ago. The Gamecocks ranked 60th in the FCS, giving up 27.3 points per game, 70th in pass defense (225 yards per game), 57th in rushing defense (155 yards per game) and 56th out of 126 FCS teams in total defense (380 yards per game in 2019).
However, they do return three starters in their base 4-3 defense who have been selected to the All-OVC preseason team: defensive end DJ Coleman, linebacker Zak Woodward and defensive back Yul Gowdy.
Coleman (6-6 and 245 pounds) is a junior and is the leader of JSU’s front four. Last season he was named second-team All-OVC after totaling 59 tackles in 11 games, including 10.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks, both team highs. He will line up opposite senior Umstead Sanders (6-2 and 247 pounds), who transferred to JSU from Florida. Sanders played in 10 games in two seasons for the Gators.
Woodward (6-1 and 235 pounds), also a junior, is a force at linebacker. He was also named to the second-team All-OVC team after recording 96 stops in 2019, including seven TFLs and had four games where he made 10 or more tackles.
Gowdy (5-9 and 178 pounds) is the leader of the secondary from his cornerback spot. The junior ranked sixth on the team in tackles in 2019 with 46 stops. He is also dangerous in the return game, where he totaled 416 yards on 22 kickoff returns last season.
Jacksonville State on Special Teams
Senior Preston Knight will handle the punting duties for JSU, and sophomore Bryant Wallace is the starting kicker. Last season Knight averaged 37.9 yards per attempt after transferring from Alabama. Wallace made 4 of 9 field-goal attempts last season with a long of 37 yards. He went 40 of 43 on extra-point attempts.
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