(STATS) – It may sound absurd that a team that has won 33 straight league games is vulnerable, but rivals in the Ohio Valley Conference hope that is the case with Jacksonville State this year.
The Gamecocks have lost a number of last year’s key seniors, including defensive end Darius Jackson, the 2017 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner.
But the Gamecocks don’t rebuild they reload, so a change atop the standings is easier said than done for the rival teams.
Following is a look across the OVC with spring practices underway in college football:
HEAD COACH: Will Healy (8-15, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 8-4, 7-1 OVC (2nd)
SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 19-March 3 and March 12-24WHAT TO KNOW: The Governors’ rebuild was almost overnight last season, as they overcame a 29-game losing streak and losses in 46 of 47 games to finish second in the league standings, and be disappointed by an FCS playoff snub. Most of the key players are back, including defensive end Jaison Williams and linebacker Gunnar Scholato on a much-improved defense. The offense is young, yet experienced, and Healy can utilize two quarterbacks (Jeremiah Oatsvall and JaVaughn Craig) and running backs (Kentel Williams and Ahmaad Tanner). Their road schedule will be difficult, starting on Sept. 1 at Georgia.
HEAD COACH: Kim Dameron (24-22, four seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 5-3 OVC (3rd)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 21
WHAT TO KNOW: Under new offensive coordinator Scott Parr, the quarterback competition will be hotly contested, led by sophomore Scotty Gilkey Jr. and transfers Jonathan Brantley and Harry Woodberry, who played under Parr at Navarro Junior College. There’s plenty of experience at the other offensive skills positions. Like the offense, the defense returns six starters, and it’s particularly deep at cornerback with Mark Williams, Xzavier Shugars and DySaun Smith. Nick Bruno, a place-kicker and punter, returns off a medical redshirt.
HEAD COACH: Mark Elder (7-15, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 3-5 OVC (Tie/5th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 28
WHAT TO KNOW: The longtime OVC power seeks to return to the upper echelon in Elder’s third season. Returning are eight starters on offense, although the Colonels need a new quarterback (maybe Austin Scott or James Smith?), and seven on defense. Plus, the defense gets back all-conference defensive end Aaron Patrick from an early season injury last year. He’s part of a strong front seven. Running back Darryl McCleskey Jr. is coming off a solid season, but improvement is sought in the run blocking. The Colonels also are breaking some FBS transfers.
HEAD COACH: John Grass (43-8, four seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 10-2, 8-0 OVC (1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 5-April 12
WHAT TO KNOW: Many people are expecting Jacksonville State to take a step backward, but not the Gamecocks, who despite another playoff disappointment last season (a second-round loss at home as the No. 3 seed) have enjoyed four straight unbeaten seasons in the OVC. The senior losses are substantial, including seven of their first-team all-conference selections. Quarterback Bryant Horn, who made the first team, returns on a senior, but he faces competition from Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper. Safety Marlon Bridges and defensive end Randy Robinson are the defensive leaders.
HEAD COACH: Mitch Stewart (10-23, three seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-5 OVC (Tie/7th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 28 (spring game is April 21)
WHAT TO KNOW: In need of a bigger step in Stewart’s fourth season, the Racers saw some younger talent emerge last season. But they lost two NFL-type talents in cornerback D’Montre Wade and wide receiver Jordan Gandy, and still figure to rely on a redshirt senior, Shuler Bentley, at quarterback. With a solid offensive line paving the way, the veteran offense expects to improve this season. The top three tacklers were lost on defense.
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE
HEAD COACH: Tom Matukewicz (15-30, four seasons; 16-30 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 3-5 OVC (Tie/5th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: Matukewicz is still seeking a breakout season as he enters his fifth one in Cape Girardeau. Last year’s team suffered five losses by a combined 17 points, so that provides hope for an improved record. But the Redhawks only return nine starters (five on offense and four on defense). This spring, they’re replacing two-year quarterback Jesse Hosket, though the run game boasts three returning starters on the offensive line and first-team All-OVC running back in Marquis Terry. While the defense will have a lot of new faces, inside linebacker Zach Hall is a welcome returnee coming off a big junior season. Opponents blocked eight kicks in 2017, so it’s a point of emphasis.
HEAD COACH: Rod Reed (49-42, eight seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 2-5 OVC (Tie/7th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: Reed is one win away from 50 entering his ninth season at TSU. His Tigers underachieved in the conference race last year and hope to make a quick turnaround this year. Former Alabama linebacker Mekhi Brown is one of 11 transfers entering the program. The defense, which returns only four starters, could use the incoming talent. The return of defensive back Larry Wilhoite, who sat out last season, is welcomed as well. The quarterback position will have depth after Michael Hughes wound up replacing season-opening starter Treon Harris.
HEAD COACH: Dewayne Alexander (first season; 41-33 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 1-10, 1-7 OVC (9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 15-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: Alexander played at Tennessee Tech, was a graduate assistant in 1997 and ’98 and spent the 2013-15 seasons on Watson Brown’s staff before briefly serving as the interim coach following Brown’s retirement in December 2015. Depending on what happens in the spring, the Golden Eagles could return as many as 16 starters (nine on offense and seven on defense), although quarterback Andre Sale isn’t one of them after he transferred to LSU. The defense was better than the numbers indicated last season and it welcomes back linebacker Josh Poplar from a stroke, which sidelined him.
HEAD COACH: Jason Simpson (78-59, 12 seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 OVC (4th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 21 (spring game is April 14)
WHAT TO KNOW: The Skyhawks were viewed last offseason as the most likely team to end Jacksonville State’s title reign, but they were disappointing. Simpson pulled the redshirt on quarterback Dresser Winn at midseason and he developed in the final five games. That experience bodes well for pairing with two strong running backs, senior Ladarius Galloway and redshirt junior Jaimiee Bowe (back from an Achilles tear). Two of the priorities are to solidify the offensive line, which struggled in pass protection, and the secondary, which will have a new cast of starters. Linebackers James Gilleylen and Kevin Prather Jr. led the team in tackles as juniors.