JACKSONVILLE — If Jacksonville State began its football season today, Gamecocks head coach John Grass likely would turn to sophomore Eli Jenkins as his starting quarterback.
That makes sense, as Jenkins finished last season so strongly, helping JSU to the FCS quarterfinals. He passed for 362 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 330 yards in three playoff games. He also shined in the spring, even though he was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery following an injury in last year’s final game.
But the season doesn’t start until Aug. 29 when JSU visits defending Big Ten champion Michigan State, Grass has promised that between now and then, Jenkins and his four fellow quarterbacks will go through a rigorous competition to decide who deserves to start the opener.
The battle begins today as JSU opens preseason practice tonight at 7. The list of contenders includes senior Max Shortell, juniors Kyle West and Christian LeMay and true freshman Dalton Etheridge.
“It goes back to depth,” Grass said Thursday during JSU's annual media day at Burgess-Snow Field. “Quarterback is the deepest position on the team.”
Jenkins started eight games last season as JSU posted an 11-4 record, but three of the other quarterbacks have credentials worth noticing, too. Shortell started five games, and West started two. All three won games as starters. All three came off the bench in at least one game to engineer a victory.
LeMay didn’t join the team until the spring, but he spent three seasons as a backup at Georgia before transferring. He was a four-star prospect out of high school. Etheridge, a prep star out of Jonesboro, Ga., is expected to redshirt, although Grass indicated that’s not a certainty.
And as last season showed, this competition won’t necessarily be finished in the preseason.
“It’s a long season,” said Shortell, who is in his second season at JSU after spending two seasons at Minnesota. “Look at last year when we used three quarterbacks. You never know who will have to play.”
Grass has a plan to get plenty of practice time for his quarterbacks. According to the coach, Jenkins and LeMay are strong runners who will work primarily in the parts of JSU’s offense that emphasizes their strengths. Shortell and West are not as mobile and will work in the parts of the offense that include things they do well. That includes working out of the pistol formation and using play-action passes.
“We’ll group Eli and Chris together and we’ll group Max and Kyle together and split reps that way,” Grass said.
He added both groups will work with the first and second offenses.
As the game grows closer, Grass will trim the list down.
“We hope to have a starter the week of the game, or a week before that,” he said.
As for Jenkins, he said his knee is fine. In the spring, JSU kept him in a green, no-contact jersey during practice, although he said he would’ve been fine without it.
“Now I’m ready to let loose,” he said.
Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter @MarkSportsStar.