JACKSONVILLE — New coach, no problem for Jacksonville State’s football team, say Football Championship Subdivision preseason polls.
Fresh off its best Division I season in 2013, JSU will start the 2014 season with top 10 rankings in The Sporting News and Athlon polls — No. 4 in TSN and No. 6 in Athlon.
The Gamecocks went 11-4 in 2013, including 5-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference, and picked up their first two Division I playoff victories before falling to Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals. JSU finished top 10 in last season’s final polls.
Eastern Washington is No. 1 in every preseason poll released so far.
JSU’s No. 4 ranking its highest preseason ranking in the program’s Division I history and the highest since the 2009 team started at No. 9. It’s the highest preseason ranking by any JSU team since 1992, when the Gamecocks were preseason No. 2 in Division II before winning the national championship.
First-year JSU coach John Grass said he doesn't mind high expectations out of the gate.
"I think it's great," he said. "It's where you want to be.
"I don't think, as a coach or a player, anybody puts on more pressure than what you do yourself, and I'm glad to be in a place where I think winning is expected. Jacksonville State has great tradition, and we're in a position to have a great year."
Grass was promoted from offensive coordinator after Bill Clark left to become UAB’s head coach.
Grass coordinated the most productive offense in JSU history, presiding over 49 school records, 13 OVC records and three NCAA records. JSU scored 24 times on drives of less than one minute, amassed 6,637 total yards (1,755 yards more than any other team in school history) and scored 528 points (107 more than the previous school record set in 1991).
JSU’s 65 touchdowns were a new school record, while its school-record 48 rushing touchdowns also broke the OVC mark.
Four All-Americans return from that 2013 offense, led by senior running back DaMarcus James. Also a first-team All-OVC selection, James ran for a school-record 1,477 yards and was second nationally with 29 rushing touchdowns to break the JSU and OVC records in that category.
James’ 174 points scored also broke previous JSU and OVC records. He has 35 career rushing touchdowns, which is the third most in school history, and his 13 career 100-yard rushing games is second most in school history.
Senior center Max Holcombe will anchor the offensive line for the fourth straight season after earning All-America honors last year, while sophomore receiver Josh Barge returns after grabbing Freshman All-America honors in 2013.
JSU also returns quarterbacks Eli Jenkins and Max Shortell, who helped the Gamecoacks throw for a school-record 3,033 yards in 2013.
Jenkins earned Freshman All-America honors after throwing for 887 yards and running for 953 more before going down with a knee in injury in the Eastern Washington game. Shortell, a rising junior, threw for 1,608 yards to earn second-team All-OVC recognition.
The Gamecocks’ defense returns most of its front line that recorded a school-record 52 sacks in 2013. That record-breaking total included a school-record 11 in JSU's second-round playoff win at McNeese State, one week after notching six in the first-round against Samford.
JSU also picked up key top-division transfers on the defensive front but must replace their top seven tacklers from a year ago. Junior cornerback Jermaine Hough is the team's leading returning tackler with 51 in 2013, just ahead of his fellow corner and senior Rashod Byers.
Junior Caleb Lawrence anchors the defensive line after recording 46 tackles last season, while seniors Omari Jones and Dustin Gayton each had 40 tackles last year. Another linebacker, Clay County product Ben Endress, returns for his senior season having recorded 121 tackles in his career.
The 2014 JSU defense will be led by new coordinators David Blackwell and Brandon Hall. Blackwell will coach inside linebackers and Hall the safeties.
Overall, JSU has more depth going into 2014, Grass said, and last season's playoff run gave the Gamecocks valuable experience.
"You start talking playoffs with the team last year and trying to win a national championship, it was a new experience," Grass said. "They didn't know what to expect. It was the unknown.
"So, when we talk about those things and working to obtain those type goals, they have an idea about what you're talking about."
The Gamecocks open the 2014 season Aug. 29 at Michigan State.
The preseason Gamecocks' preseason ranking is "a tribute to the 2013 team and the foundation that we laid last year with our success," Grass said. "We're working hard every day to uphold the standard going into the season, where everybody's got us ranked, and just working daily to get better."