ATLANTA — ASUN coaches say Jacksonville State is No. 4 among six teams in preseason. The FBS-transitioning Gamecocks see extra motivation in a season when they can’t make the FCS playoffs.
“No speaking of the players, but it’s great that we have the ability to play for a conference championship, that we’re in a conference,” first-year JSU coach Rich Rodriguez said. “When you’re in a conference, I’ve always felt that’s your first goal every year is to win your conference.”
The ASUN announced the preseason coaches’ all-conference team and team picks during Friday’s ASUN Media Day, at Omni Hotel at the Battery, Atlanta, and four was the magic number. JSU was picked fourth, behind favorite Kennesaw State, Central Arkansas and Eastern Kentucky.
Austin Peay was fifth and North Alabama sixth.
JSU also had four preseason all-conference picks … defensive end Jaylen Swain, linebackers Stevonte Tullis and Markail Benton and punter Jack Dawson.
Notably, JSU had no preseason picks all-conference on offense, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by a coach who made his bones as an offensive mind.
“I think we’ll have a couple, hopefully, at the end of the year,” Rodriguez said.
As for being picked in the bottom half of the team standings, all three teams picked ahead of JSU beat the Gamecocks last season. Rodriguez handled it with his usual humor and has a story for that, which he shared with JSU athletics director Greg Seitz before Friday’s luncheon.
“I was telling the story to Greg on the way up here. Way back when I was a Division II coach, one of the eligibility requirements was to be in the top half of your class,” Rodriguez said. “When I recruited a kid from Florida, I said, ‘Are you in the top half of your class?’ He said, ‘No, I make the top half possible.’
“I think our guys are competitive enough that we’ll go out there and prove it, and we’ll see where it ends up.”
At least JSU has something for which to play.
The Gamecocks enter their first season since last fall’s announcement that the program would transition from FCS to FBS and join Conference USA, starting in the 2023 season. It means the Gamecocks are ineligible for the FCS playoffs.
Same for Sam Houston State, which comes from the WAC side of the 2022 extension of last year’s automatic qualifier alliance that allows the ASUN and WAC access to an automatic berth to the FCS playoffs.
There’ll be no December for JSU and Sam Houston State, but there’s the chance for November warmth. Just park a conference championship trophy next to the TV while watching the NCAA Division I playoff selection show.
It’s a challenge for Rodriguez, a coach who’s been places where the rest of his ASUN colleagues hope to go.
It’s also a challenge for his players.
“As a competitor, you always want to be No. 1,” JSU center Zack Gangelosi said. “It just gives us another chance to go prove ourselves.
“We need to go out and compete against these guys and see how we match up.”
There’s also the chance to repeat history … sort of. JSU won the Ohio Valley Conference in spring of 2021, the Gamecocks’ final season in that league. They can do the same in their second and final ASUN season.
As for the lack of selections on the preseason All-ASUN offense, Rodriguez shrugs it off.
“At the end of the year, if we win a lot of games and don’t get guys honored,” he said, “then I’ll be pissed.”
Preseason coaches’ All-ASUN team
Offensive Player of the Year: Xavier Shepherd, Kennesaw State
Defensive Player of the Year: Matthew Jackson, Eastern Kentucky
QB — Xavier Shepherd, Kennesaw State, Jr., Nashville, Tenn.
RB — Darius Hale, Central Arkansas, So., Pearland, Texas
RB — Parker Driggers, North Alabama, So., Brantley, Ala.
TE — Corson Swan, North Alabama, Gr., Spanish Fort, Ala.
WR — Drae McCray, Austin Peay, So., Tallahassee, Fla.
WR — Takairee Kenebrew, North Alabama, Jr., Childersburg, Ala.
WR — Cortez Hall, North Alabama, Gr., Hoover, Ala.
OL — Payton Collins, Eastern Kentucky, So., Columbus, Ohio
OL — Zion Katina, Kennesaw State, Sr., Franklin, Tenn.
OL — Jaylin Hendrix, Central Arkansas, Sr., Everman, Texas
OL — Terrell Paxton, Kennesaw State, Sr., Stone Mountain, Ga.
C — Howard Watkins Jr., Eastern Kentucky, Sr., Cincinnati, Ohio
C — Matt Olson, Kennesaw State, Gr., Cumming, Ga.
DL — *Logan Jessup, Central Arkansas, Jr., Wynne, Ark.
DL — Kelton Dawson, Eastern Kentucky, Sr., Stockbridge, Ga.
DL — Chuck Manning, Austin Peay, Gr., Durham, N.C.
DL — Jaylen Swain, Jacksonville State, So., Oxford, Ala.
DL — Micah Bland, North Alabama, Jr., Louisville, Ky.
LB — *Matthew Jackson, Eastern Kentucky, Sr., Nashville, Tenn.
LB — Stevonte Tullis, Jacksonville State, Sr., Dothan, Ala.
LB — Markail Benton, Jacksonville State, Sr., Phenix City, Ala.
LB — Eli Hairston, Eastern Kentucky, Jr., Columbus, Ohio
DB — Tamuarion Wilson, Central Arkansas, So., Bryant, Ark.
DB — Joseph Sayles, Eastern Kentucky, Sr., Alpharetta, Ga.
DB — Kyree Fields, North Alabama, Sr., Columbus, Miss.
DB — Shamari Simmons, Austin Peay, Jr., Ashland, Ala.
K — Maddux Trujillo, Austin Peay, So., Flowery Branch, Ga.
P — Jack Dawson, Jacksonville State, So., Sylvania Waters, Australia
RS — Kobe Warden, North Alabama, So., Killen, Ala.
- A tie in voting resulted in a 29-man Preseason All-Conference Team
* - Unanimous Selection to Preseason All-Conference Team
2022 Preseason ASUN Coaches Poll
(First-place votes) points
1. Kennesaw State (4) 34
T2. Central Arkansas (1) 25
T2. Eastern Kentucky 25
4. Jacksonville State 19
5. Austin Peay (1) 15
6. North Alabama 8