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JSU football: In pandemic-restricted world, Gamecocks pull in six signees

JSU Mercer sights

Jacksonville head coach John Grass leads his Gamecocks out before the JSU vs Mercer, football game. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State signed six players Wednesday on the early National Signing Day. The rest of the class will be filled out Feb. 3, 2021, during the spring signing period.

Despite having the COVID-19 pandemic reduce recruiting to little more than telephone calls, video chats and film evaluation, JSU signed only one fewer player than it did last December when the Gamecocks landed seven.

"We could've signed double this, but we held off and will wait until February," JSU coach John Grass said by telephone after a staff meeting Wednesday. "So we'll continue recruiting and look and see who it is we want to take. Very difficult year — most difficult year we've ever had in recruiting."

Jacksonville State signed a quarterback in Auburn High's Matthew Caldwell (6-foot4, 195 pounds), a running back in Clarke County's Markel Cheeseboro (6-1, 188), a wide receiver in Coosa Christian's Evan Delp (6-3, 183), a defensive lineman in Shades Valley's Mitchell Etheridge (6-2, 260) and two offensive linemen: J.T. Pennington (6-4, 295) of Shelby County High and Jahmal Pegues (6-4, 295) of Oxford (Miss.) High.

"I feel really good about this class of recruits," Grass said. "We'll get some really good ones, too, in February. These guys, I feel really good about taking early. We feel good about the people they are first, then the students, and really good football players."

Grass said he figures he got a good quarterback in Caldwell, who led his team to the Class 7A state championship game before losing.

"I think we got a steal there," Grass said. "He's a mid-major guy at the quarterback position. Really good student, really good leadership qualities."

Delp is a longtime JSU commitment who is from the Gadsden area. Grass said he believes Delp is a mid-major talent.

"I think his ceiling is very, very high," Grass said. "He plays small-school ball, but he impressed us when he came to camp — not this summer but the summer before. The pandemic definitely hurt him in offers."

Grass and his staff — and all NCAA college football coaches — have had to deal with unusual restrictions in the pandemic world.

Grass listed them: No evaluation in spring training. No camp in summer for evaluation. No going to high school games to see recruits live. No visits in schools. No home visits. No recruiting weekends.

In addition, this football season won't count against the eligibility of his players, according to an NCAA Council ruling. So, for example, every senior can come back next season, if JSU has room underneath its scholarship cap. FCS schools like JSU can award 63 football scholarships.

"Everybody's recruiting classes are backlogged for multiple years," Grass said. "It's tough to be a high school player coming out right now. Not a lot of opportunities."

As for JSU trying to identify and recruit athletes, Grass said he is now an expert on Zoom video conferencing.

"I didn't know what Zoom was in March, but you learn quickly," Grass said. "It's either that or Facetime or calls. It throws a wrench in recruiting. At least you do get to do a Zoom call. At least, you get to see the mannerisms, body language, things like that, but it's still not meeting people in person.

"All the rest has been taken away. Makes it difficult to build relationships. But, I think our staff has made the best out of it. Sometimes you have to take lemons and make lemonade."

The six signees

Matthew Caldwell, QB, 6-4, 195, Auburn High School: Played his final two seasons for head coach Adam Winegarden at Auburn High School in Auburn. … Led the Tigers to a 12-2 record, a region title and the AHSAA Class 7A State Championship Game as a senior. … Threw for 1,856 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2020, while also rushing for 269 yards and five scores. … Orchestrated an AHS offense that averaged 30 points a game in 2020. … Led AHS to a combined 21-6 record over his two seasons. … Chose the Gamecocks over offers from Austin Peay and Gardner-Webb.

Markel Cheeseboro, RB, 6-1, 188, Clarke County High School: Played for head coach Stacy Luker at Clarke County High School in Grove Hill. … Led the Bulldogs to an 8-3 record and into the second round of the AHSAA Class 2A Playoffs as a senior. … Ran for over 800 yards and nine touchdowns in nine regular season games for the Bulldogs in 2020, averaging over 12 yards a carry.

Evan Delp, WR, 6-3, 183, Coosa Christian High School: Played for head coaches Mark Obryant, Rod Cates and Navendra Woods at Coosa Christian High School in Gadsden. … As a senior in 2020, had 711 yards and five touchdowns on 36 receptions. … Also had 509 kickoff return yards and four touchdowns on 12 returns. … Recovered four fumbles and intercepted six passes on defense. … As a junior in 2019, was the Gadsden Times Player of the Year and a first-team all-state selection after catching 45 passes for 1,489 yards, eighth-most in a season. … Averaged 33.1 yards per catch and hauled in 21 touchdown receptions. … Also ran for 164 yards and a score and had four interceptions on defense in 2019. … Was an all-state performer as a sophomore, as well.

Mitchell Etheridge, DL, 6-2, 260, Shades Valley High School: Played for head coaches Jamie Mitchell and David Partridge at Shades Valley High School in Irondale. … Led the Mounties to the second round of the Class 6A Playoffs as a senior in 2020. … A first-team all-region performer at Shades Valley. … Chose JSU over several offers, including Akron, Chattanooga, Southeastern Louisiana and Tennessee State.

Jahmal Pegues, OL, 6-4, 295, Oxford (Miss.) High School: Played for head coach Chris Cutcliffe at Oxford High School in Oxford, Miss. … Led the Chargers to a 12-1 record and a 7-0 mark in their region in 2020 after winning the state title in 2019. … Led Oxford to a 25-game win streak, the longest in the state at the time. … Was named to the Super 24 on the 2020 All-Region 1-6A Teams.

J.T. Pennington, OL, 6-4, 295, Shelby County High School: Played for head coach Heath Childers at Shelby County High School in Columbiana. … Led the Wildcats to their first state playoff berth in 11 years in 2020. … Chose JSU over several offers, including South Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Army, Navy, Austin Peay, Chattanooga, Furman, North Alabama, Richmond, Samford and The Citadel.

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.