JACKSONVILLE — Finding a new defensive coordinator was easy for Jacksonville State. Just take the “co-” from Brandon Hall’s title.
Hall will hold it down, after serving four years as co-defensive coordinator with David Blackwell, a former East Carolina player who left to become ECU’s defensive coordinator.
“It’s continuity, and Brandon has been very involved every year that we’ve been here,” JSU head coach John Grass said. “He’s very competent in doing his job, and we’ve had a lot of success.”
Hall and Blackwell came on-board as co-defensive coordinators when John Grass was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after the 2013 season. In four seasons since, JSU has risen to second nationally in total defense in 2017.
Bandit Darius Jackson received the highest award in JSU’s Division I history, receiving the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS football.
Hall’s and Blackwell’s span as co-defensive coordinators saw JSU go undefeated in Ohio Valley Conference play four consecutive years.
“Our staff and our players have the utmost confidence in Coach Hall and being in that role,” Grass said.
Grass said he doesn’t anticipate major scheme changes in JSU’s defense.
“It’ll be very similar to what we’ve been,” he said. “It’s always a little different, when you’ve got somebody else calling it, so it’ll be very much the same.”
Hall will continue to coach safeties, and Grass said JSU is close to hiring someone to coach linebackers, Blackwell’s position. Sources familiar with the search say Grass is targeting Andrew Warrick, Clemson’s assistant for defensive analysis and research development.
With former Clemson quarterback Zerrick Cooper transferring to JSU, the quarterback race suddenly becomes more intriguing.
Cooper, a former four-star recruit, was Kelly Bryant’s backup in 2017 and saw action in seven games, passing for 256 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 18 yards on 10 carries.
JSU is due to return 2017 starter and All-OVC pick Bryant Horn plus Kendrick Doss, who saw extended action as Horn’s backup.
JSU will also have redshirt freshman Zion Webb, widely seen as the program’s future at the position and very much in the mode of former JSU All-American Eli Jenkins.
“It gives us some competition immediately,” Grass said. “Any time you can create good competition at a position, I think that’s good for our team.”
Horn, who has graduated, underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder after playing the entire 2017 season with the injury, similar to what Jenkins did in 2015. He won’t participate in spring practice.
“We kind of didn’t announce that,” Grass said. “For him to do what he did and excel, playing with that, was special. It really didn’t cause any problems. I think in Eli’s senior year, it might have cost him some arm strength.”
Grass to Pro Bowl
After finishing off a big recruiting weekend, Grass will attend today’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, as former Oxford High School standout Kwon Alexander’s special guest.
Players who make the Pro Bowl are allowed to invite an influential coach from their past. Grass was Alexander’s coach at Oxford, leaving a year after Alexander’s senior season to become JSU’s offensive coordinator.
“He made the Pro Bowl, which is awesome,” Grass said. “I’m excited about that. He invited me to come, and I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out because of recruiting, but just made it happen.
“I get to go watch him play, and I’m excited about doing that.”
Alexander was a senior on Oxford’s 2011 6A semifinal team, though a midseason knee injury cut his season short. He played collegiately for LSU before becoming Tampa Bay’s fourth-round draft pick (124th overall player taken) in 2015.
The Buccaneers moved Alexander from outside linebacker, and he’s been their starting middle linebacker since his rookie season. He has 335 career tackles, six sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recovers, six interceptions and one touchdown, scored against the Falcons in Atlanta.
Grass said he and Alexander remain close and characterized their relationship as “special.”
“It’s been fun watching him grow up from a young man to a man,” Grass said. “He’s such a genuine person and very humble, and all of those characteristics have really paid off.
“He was always athletic enough, but he’s got all of the other intangibles to go with that. That’s what makes him a Pro Bowl-type player.”