JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State has led the Ohio Valley Conference in total defense each of the last three years, but the Gamecocks lost a lot of the guys who help make those milestones happen.
Five guys who made All-Ohio Valley Conference at some point in their careers have completed their eligibility — defensive end Darius Jackson, linebackers Joel McCandless and Jonathan Hagler, and cornerbacks Siran Neal and Reggie Hall. In addition, defensive coordinator David Blackwell left to fill the same position at East Carolina, his alma mater.
But the basics haven’t changed, and the players say that fans who watch Saturday's FCS Kickoff game against North Carolina A&T are welcome to have the same expectations for JSU’s defense as they did in the past.
“We know we lost some key pieces, but we’ve got some guys ready to step up,” senior linebacker Quan Stoudemire said. “We’ve got great corners, a great D-line, and the linebacker group, we’re going to be good this year. We’re going to go out, execute our plan and be dominant like we always are.”
It helps that JSU has so many experienced players returning. In the two-deep depth chart that the Gamecocks released this week, they list eight seniors and six juniors. At eight of the 11 positions, JSU has at least one player who has started at least three college games. At seven of 11, there’s a player with a half-dozen college starts.
“You cannot replace game experience,” head coach John Grass said.
The defensive line especially is loaded with experience. Seniors Randy Robinson (23 career starts) and Connor Christian (nine starts at JSU) anchor the inside. At defensive end, there are seniors Monty Young and E.J. Moss.
At Bandit, which is a mix between defensive end and outside linebacker, JSU lost All-American Darius Jackson but have gained Kentucky transfer Denzil Ware. He started 30 games for the Wildcats and had 6.5 sacks last year. He has one year of eligibility left.
“There’s a lot of old hats,” Grass said. “I kid with them, ‘What kind of arthritic medicine do y’all want?’ They’re all veterans. … You definitely miss (Jackson and graduated end Dalton Campbell), but we do have a ton of experience back in that room.”
Andrew Warwick, a former defensive analyst at Clemson, has replaced Blackwell as defensive coordinator, but Grass said there won’t be a lot of major changes.
“We may tweak how we call a coverage or tweak how we do something else, but we’re going to be pretty much the same as we’ve always been,” he said. “This is a physical game. That’s how we want to play it. You win games by blocking and tackling.”