Matt Weaver is a sports editor for South Alabama's student newspaper, The Vanguard. He also edits NASCAR Ranting and Raving here at SB Nation. Matt was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions about the USA football program.
1.) You guys have a very ambitious timetable--the program played its first game just a couple of years ago and by 2013 you'll be playing at the FBS level. Is that moving too fast? I understand the desire to move up to the highest level of college football, but do you think it makes more sense to establish the program at the FCS level first? You're already in good shape in terms of attendance, and obviously you've had plenty of success on the field--would you rather see the program solidify itself as a winner at the FCS level where you're better positioned to build a strong foundation for a move to FBS further down the line?
I initially thought the same thing about their transition to FBS. In hindsight, the timetable is actually too slow. The Division-II and III teams just haven’t challenged the Jags like Coach Jones and Athletic Directors Joe Gottfried (father to Mark) and Joel Erdmann anticipated. Credit there obviously goes to the coaching staff and their recruiting tactics. They’ve been very aggressive and have found some loopholes to get players that some D-II and III teams couldn’t.
For example, any player who transferred during the first two transition seasons did not have to sit out or burn a redshirt. This is best illustrated by starting quarterback C.J. Bennett who actually a second-year freshman despite having started most of the games in 2010.
Enticing usually unobtainable players and being able to keep them in your system for a year or two longer can only help as they start to play FCS-level teams, including North Carolina State.
2.) Tom O'Brien was impressed by the speed of this South Alabama team; how do you think it compares to, say, an average FBS team? (Which it appears NC State is.) You guys have several players who transferred from FBS schools, but is there enough talent to really compete with NC State this Saturday?
I’m not sure how much stock you guys take in the Jeff Sagarin rankings but at several points during 2010, South Alabama was ranked ahead of the entire Sun Belt Conference, suggesting that had they played conference games USA would have entered as the favorite. They were ranked as high as 90th before the season ended.
Obviously, losing WR Courtney Smith (briefly signed with the New York Jets) and linebackers Justin Dunn and Charlie Higgenbotham really hurt the team’s cohesiveness, as well as their rankings but the current team is just as talented if not less experienced. I doubt there’s enough talent to compete with average FBS squads over a 12-game schedule but there’s definitely enough to last until halftime and make a serious run in the second half. Especially if there’s rain…
North Carolina State is the first Division 1 opponent in school history and the program has invested a lot into preparing for it. I don’t think the same level of preparation will exist against Kent State once the Jags taste defeat. I would only warn that this is the perfect storm for an upset. The team is feeling confident, they believe they are equals and the rain is a bit of an equalizer.
And definitely, then Jaguars are pretty fast especially on defense. Keep an eye on #4, the Jr. cornerback from Western Michigan, Damond Smith. He’s got NFL size and speed.
3.) How much are you concerned about the relatively slight stature of your offensive line? I've seen some comments from your offensive coordinator and he sounds confident to say the least; still, I've got to wonder what sort of push you guys can manage with linemen in the 260-270 pound range. How do you expect USA to offset this disadvantage?
There’s always concern about the o-line but the coaching staff and players aren’t giving anything away. The football community has a lot of regard for South Alabama’s state of the art football fieldhouse and strength and conditioning program. The team puts a lot of work in offsetting their size with heavy work in the weight room.
The team takes a lot of pride in hitting but the genetics absolutely doesn’t match up to North Carolina State’s. It’s definitely a storyline that’s going to play out on Saturday. Definitely.
4.) Along those lines, I've watched whatever film I've been able to find on USA, and it looks like you guys use a lot of shotgun/spread concepts. Is that something we should expect on Saturday? If not, what should we expect to see from South Alabama's offense? What are the strengths of the offense?
C.J. Bennett is a hard-nosed running quarterback but has improved his passing game dramatically. The shotgun provides several options and has allowed Bennett to pick up yards on the ground when he can’t find the open receiver.
Bennett has a lot of chemistry with receivers Bryant Lavender and Corey Waldon but the team has really struggled to replace the size and speed once provided by Courtney Smith. Expect the running backs to set the tone early with Bennett running the QB keeper before surprising NC State with passes to Lavender and Waldon.
I think the Pack’s struggles against the pass will make an interesting wrinkle to Saturday’s game. I’m just not sure their ineptitude against the pass really offsets Bennett’s prowess (or lack thereof) passing the ball.
5.) How do you think this team will respond once the emotional surge has passed and the game becomes real for them? You think they're ready for this stage? What are your expectations for this game, and assuming the Jaguars lose, what sort of outcome counts as encouraging?
I honestly don’t know what to expect. This is uncharted territory. I believe they think they are ready – which is all you can ask for. I do expect the team to lose after keeping it close in the first half. They’re going to run the ball a ton and I’m curious to see if the running backs can punch a hole in State’s defensive line and create some passing opportunities for Bennett.