John Grass calls it the new normal, the world of his Jacksonville State football team following the EF3 tornado that ravaged the east Alabama campus.
“It seems like spring was three times as long as it usually is,” the coach said of the March 19 twister. “With the tornado and the cleanup and all that we did, it made it seem like six or eight weeks. It did make the offseason seem like it sped up and went a lot quicker.”
“But we’ve had a productive offseason,” Grass said. “Even with all that going on, I’m really excited about where our team’s at.”
Grass’ Gamecocks find themselves right back where they’ve been since he took the reins from Bill Clark. They are again the pick to win the Ohio Valley Conference and make a push for a national championship.
Alabama NewsCenter is taking a tour of college football programs in the state as a precursor to the fast-approaching season. First up is Jacksonville State.
JSU has posted a 95-23 (.805 winning percentage) record against other OVC schools since joining the league in 2003. The Gamecocks hold the longest active conference win streak in all of Division I football at 32 games. It’s the longest conference win streak in OVC history and the second-longest in FCS history.
The Gamecocks were national runners-up to conclude the 2015 season, falling to champion North Dakota State 37-10 in the title game. Their playoff stays have been brief since then, losing 40-24 to Youngstown State in the 2016 second round and 17-7 to Kennesaw State in the first round last season.
Alabama NewsCenter: What is the outlook for this season? Is it national championship or bust?
John Grass: That’s our ultimate goal every year. We’re always disappointed if we don’t make it that far. (But) it’s not our “why.” It’s how you define success. Are you not successful if you don’t win a national championship? I don’t think that. We want to win a national championship, but it’s not that we’re not successful if we don’t. We’re turning out really good men. They’re going to be good husbands, good dads. They’ve got degrees. They’ll be productive in their community and good business people. If we’re doing that, the wins will come. That’s our “why.” That’s how we define our program.
ANC: What is your team’s strength?
Grass: I think depth and leadership. There’s not a position where we don’t have a lot of depth. That’s a concern with every football coach at this time of year: How deep is your team? You’re going to have some injuries and I think our leadership’s really good, too. You always feel you’re a little ahead defensively. Even with the change in some defensive coaches – we lost three guys – I still feel like we’ve got continuity there. Offensively we’ve got some guys who can really play. They haven’t been in games yet, so the jury’s still out how they’re going to perform in a game situation.
ANC: Who are your team’s standouts?
Grass: Marlon Bridges is picked to be the defensive player of the year in our conference. At defensive end, we’ve got E.J. Moss, Joseph Roberts, Monty Young, J.T. Thornton. You’ve got Randy Robinson and Connor Christian inside and (Montrez) Lang. There’s a lot of guys there I think will be all-conference players. Offensively, whoever wins the quarterback battle (between redshirt sophomore Clemson transfer Zerrick Cooper and redshirt freshman Zion Webb) has a chance to be really good. Up front, you’ve got Tyler Scozzaro, who was an all-conference player last year. You’ve got B.J. Autry, who is a preseason all-America-type guy. And you’ve got a lot of receivers and running backs; you’ll get to know their names pretty quick.
ANC: What game do your fans have circled on your schedule?
Grass: I think everybody’s looking forward to this kickoff. North Carolina A&T is a really good opponent. (Cramton Bowl in Montgomery) is a great venue. It’s a nationally televised game on ESPN. Then everybody’s looking forward to our first home game (Sept. 8 against Mississippi Valley State). Just getting back into the normal fall football deal. And the last game of the year is at Kennesaw State over at the Braves’ stadium. That’s going to be an interesting venue. Then there’s our conference schedule; (fans) go to as many away games as they can and this place is packed out when we play at home.
ANC: What is your lingering question?
Grass: You gonna make it back to Frisco (Texas, site of the FCS National Championship Game)? That’s what I get asked all the time. The jury’s still out (on this team). You’ve got to handle all the things the season can throw at you, and we’ve got to progress and get better. I don’t know how this team’s going to handle that – how we’re going to handle adversity, how we’re going to handle success. You’ve got to be able to put either one of them behind you and focus on what you’ve got at hand.