By Jeff Bidwell, WPSD Sports
For the fourth-straight year and sixth time in the past eight years, Jacksonville State has been picked the preseason football favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Gamecocks, who have won three-straight OVC Championships and 24-straight Conference games, received 16 of a possible 18 first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and sports information directors.
The Gamecocks totaled 128 total points to out-distance UT Martin, who picked up the other two first-place votes and was tabbed second (107 points). Tennessee State was picked third (96) and followed by Eastern Illinois (81), who was the last league team to beat Jacksonville State (at the end of the 2013 season). Eastern Kentucky was picked fifth (68) and followed by Tennessee Tech (64), Southeast Missouri (42), Murray State (41) and Austin Peay (21).
After advancing to the National Championship game in 2015, the Gamecocks finished last year ranked No. 6/7, marking the fourth-straight year they closed the season in the top 10, the first OVC team to ever accomplish that feat. The team will have to replace several key members of a potent offense – including All-American quarterback Eli Jenkins – but does return Preseason All-OVC running back Roc Thomas (803 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns), and a pair of All-OVC offensive linemen in Justin Lea and Dylan Cline. That duo helped block for an offense that was seventh nationally in rushing offense (250.6 yards/game) in 2016. The Gamecocks have been outstanding on the defensive side of the ball, finishing last season ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense (274.9 yards/game allowed) and No. 7 in scoring defense (18.3 points/game allowed). That defensive unit returns nine starters including Preseason OVC Defensive Player of the Year Darius Jackson and All-American safety Marlon Bridges. Jackson earned numerous All-American honors a season ago and is already the JSU career record holder in sacks (20.5) and tackles-for-loss (40.0). Bridges was named the OVC Freshman of the Year after tallying a team-high 87 tackles, picking off four passes (third-most nationally by a freshman) and forcing five fumbles (tied for the most in the FCS).
UT Martin finished 6-2 in the OVC last season but just missed out on a playoff berth, falling to Jacksonville State in the season finale. This year head coach Jason Simpson, the dean of OVC coaches as he begins year No. 12, has 70 players returning including six offensive and seven defensive starters. Simpson has won at least five Conference games in six of the past seven seasons and has never had a losing season in his 11 years with the Skyhawks; he enters the year ranked eighth in OVC history in victories (72). UTM returns Preseason All-OVC quarterback Troy Cook who passed for 2,321 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2016. Cook will be protected by two Preseason All-OVC line selections in seniors Kadarren Bond and Robert Burleigh. Among the defensive returning players is senior safety Kahlid Hagens who had a team-high 93 tackles a year ago to go along with four interceptions, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
After a four-win season in 2015, Tennessee State bounced back a year ago with seven total victories and an appearance in the national Top 25 polls. This year the Tigers return nine starters on defense and seven on offense. Among the defensive players returning is senior defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko, who despite missing three full games due to injury, was named first-team All-OVC after netting 48 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks. Also back is senior linebacker Chris Collins who led the team with 87 tackles. Back on the opposite side of the ball is senior wide receiver Patrick Smith, the Preseason OVC Offensive Player of the Year. A year ago, Smith caught 61 passes for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns; the 13 touchdowns were the seventh-most in OVC single-season history and ranked him seventh nationally. This season Smith will be catching touchdown passes from University of Florida transfer Treon Harris who completed 174-of-346 passes for 2,695 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 570 yards and three scores in two years with the Gators. Special teams will also be a strong spot for the Tigers, who return All-American kicker Lane Clark (who connected on four field goals longer than 50 yards a season ago) and sophomore return specialist Chris Rowland (who ranked first nationally in combined kick yards with 1,103 in 2016).
Eastern Illinois started last season strong by topping FBS foe Miami (Ohio) in week two and No. 5 ranked FCS opponent Illinois State a week later. The Panthers climbed to as high as No. 13 nationally but suffered three-straight losses down the stretch to finish 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the OVC. This season fourth year head coach Kim Dameron has seven offensive and seven defensive starters returning. Among the offensive returners are four offensive linemen who will help protect senior quarterback Mitch Kimble. In his debut season with the Panthers, Kimble passed for 1,414 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for two additional scores despite missing four games due to injury. On the defensive side of the ball is senior David Johnson who had 51 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in eight games after transferring from South Carolina.
Eastern Kentucky will look to rebound after a rare losing season in 2016. Colonels second-year head coach Mark Elder welcomes back 60 players from last year’s team including six offensive and seven defensive starters along with a class of talented newcomers in his second-straight highly-ranked recruiting class. Among the defensive returners are senior Jeffrey Canady and junior Aaron Patrick. A year ago, Canady ranked second in the OVC and seventh nationally with 123 total tackles while Patrick earned Sophomore All-American honors from HERO Sports after tallying 53 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss and 7.0 sacks. Senior punter Keith Wrzuszczak had another solid season a year ago when he was 17th nationally in punting (42.1 yards/punt) and earned second-team All-OVC honors. He helped EKU led the OVC and rank in the top five nationally in net punting and punt return defense.
In the first season under head coach Marcus Satterfield, Tennessee Tech closed strong by winning its final three OVC games to finish 5-3 in Conference play, the program’s first winning OVC record since claiming the Conference championship in 2011. This season Tech returns 46 players from that team including Preseason All-OVC running back pick Yeedee Thaenrat. As a freshman, Thaenrat rushed for 707 yards and six touchdowns. Also back is senior wide receiver Dontez Byrd who set TTU single-season records for receptions (74) and receiving yards (933) while catching seven touchdown passes. Byrd also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown during the 2016 campaign. Defensively, the still young unit is powered by a pair of juniors in linebacker Josh Poplar and defensive end Tim Collins. Poplar led Tennessee Tech with 105 stops a season ago while also recovering three fumbles (a mark that ranked third nationally) while Collins recorded 33 stops while netting 6.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
This season Southeast Missouri returns nine starters, including five on offense and four on defense. Last year the Redhawks were among the top-five in the OVC in scoring defense (3rd, 24.4 ppg allowed), total defense (4th, 390.2 ypg allowed), rushing defense (3rd, 138.5 ypg allowed), turnover margin (5th, -2) and red zone defense (2nd, 73%). This season that defense will be keyed by senior linebacker Chad Meredith who is a Preseason All-OVC selection after finishing last year with 86 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.0 sacks and five quarterback hurries. He enters this year having started 22-straight games and ranks eighth in SEMO history for career sacks (8.5) and seventh in career tackles-for-loss (24.0). Joining Meredith at the linebacker position is senior Kendall Donnerson who had 50 tackles and 13.0 tackles-for-loss a year ago. Offensively, senior quarterback Jesse Hosket returns after passing for 2,332 yards and 11 touchdowns in his debut season with the Redhawks.
Murray State third-year head coach Mitch Stewart will be tasked with filling the pads worn by quarterback KD Humphries who graduated with the second-most passing yards in OVC history (10,458). The six quarterbacks currently on the MSU roster have combined for only one career game played in a Racer uniform entering this season. Whoever wins the starting battle will have the luxury of throwing passes to Preseason All-OVC wide receiver Jordon Gandy who had a breakout season in 2016 when he caught 62 passes for 976 yards and 11 touchdowns. Also among the eight returning offensive starters is sophomore running back Mareio McGraw who rushed for 571 yards and six touchdowns in his debut season. Nine defensive starters are back including senior defensive back D’Montre Wade, who ranked third-nationally a year ago with 18 passes defended (three interceptions, 15 pass breakups), and senior defensive back Zachary Wade, who had a team-high 90 tackles a year ago.
Austin Peay made strides during Will Healy’s first season as head coach, but is still trying to end a 27-game losing streak entering the season. Among the breakout players returning from last year is sophomore quarterback JaVaughn Craig and sophomore wide receiver/running back Kentel Williams. Craig was inserted into the lineup the final five games of last season and passed for 515 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 482 yards and three scores in that short time frame. Williams finished the season as the team’s leading rusher (541 yards) and set a new OVC single-game record with 399 all-purpose yards in a game against Eastern Kentucky. Defensively, junior Gunnar Scholato is coming off a season that saw him ranked seventh nationally in tackles/game (11.2). Scholato, a former walk-on, had 124 total stops, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and two interceptions in 2016.
2017 OVC Football Predicted Order of Finish
1. Jacksonville State (16 first-place votes) – 128 points
2. UT Martin (2) – 107
3. Tennessee State – 96
4. Eastern Illinois – 81
5. Eastern Kentucky – 68
6. Tennessee Tech – 64
7. Southeast Missouri – 42
8. Murray State – 41
9. Austin Peay – 21
Pre Season All Conference Team
QB – Troy Cook, UT Martin
RB – Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State
RB – Jaimiee Bowe, UT Martin
RB – Yeedee Thaenrat, Tennessee Tech
WR – Patrick Smith, Tennessee State
WR – Jordon Gandy, Murray State
TE – Addison Bounds, Eastern Illinois
C – Thomas Burton, Tennessee State
OG – Justin Lea, Jacksonville State
OG – Robert Burleigh, UT Martin
OT – Dylan Cline, Jacksonville State
OT – Kadarren Bond, UT Martin
DL – Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State
DL – Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State
DL – Aaron Patrick, Eastern Kentucky
DL – Randy Robinson, Jacksonville State
LB – Siran Neal, Jacksonville State
LB – Joel McCandless, Jacksonville State
LB – Chad Meredith, Southeast Missouri
DB – Marlon Bridges, Jacksonville State
DB – Kahlid Hagens, UT Martin
DB – Reggie Hall, Jacksonville State
DB – D’Montre Wade, Murray State
DB – Tae Martin, UT Martin
K – Lane Clark, Tennessee State
P – Keith Wrzuszczak, Eastern Kentucky
RS – Cameron Sanders, Southeast Missouri
RS – Chris Rowland, Tennessee State
From: Ohio Valley Conference Media Relations