BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Arkansas-Pine Bluff is not the first opponent on Jackson State’s schedule, but it may as well be most anticipated. Or at least the SWAC’s preseason defensive player of the year feels that way.
How bad does cornerback Qua Cox want to square off against UAPB?
“It’s real bad,” he said Monday during SWAC Media Day. “It makes me sick to my stomach to think about the game every time I watch it.”
That would be the 2012 SWAC championship game, which UAPB won 24-21 in overtime on a Tyler Strickland field goal. Jackson State led 14-0 and 21-7 during the course of the game.
Cox had seven tackles, including a sack, in the contest. But certain things about the Dec. 8 game still bothers him.
“That we left plays on the field that we’re supposed to execute and we didn’t finish,” he said.
Jackson State coach Rick Comegy doesn’t quite take the attitude of circling the Oct. 5 rematch in Jackson, Miss., on his schedule. His first order of business is facing Tulane on Aug. 29.
“There are a lot of teams out here who can play football,” Comegy said. “You can’t take your eye off the next opponent. When (UAPB) comes, I’ll be able to tell you a little more about it.”
Comegy has labeled senior Clayton Moore as the starting quarterback going into preseason camp. Moore totaled 1,863 passing and 633 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns each running and passing last year, emerging as the offensive leader out of a two-quarterback system, but missed spring drills due to flu-like illness.
“Naturally, Clayton would have the lead at this point,” Comegy said. “Everybody’s got to hold their job now.”
Coming off a 1-10 season
Grambling State coach Doug Williams blames no one for his team’s monumental collapse of 2012, a year after winning the SWAC title.
“We didn’t play well. We got beat,” he said. “I’m not in the blame game. At the end of the day, teams played better than us on those days.”
The Tigers suffered a 1-10 and 0-9 conference campaign that is highly unusual by their own standards. But they’ve found solidarity at the quarterback position with Williams’ son, D.J., taking the starting role after last year’s starter Frank Rivers transferred to Albany (Ga.) State.
A change on the defensive side was made as former UAPB defensive line coach Dennis “Dirt” Winston took over as coordinator. Winston was an assistant at Grambling from 1992-97.
“We’ve changed the scheme, number one,” Williams said. “I’ve known Dirt a long time. Dirt has brought in a lot of enthusiasm and camaraderie as far as the defense in whole and the coaching staff. It’s a big change in what we were doing last year as opposed to this year.”
Williams would not disclose what the defensive scheme is changed to, citing a multiple defense. Winston coached in Monte Coleman’s 4-3 system at UAPB.
“We’ve got different variations,” he said. “You never know what we’re going to do.”
Barlow: Time to break through
For the past three years, Alabama State has either won the Eastern Division outright or tied for the best record, but only once in that span has it gone to the SWAC championship game.
The 2012 finish in the East race is serving as motivation for the Hornets, who are favored to win it this year.
“It’s a blessing that people think you’ve got a decent team, but you’ve got to get over the hump,” Bama State coach Reggie Barlow said. “Our guys have to understand that we do have a good team coming, and we’ve got to find a way to stay together and work hard and get to the SWAC championship game. I think we’re due for that.”
Barlow said junior running back Isaiah Crowell, named preseason first-team All-SWAC along with UAPB’s Justin Billings at that position, is in “the best shape he’s ever been.” Crowell, the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year at Georgia, picked up 842 rushing yards in his transfer season and was named SWAC Newcomer of the Year.
“He’s about 220 pounds right now, he’s been running and lifting, and we’re expecting him to have an explosive season, but we’re expecting guys like (center Edmund Davis) and others to create those holes to give him an opportunity to be successful.”
Now that (Hopson’s) spring has come and gone
Maybe the most impressive thing about Jay Hopson’s first season at Alcorn State was that the Braves enjoyed a three-game improvement from 2011 — having to pick up on his schemes during preseason camp.
The Braves had their first spring drills under Hopson this year. He was hired shortly after spring camp in 2012.
And it seems to have made a difference.
“I think we’re executing at a much better level,” Hopson said. “It’s tough to ask a football team Aug. 4 to learn everything and get ready to play. I think the players know the system a lot better.
“What was asked of these men last year was a tall order. We had to learn a whole bunch of plays by Aug. 31.”
The Braves took to the tall order and led the SWAC in passing defense with 156 yards per game allowed last year. But they’ll have to produce more on the ground, as Arnold Walker led the team with 392 rushing yards in 2012.