Mark Edwards: Rich Rod promises honesty about first JSU team -- good and bad

·4 min read

Jul. 28—JACKSONVILLE — When Rich Rodriguez coached his son, Rhett Rodriguez, last year at Louisiana Monroe, he asked him what he most wanted out of a coach.

Rhett gave a simple two-part answer: don't waste our time and always tell the truth.

That certainly wasn't the first time Rich Rodriguez has heard that in his coaching career, which stretches back to the 1980s, but maybe it put it a little more closely to the front of his mind.

He's had to do a lot of truth-telling at Jacksonville State, since arriving on campus last November.

"You don't get a lot of that in college football, especially now," he said.

As the program plays its last season in the Football Championship Subdivision before joining Conference USA of the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2023, there will be growing pains. Not everyone on the roster is suited for the higher level.

Not everyone will get the same playing time they got under former coach John Grass. Not everyone suits what Rodriguez wants. Not everyone will carry the ball as much, catch the ball as much, play as big a role ...

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Rodriguez and his staff already have gone through 15 spring practices at JSU, and the defense shined while the offense "didn't do anything well," he said. The performance in the spring game wasn't great, which ended with Rodriguez calmly reminding his players that the effort needed to be better for anyone who wanted to play for the Gamecocks. He added that he always could bring in new players, if the current ones didn't want the opportunity.

And that's kind of what happened.

Rodriguez says that nearly 50 of the players on the current roster weren't here for the spring. Also, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith is new, after the untimely and tragic death of his predecessor, Calvin Magee, who was so likable, he won over plenty of folks in just a few months in the program.

Preseason practice began Wednesday morning, and with all the new faces, it's as if somebody hit the reset button.

"The first year is going to be hardest for us as coaches, as far as knowing exactly what we have," Rodriguez said. "You can look at film from last year. You can try to study it from spring practice, but really, with almost 50 new players added to the roster since the spring, we've got almost a whole different team than what we did a few months ago."

These players aren't just fighting for playing time or a spot in the playing rotation, but also scholarship money. In FCS, schools can award partial scholarships to players.

In FBS, Rodriguez said, "it's full scholarship or none."

"I would hope that more than anything else, it would appeal to their competitive nature. This program has always won, it's won on every level, and we have the same expectation when we move up to the I-A level next year," he said.

It's FBS, of course. In 2006, the NCAA renamed Division I-A and Division I-AA as Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision, but forgive Rodriguez for not liking to complicate things.

"I still say I-AA," he said. "What's with all the alphabet, right? I-A and I-AA."

As an example of the job Rodriguez and his staff face, check out the quarterback picture. There's fifth-year senior Zion Webb, who was all-Ohio Valley Conference in the spring 2021 season. Aaron McLaughlin is a highly rated transfer from North Carolina State, where he spent his freshman season. Te'Sean Smoot is a solid high school prospect from Ohio.

Still, Rodriguez says he's "not overly comfortable" with the depth at the position, because he doesn't know about them.

"Zion has played, but it's not this system," Rodriguez said, referring to his high-tempo attack. Lots of teams have high-tempo systems in their arsenal, but Rodriguez's runs a little different.

So how will the season go?

The head coaches of the six teams in the ASUN Conference tabbed JSU fourth in the preseason poll.

At this point, that sounds reasonable. So does JSU finishing first.

The one thing you probably can predict is that because first seasons under a new coach usually have some adversity, and JSU likely won't be an exception.

"The first year is most difficult," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez promises that even then he'll tell the truth, which he thinks is the best approach to have.

He tells a story about spending last season at Louisiana Monroe as offensive coordinator under Terry Bowden. Rodriguez says he had 10 quarterbacks on the team, including Rhett, and "none of them went in the transfer portal."

He says he told them the truth about who likely would play and how everything would go.

"Tell these guys exactly where they're at — good and bad," Rodriguez said.

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.