Aug. 26—JACKSONVILLE — First-year Jacksonville State football coach Rich Rodriguez says that reliable sources have told him his season-opening opponent sent a couple of staff members to watch the Gamecocks' spring game.
Teams aren't supposed to do that, but whether Stephen F. Austin did, we can't be certain. "Rich Rod" added that in a couple of instances during preseason practice, people with camera phones were trying to peer through an opening in the fence. They're probably fans, but still, JSU didn't want anyone to give away any secrets, so they got chased off.
Any spies or eager fans probably have the same question all of us do as Jacksonville State opens the Rodriguez era Saturday against Stephen F. Austin in Montgomery: What will his first JSU team look like?
We reporters have an advantage, as we're actually allowed in practice. So, what can we tell you?
Honestly, we have no big secrets to reveal. Since Rodriguez was hired in November 2021 to coach JSU football as it transitions to the Football Bowl Subdivision, he's been pretty open about how he plans for the Gamecocks to play and function. It won't be the same JSU football we've seen in the past.
Fast tempo on offense will be a constant. Rodriguez would like to run 90 offensive plays and compile 25 first downs. The Gamecocks probably won't pick up that many in either category Saturday, but it's a goal and a reachable one.
JSU will play plenty of running backs, who probably will be as important as pass catchers as runners. Tight ends didn't catch many passes under former coach John Grass at JSU, except for Tray Berry, but that should change.
The defense will be aggressive and probably is still ahead of the offense, as it was in the spring, but that gap is closing.
If you have seats near the JSU sideline, you'll probably hear more four-letter words than in the past. It's not that Rich Rod and his staff curse a lot more than others, but because Grass was exceptionally clean in his language.
Honestly, after hearing that some folks complained about Rodriguez's language when he was at Clemson, West Virginia and Michigan, and then watching him at JSU's practice, I'm having a hard time figuring out what the big deal was. He's not much different from the average football coach.
Saturday is a non-conference game. JSU is in its last year in the Football Championship Subdivision before moving to Conference USA and the FBS next year, and because the Gamecocks are in transition, they aren't eligible for the FCS playoffs. They can compete for the ASUN Conference title, and win or lose Saturday, that's the big goal for this season.
For those who watched the JSU spring game, personnel won't be the same as what you saw then. Two of the three quarterbacks (redshirt freshman Aaron McLaughlin and true freshman Te'Sean Smoot) weren't on campus then. Neither was Arizona transfer running back Bam Smith, who likely will get his share of playing time Saturday.
Texas Tech transfer Sterling Galban, a probable starter at receiver, wasn't there, either. And, Oxford graduate Clay Webb transferred to JSU from Georgia since then and probably will line up as a starter Saturday.
This influx of talent combined with more practice time in Rodriguez's system means the offense will be better. Rodriguez isn't saying who will start at quarterback, but he's been open in saying both McLaughlin and sixth-year senior Zion Webb will play. In my amateur opinion, I'd pick McLaughlin as the starter, but don't count out Webb. I imagine that whoever plays behind center in the fourth quarter will be the one who moves the team best in the first three.
I'd love to see Smoot play, because he seems like a terrific talent, but for now, it doesn't look like Rodriguez plans to play more than two quarterbacks regularly.
The defense suffered a killing loss in last year's opener when safety Jeremiah Harris went down with an elbow injury. He missed the season, and that affected the JSU defense all year. Harris is back, and he'll be a force.
The biggest change you might see Saturday? Fewer false-start penalties by the offensive line. This will be a welcome change to those who grew frustrated last season with all the false-start penalties. JSU had 29 a year ago in 11 games, including six in the opener. It's hard to imagine JSU line coach Rick Trickett, one of the best in college football, will allow anyone to play who can't keep from moving before the snap.
The one part of Saturday's game that nobody should be looking forward to? Rodriguez has said Tuesday that punter Jack Dawson will play, even after an arrest for three misdemeanor assault charges related to his time on the Troy football team. One is a sex assault charge in which he is accused of using a pool cue to violate a teammate.
"Obviously, something happened a few years ago," Rodriguez said Tuesday. "Our school is aware of the situation. Our staff is aware. His family is aware. I would just say, let's not rush to judgment. Let all the facts get out. Let's let the process go before we pass judgment. That's all my comments about that."
Even so, JSU should bench Dawson. This isn't even a decision Rodriguez should have to make. The university should make the call, and allowing someone to play after being arrested and accused of sex assault is a rare misstep by school leadership since President Don Killingsworth assumed office in 2020.
Saturday will be a day for JSU to enjoy, win or lose, but the Dawson case is certainly a dark cloud.
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.