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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: South Alabama

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 South Alabama Jaguars using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

Today, South Alabama is up.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but did not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

It was clear Steve Campbell had a serious project on his hands when he took over for Joey Jones, and, suffice it to say, that project is ongoing. There are a lot of unknowns, many of the knowns are less than awe-inspiring, and the schedule, particularly having to play all three of the big dogs in the East, is unforgiving. At least the couple of bright spots that do exist burn awfully bright.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.96 (9)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.74 (9)
QB Ranking: 7
RB Ranking: 9
WR/TE Ranking: 6
OL Ranking: 9

With just five qualifying returnees, per OAYP’s minimums, and one lone secondary qualifier, every aspect of this offense has questions that need answering.

At quarterback, Cephus Johnson is the only competitor for the job that has experience within the offense, appearing in eight games last year. Yet, even on what was still a tiny sample size, his OAYP would ranked near the bottom of the league among qualifiers, after completing less than 40% of his passes for just 6.3 yards per attempt. He didn’t offer much as a ball carrier, either, averaging a mere 3.75 yards per attempt, even excluding sacks. The glass half full outlook is that the sample size is too small to draw meaningful conclusions from, but the fact is, those numbers do not inspire confidence. The point is, regardless of who ends up taking the snaps, they will likely be some sort of a step down from Evan Orth, who actually led the league in yards per attempt in 2018.

And, unfortunately, there won’t be much of a run game to lean on either. Tra Minter was super productive overall, leading the SBC in all-purpose yards, and is genuinely one of the best return specialists in the game right now, but that efficiency on special teams did not translate to the offense. He ranked 25th in the conference with 4.38 yards per carry, gained at least five yards less than 40% of the time, and while he’s a reliable pass catcher, his receiving success rate was just over 35%. There was a seemingly inexplicable goal to force feed him a season ago, in spite of the quarterback play, and I have my doubts as to whether or not that will change given the current situation behind center.

Now, if there is a guy on this offense worth force feeding, it’s Kawaan Baker. Be it after taking a handoff or catching a pass from the slot, Baker is far and away the most dynamic offensive weapon on the team. A receiver by trade, he was second behind Jamarius Way in targets and touchdowns last year, but led their starters in yards per target, yards per reception, and success rate. He was also the team’s most effective ball carrier, and nine of his 13 total touchdowns -- which ranked third in the Sun Belt -- came on the ground. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in 2019, but, again, the key is to simply make sure to use him as often as possible.

Aside from Baker, OAYP can’t tell us much about the returning receiving corps. Neither of them were especially reliable last year, but Jalen Tolbert and Davyn Flenord are physical receivers that offer big targets for whoever is throwing them the ball.

Speaking of big targets, this could be a breakout year for Khameron Taylor. Albeit on a secondary qualifying sample size, Taylor hauled in five of his six targets for the highest yard per target average among team returnees, and the highest success rate of any Jaguar with more than one pass thrown his way. Between him and Baker, there are at least two good reasons for this offense to have a more balanced run-pass distribution than it did last season if the quarterback play is even serviceable.

Reason number three would be the offensive line. OAYP does not love this group, and losing Ryan Alexander didn’t help matters, but the rest of the line was comprised of first year starters last year, so, if nothing else, that experience should help the returnees. And while the pass protection wasn’t a lot better than the run blocking last year, it was better, especially on passing downs where they ranked in the national top 40 in allowed sack rate.

All told, this offense still has a lot of work to do, but a step in the right direction would be to better utilize its existing personnel. In short, that means to get the ball into Kawaan Baker’s hands by any means possible.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: -1.58 (8)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: -1.16 (8)
EDGE Ranking: 9
DL Ranking: 7
LB Ranking: 6
CB Ranking: 7
S Ranking: 8

This defense will be an interesting test case in OAYP because, while the overall number was downright ugly last year, and the projection isn’t pretty either, outside of the safeties, there are no dire weaknesses from a personnel standpoint. Even though a lot of guys ranked below the mean, especially when compared to the ACC and SEC, as well as the Sun Belt, only the safetiess fell below the -1.0 mark, which is when the red flags really start to go up. In other words, this is the type of defense that could take a huge step forward.

That starts with the defensive line, where one of the best players in the league, regardless of position, resides. The formula underrated a few interior defenders this year, in my opinion, and there may be no better example of that than Tyree Turner. Granted, he’s still in the second tier, per the metric, and among the league’s best, but in reality he may actually be the best in the conference. His run defense grade was the best in the SBC in 2018 at the position, as he led the group with a 9.7% run stop percentage and a remarkable 18 stuffs. Tyree Turner is a bonafide stud. Meanwhile, Jordon Beaton offers an ideal complement to Turner’s attacking style. He’s not the playmaker that Turner is, but the job he does at nose tackle allows Turner to make the plays that he does. A seemingly immovable object, he actually had a lower allowed success rate and marginal efficiency than Turner last year, and was third behind Turner and Bull Barge in run stuffs.

On the edge, the return of Riley Cole will go a long way, after he missed most of 2018 with a leg injury, as will having a healthy Rocel Williams back to go along with Taji Stewart and a really promising talent in Jeremiah Littles. Same goes for the linebacking corps, which will miss Barge’s playmaking, but returns the versatile Nick Mobley and Roy Yancey, who also sat out for nearly the entire season due to injury.

This front seven was hamstrung by countless injuries in 2018, making it all the more impressive that it ended up in the national top 30 in adjusted line yards per carry allowed, the top 20 in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, and the top 10 in 3rd/4th down conversions allowed on rushes of two yards or fewer. Plus, even though the pass rush wasn’t great as a whole, I loved their aggressiveness. They were not scared to ratchet up the pressure when opposing offenses fell behind the sticks, and the results were impressive, going from 116th in sack rate on standard downs to 23rd on passing downs.

Granted, unless the secondary is way better all of a sudden, it would be sure help matters if the pass rush was that good on all downs. Nigel Lawrence, Tobias Moss, Malcolm Buggs, and Darian Mills are all gone from a group that had its fair of struggles already. Among the qualifying returnees, Jalen Thompson has good ball skills, but largely struggled all things considered, and I already mentioned the red flags with the safety OAYP. Gus Nave wasn’t that much better on a secondary qualifying sample size, either.

This team could be really hard to run the ball against effectively if the front seven can stay healthy, but it won’t matter much if the pass defense doesn’t improve.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Defensive Line
2. Pass Catchers
3. Offensive Line
4. Edge Defenders
5. Linebackers
6. Running Backs
7. Quarterback
8. Cornerbacks
9. Safeties

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

18. DL Tyree Turner
48. WR Kawaan Baker
73. RB Tra Minter
100. TE Khameron Taylor

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Like I said at the top, South Alabama was a little bit unlucky to get all three big dogs from the East, although I suppose it’s better to do that in what should be a down year anyway than in a year where they could truly compete for the West. At ULM to open conference play probably isn’t going to happen, either, as the Warhawks are more of the bridge between the disparate top and bottom of the league than a true bottom half team. OAYP also expects Texas State to be much improved, so getting them on the road is less than ideal. Moreover, by getting all three of the top teams in the East, that means the Jags will miss Coastal Carolina, which would have certainly been a winnable game. That pretty much leaves Georgia State as the best bet to avoid going winless in conference play, and even that one is on the road, pushing the game to under a field goal line, per OAYP.

South Alabama is in a weird spot. I really think the defense could be pretty formidable, but a bunch of guys on that side of the ball are set to graduate after this season. Offensively, there’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done, but Cephus Johnson is only a sophomore, so this could be a big year for him as far as gaining expereince, and Kawaan Baker will be back in 2020, as well as a couple of the offensive linemen. We could see the tables start to turn next year as the offense develops and the defense tries to replace significant talent, but Steve Campbell is still probably a couple of years away from putting together two cohesive units. This is going to take some time, folks.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP