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Opponent Spring Review: South Alabama

With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

We start things off today by taking a look at Nebraska’s season-opener opponent, South Alabama, which will come to Lincoln on Aug. 31.

The Jaguars are coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2018 in their first season under head coach Steve Campbell.

We caught up with USA radio play-by-play announcer JT Crabtree to learn more about what the Huskers can expect from their first foe this fall.

Junior running back Tra Minter
Junior running back Tra Minter (USA Today)

Spring overview

For the past eight offseasons, South Alabama has come out of spring practices not knowing exactly who was going to be the starting quarterback in the fall.

That was true once again this year, as a clear winner didn't emerge from the expected two-man battle between Cephus Johnson and Tylan Morton. The competition was complicated even more with the emergence of Desmond Trotter this spring, leaving the job wide open entering the summer.

On the other side of the ball, there was plenty of work needed to be done to improve a defense that gave up almost 40 points per game last season. More than anything, bolstering the overall speed of the defense has been a focal point, as that was a weakness that was exposed often in 2018.

Another issue the Jaguars have had to deal with this offseason is losing key contributors to the NCAA transfer portal, which hit the wide receiver corps especially hard with the departures of their top two targets in Jordan McCray (Oklahoma State) and Malik Stanley.

Returning starters

While quarterback remains unsettled, South Alabama will have some nice weapons to work with coming back in do-it-all receiver Kawaan Baker and running back Tra Minter.

The offensive line was extremely inexperienced last season, and USA now must replace two starters up front who transferred from the program. There's no shortage of numbers on the o-line, though, after some new additions from the JUCO and high school ranks.

Maybe the deepest unit on the roster is the defensive line, which is led by defensive end Tyree Turner. The Jaguars are also bringing back some notable pieces from injury at edge rusher in senior Chris Henderson and junior Riley Cole (a former Alabama commit).

Junior wide receiver Kawaan Baker
Junior wide receiver Kawaan Baker (USA Today)

Offensive star: RB Tra Minter

When Minter took over as South Alabama's No. 1 running back last season, the Jaguars went from primarily a speed/perimeter running game to a power attack that thrived between the tackles.

He rushed 183 times for 801 yards and was far and away the team leader in both categories. The next highest carry and rushing yardage totals were 63 and 251, respectively.

The Ellaville, Ga., native was also the team's primary kickoff and punt returner, and was the fourth-leading receiver with 23 catches for 201 yards. Now up to 5-9, 200, Minter looked even more comfortable in that hefty role this spring

Defensive star: DE Tyree Turner

He's only listed at 6-1, 285, but Turner plays much bigger than his stature.

Behind a relentless motor and an NFL-level skill set, Turner is the biggest difference maker on South Alabama's defense. That showed with him ranking third on the team with a career-high 51 total tackles and leading the Jaguars with 10 tackles for loss along with four sacks last season.

It wasn't just the numbers he put up, but the timing of the numerous game-changing plays he made both against the run and the pass.

Spring surprise: QB Desmond Trotter 

The quarterback position was already a big enough question going into the spring, but Trotter's rapid rise only further complicated matters.

At 6-3, 215, Trotter possesses impressive size and athleticism and also showed he had a better arm than many expected when he arrived on campus.

The native of Irondale, Ala., has developed faster than anticipated over the past year, and he's now put himself in position to push for the starting role this fall with Johnson failing to lock up the job.

South Alabama head coach Steve Campbell
South Alabama head coach Steve Campbell (USA Today)

Biggest question: Will depth emerge at wide receiver?

South Alabama does return one of its top overall playmakers in Cambell's "Power Spread" offense with Baker, who was the team's leading receiver and second-leading rusher in 2018.

However, the transfers of McCray and Stanley left the rest of the wide receiver depth with some major questions to answer this spring.

Former walk-on Cade Sutherland was put on scholarship this spring after Stanley's unexpected departure, and he and Baker stand as the only wideouts with any notable game experience.

Sophomores Jalen Tolbert and Davyn Flenord should factor in the mix this fall, but right now it's Baker and a whole bunch of question marks for USA's passing game.

Early outlook on South Alabama vs. Nebraska

Crabtree: "It's going to be tough. We went there in 2015, and it was an awesome atmosphere. It's intimidating. The players might not say it is, but it definitely is. It's going to be tough. You've got a lot of changes - not from a coaching standpoint, because that happened last year, but a lot of personnel changes on the field and a lot of seniors who you were used to calling their names are now gone.

"You've got a lot of question marks, and you go on the road to a place like Nebraska and trying to figure some things out, that's not going to be the easiest thing to do."

Overall 2019 win-loss expectation 

Crabtree: "I think this year is definitely going to be a growing year. I wouldn't call it a rebuild, but a growing year. I think last year was the rebuild. There's a lot of anticipation and excitement with the football program because we're building an on-campus football stadium that will be open in 2020. So there's a lot of anticipation for next season, and a lot of people are already looking past this year.

"But there's a lot of talent on this year's team, and I think if all the pieces line up correctly and if they can get going faster than they did last year, I think we've got a chance to surprise some people."