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Young Jaguars hoping to continue momentum

With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on the Huskers' second opponent of the season in the South Alabama Jaguars, who come to Lincoln on Sept. 12 for a primetime kickoff at 7 p.m..
To get a feel for where the Jaguars stand heading into their seventh season under head coach Joey Jones, we spoke with Mike Herndon of AL.com and play-by-play radio voice J.D. Byars to get their thoughts and perspectives on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
Spring overview
South Alabama entered its 2015 spring practices coming off a 6-7 campaign and its first-ever bowl appearance in four seasons of Division I competition last year (a loss to Bowling Green in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl). But that momentum might only go so far, as the Jaguars must replace a total of 17 starters from both sides of the ball, nine of which are on defense.
In order to try and make up for that lost experience, USA brought in 12 mid-year transfers this spring, eight of which coming from Alabama-Birmingham after UAB shut down its football program. Several of those former Blazers players joining the mix are expected to have major roles this season, including quarterback Cody Clements, who sat out the spring while recovering from offseason surgery. However, that competition could get a lot more intense with the reported addition of former Rutgers and Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson.
Returning starters
The returning experience was few and far between for South Alabama this spring. In fact, of the five returning starters on either side of the ball, only offensive lineman Chris May was in the starting lineup at the beginning of the 2014 season. For a team that has never returned less than 14 starters since 2010 - the second season of the program's existence - this spring was certainly a new experience for USA's staff.
Both of the returning starters on defense are in the secondary, as defensive backs Roman Buchanan and Antonio Carter are back after combining for 128 tackles in 2014. Some other good news for the Jaguars is they return both starting punter Brandon McKee and kicker Aleem Sunanon.
Offensive star: RB Terrance Timmons
Having played in all 13 games in 2014, Terrance Timmons emerged as the starting at running back for the final four contests, including the bowl game. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder rushed for 403 yards on 75 carries on the year and led USA with four rushing touchdowns. Timmons also had a career-high 124 yards on 15 attempts against Navy.
When all was said and done, Timmons ranked third on the team in rushing, tied for third in scoring, and fourth in both total offense and all-purpose yards. With the questions surrounding the Jaguars' quarterback situation right now, it's likely that they will lean heavily on Timmons and the running back early on this season.
Defensive star: DB Roman Buchanan
Buchanan started every game at strong safety last season as a sophomore, and his 74 total tackles ranked third on the team. That helped him finish among the top 30 tackle totals in the Sun Belt Conference, and he had three games with at least nine stops.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound native of Enterprise, Ala., also posted 3.5 tackles for loss and led USA with seven pass breakups. What's more, Buchanan recorded 18 combined tackles, three tackles for loss and broke up a pass in games against Navy and Bowling Green.
Spring surprise: RB Dami Ayoola
While running back may be one of the few positions where South Alabama actually has some depth, it only took junior college transfer Dami Ayoola one spring to put his name firmly in the mix for the starting job. After originally signing with Illinois coming out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Ayoola enrolled at Western Arizona C.C. last season before eventually committing to USA.
At 5-10, 200, Ayoola caught the attention of the Jaguars coaches right away, and even if he doesn't supplant Timmons as the starter at running back this season, Herndon expects Ayoola to still have an active role in a running game that will likely be handled via committee.
Best spring position battle: Quarterback
Coming into the spring, South Alabama had two quarterbacks who started at least one game in 2014 in sophomore Hunter Vaughn and Matt Floyd. But when the Jaguars return to action for the start of fall camp, there's a good chance neither will be the favorite to win the starting job this year. Though he had to sit out this spring, Clements is predicted to the the frontrunner to with the No. 1 QB spot by the time the season kicks off. A big advantage in his favor is the fact that his old offensive coordinator at UAB, Bryant Vincent, is now calling pays at USA.
However, that could potentially change after reports came out this week that Nelson might be joining the mix after leaving Rutgers. There still hasn't been any official confirmation on Nelson transferring to the Jaguars, but if he does the competition at quarterback will reach a new level this fall with Nelson's 16 career starts and checkered past off the field.
Biggest question: Who will play on D?
The battle at quarterback will justifiably get the bulk of the attention over the offseason, but arguably a near equally large concern facing South Alabama is who will emerge to fill the nine open starting jobs on the defensive side of the ball? Maybe the biggest concern on defense is the front four, which could feature two freshmen starting at defensive tackle in Tre Alford and Caleb Butler.
Along with Buchanan and Carter, senior Texas Tech linebacker transfer Blake Dees joined the defense this spring and is expected to be one of the veteran leaders at middle linebacker. After recording 77 total tackles in three seasons with the Red Raiders, Dees sat out last season and was a two-time weekly coaches' scout team award winner.
Early outlook on South Alabama vs. Nebraska
Herndon: "Obviously that's a step up in level for them. They've played in the past teams like North Carolina State and Mississippi State, went to Tennessee and had a shot to win that game. So they've played big games before, but I know Nebraska is known for being huge up front. With a little bit of uncertainty about how their defensive line is going to stack up and who they're going to count on over there, that would be a huge concern for me. They're going to be huge underdogs, and should be in that game. I would think the hope is to go up there and play well and show how far this program has come."
Byars: "They went to Tennessee and had them beat. They went into South Carolina in front of 80,000 and there was no intimidation factor. They were only down two scores in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State last year and nobody knew at the time they would reach the No. 1 ranking and hold it for four or five weeks. There will definitely be no intimidation by this team playing against a Power Five school. They will go there with no intention of being a sacrificial lamb. This team knows that to take the next step they have to beat a quality opponent at some point."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Herndon: "They made a bowl game for this first time in school history last year, and I would kind of expect something similar. I don't know how many more wins they can get than what they got last year, but I would expect them to make it back to a bowl. Obviously they've got a tough non-conference schedule with you guys, San Diego State and North Carolina State, but within the Sun Belt, I would think they would be able to contend and win enough games to make a bowl again."
Byars: "9 wins next year would be a great year and it's attainable. 10 wins is even attainable. I think anywhere between 8 and 10 wins is realistic for this squad given the state of the conference as well. They play Nebraska, North Carolina State and San Diego State as their main non-conference games."
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