Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Double duty and other things

Ronald Murray and Brandt Thomas could be pulling double duty for the Jacksonville State football team this weekend at Murray State.

Murray was moved from fullback to defensive end before last week’s Eastern Kentucky game and twice was approached on the sideline about being prepared to go back in to help on offense. He didn’t have to go there, but he might this week.

“I told him I wasn’t going to call him ‘The Refrigerator’ if he played running back and defensive line in the same game,” JSU coach Jack Crowe said, referring to former Clemson and Chicago Bears behemoth William Perry. “I told him we would call him ‘Icebox.’ That’s what we called Michael Dean (Perry, the Frig’s brother).”

Thomas, meanwhile, was moved from the defensive line to the offensive line right before the season opener --- with the idea of moving back when center Tyler Ogletree got back --- but it hasn't happened yet, because the O-line has injuries elsewhere.

He may be easing his way back, as Crowe said Monday the sophomore might play both ways against the Racers.

“We sort of have Brandt Thomas in no-man’s land,” Crowe said. “We’ve got him on one side of the ball; he may be a two-way players this week, too.

“What a special guy he is. He cares about this football team. What you find out when you’re going through this little bit where the splinters are in the plank is which ones are here for them and which ones are here for us.”

And now for something completely different ...

BREAKING THE TAPE: For the first time in school history, the JSU men’s cross country team is ranked in the regional poll. The Gamecocks checked in at No. 10 in the South, but coach Steve Ray thinks his team was a little shortchanged.

“I can assure you that I, along with our guys, believe we are better than our current ranking,” he said.

The team, with three freshmen in its top five, has finished first, second and fourth this year.

Alabama, Florida State and Florida are 1-2-3 in the poll. Samford is 15th.

SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT: The Gamecocks and the City of Oxford are teaming up to put on a college softball tournament this weekend.

The inaugural Tera Ross Memorial Classic is scheduled for the Oxford Lake Softball Complex Saturday and Sunday. The 12-team event honors the memory of the former Jacksonville State pitcher killed in a car accident in Florida in 2003.

Here is JSU’s schedule and game times

Saturday: vs. Snead St., 9 a.m.; vs. Wallace, 5 p.m.; vs. West Georgia, 7 p.m.

Sunday: vs. Middle Georgia, 11 a.m.; vs. Mercer, 1 p.m. The top eight teams in the round-robin standings will play at 3 p.m., the bottom four teams in the standings will play at 5.

LOCAL FLAVOR: The JSU golf team has a good representation from Calhoun County on it.

The Gamecocks finished fifth at their most recent tournament, the McLaughlin Intercollegiate, at Bethpage State Park. Yes, that Bethpage, but not the famous Black Course.

Anyway, former Oxford High players Nathan Bennett and Marcus Harrell were both in the JSU lineup. Bennett tied for 20th, while Harrell tied for 47th -- on the Red Course.

Even though they didn't get to play the Black on this trip, the Gamecocks did get a look at it. And Harrell even had his picture taken next to the sign on the first tee that warns players of the difficulty of the course and the recommendation that it be played only by accomplished players. They certainly would've qualified.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The buck stops here

The buck stops somewhere and at least for the foreseeable future with the Jacksonville State football team, it’s stopping with head coach Jack Crowe.

The era of waiting for things to happen is over. Patience is done. All the critical decisions now will go through Crowe, starting with the prep for Saturday’s game at Murray State (1-3, 0-1 OVC).

"After getting hit in the head, I finally realized we’re not a very well coached football team," Crowe said Sunday, a day after the Gamecocks (1-3, 0-1) fell to Eastern Kentucky. "The things that just don’t happen to good football teams are getting longer and longer. I think there’s improvement now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we’re going the wrong way, but I don’t think we’re going the right way fast enough."

No coach is losing their job and nobody is having his responsibility changed; offensive coordinator Ronnie Letson moved upstairs to the press box last week because of the quarterback change. But Crowe now will be handling the practice schedule, approach to the game plan and decisions on who goes on the field.

"I think a lot of folks on this team need my help," Crowe said. "I hope they’re willing to take it."

Read more about this development in Monday’s edition of the Star.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What home field advantage?

Jacksonville State leads the series with Eastern Kentucky three games to one, but there's a quirky trend developing in the series. The road team has the upper hand. Three of the four games --- the last three --- have been won by the visiting team.

The Gamecocks won the first game in the series 49-14 in their first-ever OVC game in 2003 at Paul Snow Stadium, but in the years since JSU won in Richmond in 2004 (30-23), EKU won in Jacksonville in 2005 (31-14) and the Gamecocks won in Richmond last year (2-0).

“It’s usually the team that’s played the best (that’s won), I don’t think the travel had anything to do with it,” EKU coach Danny Hope said.

Part of the Colonels’ history coming to JSU is the game had usually been playing during Race Week at Talladega and the team has had to stay in Atlanta. But Hope discounted that as a factor as well.

“The logistics have been a problem, but I don’t know it’s been a factor in the win column,” he said.

JSU coach Jack Crowe believed the difference in the games has been field position, and that can occur anywhere.

“This game has had a lot of momentum in it,” Crowe said. “I think when players are emotional and trying to make things happen --- both teams will be and always will be for this game --- things happen.”

COMING BACK: As reported in the Star this morning, Shawn Green returned to the traveling 56 Monday and enjoyed his first practice back with the regulars that evening. It didn't take the former Weaver standout long to get acclimated to his new old surroundings.

"It was good to get back in the feel of things," he said. "I've been on the scout team for a while so I had to get used to running the plays and getting my feet right and stuff like that."

He wasn't sure exactly what his role would be Saturday. He was a ball-carrier and kickoff returner last year. "Right now, I'm just looking at running back," he said.

The Gamecocks also welcomed fifth-year senior quarterback Matt Hardin back to practice. Hardin, who lost his starting job to junior Cedric Johnson last week, wasn’t at practice Monday for what coach Jack Crowe said was “to put his house in order.”

Crowe said the Gamecocks need Hardin to win, and predicted the quarterback would have a positive impact in a game at some point this season.

"I don't think the final chapter in Matt Hardin's career is written," Crowe said.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Increasing the odds

Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe is expecting a hard-fought game between two physical teams playing for an early leg up in the OVC race when the Gamecocks play Eastern Kentucky Saturday at Paul Snow Stadium.

With temperatures expected to be down from the Gamecocks’ home opener against Chattanooga (a 33-19 win), Crowe also is hoping the 12th man will be what's up and hot.

“I expect a good crowd,” he said. “I feel very fortunate (for) the crowd we had last time we were home. It was a hot day and I think that was tough on some people … but despite that, I thought our students were there and the students made a difference. I know they made a difference to us --- our students and our band.

“Of course, they’re a younger group, able to withstand the heat, (but) the RV park was full and people were having a good time around here. It added excitement to the team to have that kind of atmosphere. I hope with the temperature cooling off a little bit we can go ahead and start this conference race off by making a statement that playing at home is an advantage for us.”

If it’s anything like previous years, the game promises to be a tight one. And the teams have a lot in common. They both want to play physical football. They’ve both switched quarterbacks to a player who can make plays with his legs. And they’ve both moved a lot of players around in hopes of getting them all in the right places.

“This is going to be a hard-fought game,” Crowe said. “It’s the conference; they know it’s the conference. They’re going to try to get off to a 1-0 start; we’re trying to get off to a 1-0 start. They’re going to come in here and try to make the game physical; we’re going to try to make the game physical. Both of us are going to try to play the best football we can play with everything on the line.

“This is a match-up game … I feel very good about every match-up against Eastern Kentucky. Not that we’re good that we have an advantage, but I don’t think we operate at a disadvantage anywhere. There are a lot of even stevens. We’ve got to make the even stevens come out to be ours.”

That’s where he hopes the crowd will come into play.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Missing pieces

You certainly want to go into every game with all your bullets, and especially a game against a bigger opponent. But the Gamecocks will be missing two players Saturday night against Memphis and have concerns about several others.

Their weekend injury report lists receiver Taurean Rhetta (shoulder contusion) and linebacker Alexander Henderson (knee) both out for the game. Defensive linemen Sean Darby (pinched nerve) and Will Raysor (low back strain) are listed as questionable.

Fullback Ronald Murray (ankle), center Tyler Ogletree (knee) and offensive lineman Matt Washington (Achilles) are probable.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

First, you've gotta believe

Appalachian State set the bar high for the little guy when it upset Michigan in The Big House two weeks ago. It also gave all Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) hope when they play up against the Bowl Subdivision teams.

Jacksonville State has had some --- not much --- success playing up. But to have any chance at all, the Gamecocks have to think big, just like App State did when it went to play the Wolverines.

"You’ve got to believe you’re going to win," JSU head coach Jack Crowe said. "You’ve got to be prepared to win. Not prepared to play good. Not prepared to hope and wish. But you’ve got to have a plan to win that is a sound plan that includes all the fundamentals of the game … When you believe you can win and the other team gives you opportunities, it won’t be the last time (it happens)."

For the record, the Gamecocks are 3-9 against the upper division. They have beaten two FBS-level teams in the Crowe era --- UL-Lafayette (28-14) and Arkansas State (31-28) --- but they’ve lost their last four, including one-sided affairs with Kansas (41-6) and Mississippi State (twice, 51-13 and 35-3).

In these matchups, the smaller school has to take advantage of every chance it gets to steal momentum. That’s what App State did against Michigan. Because you know when the big school gets the lead, they’ll keep piling it on.

The OVC is full of cases in point. Within the league already this year, Louisville buried Murray State (72-10), Cincinnati crushed Southeast Missouri (59-3), Kentucky killed Eastern Kentucky (50-10) and Purdue pummeled Eastern Illinois (52-6).

"There does have to be, in a game like this, a certain degree of opportunity --- your preparation, then opportunity," Crowe said. "That’s an old-timey way of saying luck, but luck’s when preparation meets opportunity. I guess you do have to be lucky, but it’s not that much opportunity that has to be realized, to be honest with you.

"That left wing at Michigan (on the kicking team) is not going to step out ever again (after getting two kicks blocked). The Citadel deal (when Crowe lost at Arkansas), they never crossed our 50; the ball hits the ground, hits (his player) in the chest going full speed by accident, (otherwise) they don’t score in a month of Sundays. Those are what you call opportunities, and there are opportunities in every ball game."

The Gamecocks had one last year at Mississippi State when linebacker Drew Robinson got hit in the chest with a pass, but couldn’t hold on. He held on twice last week against Chattanooga, and turned one of them into a touchdown.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

That's what friends are for

Mike LaPlante doesn’t like it. Jimmy Tillette doesn’t like it. Like most coaches, Jack Crowe doesn’t like to play his friends, either, and he considers Memphis coach Tommy West a friend.

They worked together for three years at Clemson — “three good years,” as Crowe recalls. Three years with rings. Atlantic Coast Conference championship rings.

So highly did Crowe think of West, he tried to hire him as a defensive assistant when he got the Arkansas job. Unsure whether it would be a coordinator’s job or just an assistant’s post, West took a job as running backs coach at Tennessee.

“I don’t like playing friends, no,” Crowe said earlier this week. “You’d like to have a certain type of emotion to go compete and there’s no way I’m going to have anything but a smile when I see Tommy.”

After all, you tend to develop a bond when you create NCAA legislation together.

Or, if you listen to the story, you’re the subject of NCAA legislation being created.
To hear Crowe tell it, he and West were at the root of the NCAA putting in the 48-hour dead period in recruiting.

“That’s a fairly bold statement,” Crowe agreed. “Tommy and I pulled off a recruiting coup in the State of Georgia … that the only way (the University of) Georgia could stop us was to create an NCAA rule. That’s not a want-to-think-big-about-yourself (statement). That’s a fact.”

Clemson and Georgia were running neck and neck for a linebacker named John Johnson. It was one of those deals Georgia fans would show up at Johnson’s basketball games wearing the red-and-black just to remind him of his state “loyalties.”

Johnson committed to UGA on the Monday of signing week, then when it came time to put pen to paper, signed with Clemson on Wednesday. He went on to become one of the Tigers’ finest players.

The Bulldog Nation was livid.

“When John committed to Georgia on Monday and signed with Clemson on Wednesday, coach (Vince) Dooley made danged sure the 48-hour dead period would be enacted; it was in about a month,” Crowe recalled. “I guess you could say we were a couple of legislators.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Johnson in, Rhetta out, Ogletree on the way

Cedric Johnson worked as the Gamecocks' first-team quarterback for the first time Monday night, but not before spending some time with The Star for a story later this week on what the junior quarterback is all about. "I want to win," he said. "I'll do whatever it takes for us to win."

Even though Johnson will start in the Liberty Bowl, head coach Jack Crowe expects Matt Hardin will play in the game, although there is no script for when the fifth-year senior will go in. Johnson had been going in on the third series behind Hardin the last two games.

While the Gamecocks worked with a new starting quarterback, word comes that they're likely to miss senior receiver Taurean Rhetta Saturday. Rhetta impacts so many areas on the team, and if Hardin had quit after his demotion, he would've been the next option behind Johnson. Purely opinion here --- but likely a popular one --- it's more important to have Rhetta available for the OVC games down the road than for a game against a FBS (the old I-A) opponent the Gamecocks aren't likely to win.

Another opinion, the coaches who play in the Football Championship Subdivision and Football Bowl Subdivision (FCS, FBS) don't even call it that. Do we have to? You know what we're talking about when we call it I-A and I-AA.

There is good news on the injury front. The Gamecocks are expecting to have center Tyler Ogletree back in practice and head coach Jack Crowe expects him to play some against the Tigers. Some is the operative word, like about five or six plays. You can read more about the offensive line and Ogletree's impact on it later this week in The Star.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Change is afoot

Head coach Jack Crowe has finally pulled the trigger many JSU fans suspected would happen for some time. He announced after the Gamecocks beat Chattanooga 33-19 Saturday that mobile junior Cedric Johnson would replace fifth-year senior Matt Hardin as the starting quarterback next week in Memphis.

Johnson just seems to fit the offensive personality the Gamecocks have this year better.
There are things that Hardin does better than Johnson and vice versa. Johnson didn’t endear himself to the JSU fans too well on his first two series Saturday. He got caught on a wild 27-yard loss on his first series and threw an interception on his next.

The decision to go with Johnson was solidified at halftime. Johnson moved the offense for 155 yards and their first touchdown of the year in the second half. The pass he threw to Derrick Harris for the score was placed in such a way only Harris could have gotten it; quality throw.

The defense and Gavin Hallford saved them on this day, though. Hallford kicked four field goals for the second game in a row (JSU’s offense has failed to score a touchdown in 11 trips inside the red zone this year) and the defense came up with six takeaways and three scores.

The Gamecocks dodged a big bullet by winning Saturday. Had they lost to the Mocs, they were looking at 2005 all over again. That’s the year they started 0-3 – with all due respect to App State, you can’t expect them to beat FBS Memphis -- and these 2007 losses would’ve have been nearly as close as the ones they took from Furman and Chattanooga before losing to UAB in ’05.

Hoop dreams

Walker Russell has a decision to make in the next few days that will impact his basketball career.
The former Jacksonville State guard has the enviable choice of going to NBA training camp in October with either the Detroit Pistons or New York Knicks. Both choices have their upsides, but Russell has to decide which opportunity fits his game plan best.
The Knicks are likely to have one spot open, but it’s not expected to go to a point guard. The Pistons have two spots, one of which could go to a point guard. He played with both teams in the Las Vegas Summer League the last two years, but the Pistons have been working him out since he returned from Europe.
"I’m in debate on which one I want to go to still," said Russell, in town earlier this week working out with the Gamecocks. "I’ve got to make up my mind before the weekend (is over). When I get back to Detroit, I’ve got to know if I’m going to go to Detroit or New York.
"My decision isn’t hard. It’s who’s going to give me the best opportunity. To me, the opportunity is greater in Detroit … but I’m not leaning one way or the other right now. I’m going to talk it over with my agent this weekend some more and we’re going to go from there."
So the NBA is out there for him, but he was "real hesitant" about talking about it the other day.
"Obviously, it’s a great opportunity," he said. "It’s always a great opportunity when you can be put in a position like that, but I don’t like talking about stuff like that. I think it’s a jinx. I just like to let my cards play out."
And he does have an ace in the hole. If he doesn’t make it with either NBA team, he’s got a sweet, six-figure deal to play in Germany. He played for the best team in the Czech Republic last year.
"I’ve got a chance to do my ultimate dream, but that’s not a bad thing to fall back on," he said.
He has connections with both teams. His godfather, Isiah Thomas, runs the Knicks; his father and uncle both played for the Pistons. But he wants to make it on his own merits.
"There were other teams that were very interested, but at the end of the day, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, so you’ve got to go with who you know," he said. "But it’s not like they came in and (said) since your Isiah’s godson or since your dad played for the Pistons we’re just automatically going to pick you up. I’ve got to still show that I can play.
"It’s all about timing. I guess last year wasn’t my time. I’m right there. My foot is like basically in the door. I’ve got one foot in, the other one’s right behind it … I’ve had guys who are solid say, ‘Walk, you’re good enough to play in this league.’"
Once Russell makes his decision, he will be the first JSU player to attend an NBA camp in the history of the league’s two-round draft.
The players on the current JSU roster welcomed him into their pick-up games when he walked into the gym.
"They know who he is," JSU coach Mike LaPlante said, "but from a credibility standpoint, he’s doing what they aspire to do. For those kids, it’s probably fun to be able to play against a guy who’s played over in Europe and who also has some NBA (experiences)."

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Random notes

The JSU women’s golf team plays its Chris Banister Classic today, Saturday and Sunday at Silver Lakes. The tournament will be played at its earliest date ever to take advantage of optimum playing conditions on the golf course … The JSU volleyball team will receive their 2006 OVC championship rings in festivities connected with Sunday’s home match against Albany … The women’s basketball team has begun off-season workouts. With some many new players on the roster, the coaches are concentrating on the fundamentals of their system, so to avoid burning valuable teaching time when practice begins in October … The men’s team has a new twist on their workouts. They’ve started using yoga to increase their flexibility. Look for a story in an upcoming edition of the Star … And speaking of the men’s team, former Gamecocks guard Walker Russell was back on campus the last couple days working out with the fellas. He has opportunities to go to preseason camp with the Pistons and the Knicks. He’d like to have his decision made on which one by the end of the weekend. Look for that story in Sunday’s Star ... OK, here's your football fix for the day. It's been agreed in principle for the JSU-Chattanooga series to continue for four more years (2011). Signed contracts are pending.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Big screen debut

Jacksonville State’s scoreboard and video board complex makes its football debut Saturday when the Gamecocks play Chattanooga in their home opener at Paul Snow Stadium.

The big board, the crown jewel of an $800,000 scoreboard project, sits high above the east end of the stadium and head coach Jack Crowe wouldn’t mind breaking it in in a big way.

“I hope we burn out the bulbs scoring so many points,” he said. “And we are going to score some points.”

Even though the screen faces the west, JSU officials insist the setting sun during an afternoon game will not affect the picture on the video board. They rave about its sharpness at night.

Besides the usual fare of score, time and down, the video board is capable of showing television-quality pictures. Shown on the board will be a 90-second team introduction, the starting lineups, and personal welcomes from JSU president Bill Meehan, athletic director Jim Fuller and Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher.

And, oh yeah, instant replays.

“Woe be it for the officials if they miss a call,” Crowe said.

Actually, the OVC has an instant replay policy that prohibits the showing of controversial replays that would include, but not be limited to, penalties, timing decisions, coaches and officials in discussions or “other situations that could incite a violent crowd reaction toward the participants.” Non-controversial calls should be shown “in a manner consistent with sportsmanship and good taste,” the policy reads.

The replays are dictated by the TV production truck, but its display on the big board will be controlled in the press box by Roger Shultz, JSU’s associate athletic director for external affairs.

The board was in operation for graduation, but hasn’t been used on a game day yet.
Crowe suspects the players and coaches will be glancing at it from time to time, perhaps using it to pick up nuances of particular plays.

“I doubt if I’ll look at it that much,” JSU senior receiver and captain Taurean Rhetta said, “because some of the stadiums we have played in have had screens — big ol’ screens — and I never really paid it too much attention.

“I think all the players know there’s a time and a place for everything, and during the course of the game you should be focused on the game, not on the new big screen.”

Here are some interest tidbits:
Senior tackle Carnillous Tables is expected to start for the Gamecocks Saturday. He didn't start in the season opener for disciplinary reasons.

If you think JSU has quarterback troubles, you haven't seen Chattanooga. Senior starter Antonio Miller suffered a knee injury in Thursday's opening-night loss to Carson-Newman. He didn't practice Monday and his availability for Saturday is considered right now a game-time decision. There will be more on the JSU quarterback situation in Thursday's Star.

Monday, September 3, 2007


It was a tough night for the Gamecocks in Montgomery; almost nothing went right. There were some segments of good football, head coach Jack Crowe said at his Monday news conference, but the whole affair was "disappointing" and perplexing.

They did win the kicking game, but if they had been able to finish on offense, they would have been trading extra points for Gavin Hallford's school-record four field goals. As many times as they made it to the red zone, they should have scored 55 or 60 points (at least that's what the formula says).

The two (or is it three) quarterback system needs work. On one hand, you have a QB who can grasp a game plan quickly; on the other, you have one who seemingly can make plays (although Matt Hardin did show an ability to make some plays with his legs) -- at least that's the way the coaches see it. If the Gamecocks could find a way to merge the two, they'd have a Payton Award candidate. Look for Hardin to start Saturday against Chattanooga.

But that's not the only thing that needs fixing. The thin offensive line broke down too often for anyones liking; the nearly two dozen missed assignments resulted in three sacks and 14 plays for negative yardage. And the defense played pretty good until the last possession of the first half, and then the dam completely broke.

Let me say something about Alabama State. The Hornets' defense was good and fast, perhaps as good as any the Gamecocks will see on their level this year. And, while I'm not one to tell a coach what to do, if I were ASU coach Reggie Barlow, I'd turn Chris Mitchell into the starter pretty quick.

Now back to the Gamecocks. Unfortunately, none of what they have wrong can be fixed with personnel changes. They have what they have and there's nothing more --- you can't go to the Wal-Mart to pick up a new player --- so they'll have to live with it until the players get comfortable. And, as you might expect, they're confident it will come around.

Besides, in the grand scheme of things, losing these non-conference games isn't going to keep them out of the playoffs, but then, you wonder if they stay on this track, how will their psyche be by the time OVC play starts.

Two years ago, they started 0-3 with two losses coming in the closing seconds --- not minutes, like Saturday --- and I-A UAB, then they went 6-1 in the league before losing to Eastern Illinois in what became a conference title game. This year, they lost to Alabama State in the last three minutes, have Chattanooga --- the same second team in 2005 --- and upper division Memphis. Hmmmm.

Speaking of the OVC, the league took a beating in the opening week. Austin Peay and Samford beat non-Division I opponents and Eastern Illinois beat an OVC opponent. But the rest of the league went 0-6, with losses like 59-3, 73-10, 50-10. Ouch.

That's all for now --- isn't it enough? Look for the deeper numbers in this morning's Star and what the team plans to do about fixing them.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Lots of fans having fun.

Outside the sidelines

Hi, this Ben Cunningham. I work on The Star's news staff, but I'm also a big Jax State fan. Al's kind enough to let me post a little on his blog today from the Gamecocks' season opener at Alabama State. He told me "Anything outside the sidelines" is fair game.

As a fan, I'm not an impartial observer like Al, or the folks we have posting on the Alabama and Auburn blogs today, but I'll try to keep my rooting to a minimum. If I can find wi-fi access outside the stadium, I'll try to post about the tailgating festivities. Otherwise, I'll have some photos and the occasional short text message sent from my cell phone.

Enjoy the game!