Jacksonville State was picked to win its third-straight Ohio Valley Conference title, while Eli Jenkins and Darius Jackson were predicted to be the league's top players at the league's annual Football Media Day on Monday.
Each of the OVC's other eight head coaches and sports information directors picked the Gamecocks first in the preseason poll that was released at the event, while they also selected Jenkins to repeat as the Offensive Player of the Year and for Jackson to win the Defensive Player of the Year honor. The two highlighted a league-high 10 JSU players on the Preseason All-OVC Team also released on Monday.
JSU had 128 total points in the poll, 28 more than second-place Eastern Kentucky and 31 more than Eastern Illinois in third. UT Martin was picked fourth and Southeast Missouri fifth.
Jenkins was joined on the Preseason All-OVC offense by senior wide receiver Josh Barge, senior center Casey Dunn, junior offensive tackle Justin Lea and junior offensive tackle Dylan Cline. On the defense with Jackson was senior defensive lineman Desmond Owino, junior linebacker Joel McCandless and senior cornerback Jaylen Hill. Senior Lawon DeBardelaben was the preseason All-OVC pick at return specialist,
A native of Birmingham and a three-year starter for JSU, Jenkins returns after orchestrating the most prolific offense in school history in 2015. He was one of just three quarterbacks at the Division I level (FBS or FCS) to pass for 2,700 and rush for 1,000 yards this season (joining Greg Ward, Jr. of Houston and Deshaun Watson of Clemson). Jenkins finished the year with 2,788 passing and 1,161 rushing yards. Jenkins finished the year ranked second in OVC single-season history for total offense (3,949) while moving into seventh place in OVC career history in the same category (8,357).
During the regular season JSU won its games by an average margin of 21.2 points (meaning Jenkins at out large stretches of the second half including eight full quarters), he still ranked 11th nationally in rushing touchdowns (11), 16th nationally in passing yards (2,788), 17th in passing touchdowns (21) and 19th in each rushing yards (1,161 and points responsible for (14.4/game). In four FCS Playoff games he accounted for 1,124 yards of total offense and 10 touchdowns. He is now 26-0 all-time as a starter against non-FBS opponents during the regular season.
Jackson was a second-team All-OVC performer in his sophomore campaign of 2015, one that saw him attack the backfield at a record-breaking pace. The Bessemer, Ala., native tied teammate Chris Landrum for the school record with 19.0 tackles for a loss, while also amassing 7.0 sacks. Through just two seasons in a JSU uniform, Jackson is already sixth in school history with 24.5 career tackles for a loss and is seventh with 10.5 career sacks.
Jackson paced a defensive attack that racked up a school-record 136 tackles for a loss, good enough to lead all of FCS in that category. The Jax State defense led the OVC and ranked 12th nationally in total defense in 2015, thanks to Jackson's performance of 56 tackles and one forced fumble.
Barge had a record-breaking season in 2015 for the Gamecocks, setting new school records in receptions (92), receiving yards (1,145) and touchdown receptions (11). Heading into his senior season, the Carrollton, Ga., native is the school's career record holder in receiving yards (2,949) and receptions (206). A first team All-OVC pick last year, he has also caught at least one pass in a school-record 40-straight games.
Dunn and Lea were first-team picks last year for one of the top offensive lines in league history. They were half of four JSU players named to the first-team, just the third time in league history that one team had four of the five players on the first team offensive line. Cline was also a key player on a JSU line that paved the way for a school-record 7,613 yards of total offense that also included school-bests in passing yards (3,102) and rushing yards (4,511).
Owino and McCandless were members of the OVC's All-Newcomer Team in 2015, playing key roles in the Gamecocks' defensive success after transferring in. Owino came to JSU from Navarro College in Texas, while McCandless came to JSU from Hinds Community College in Mississippi.
Owino recorded 32 tackles in his debut season of Division I football, including 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for a loss. He also forced a fumble and was credited with seven quarterback hurries.
McCandless stepped into one of the starting linebacker spots for JSU in his first season of 2015 and finished fourth on the team with 79 tackles. He had 10.5 tackles in the backfield that included 2.5 sacks and also intercepted a pass.
Hill is the lone returning starter from the Gamecocks' defensive backfield in 2015. The senior from Marietta, Ga., led the Gamecocks with four interceptions, while also picking up 37 tackles out of the backfield. He and JSU led the OVC and ranked third in the nation in interceptions after picking off 20 passes last season.
DeBardelaben was a second-team All-OVC pick in 2015 after stepping into JSU's kick return role during the year. The Prattville native led the team with 18 returns, while also notching a team-best 410 yards and 22.8 yards per return average.
Courtesy: JSU Sports Information (www.jsugamecocksports.com)