Tech fans can rejoice; the first football game of the season is right around the corner. The home game will feature the Alcorn State Braves at Bobby Dodd in a competition that will provide the long-awaited unveiling of Nate Woody’s new defensive scheme. Furthermore, the non-conference game will be the first time that the Jackets will play in the new Adidas uniforms.
The last time the Jackets and Braves competed was in 2015, where the Jackets won handily at home, 69-6. The Jackets have never lost to an FCS opponent and it seems unlikely that they would break that trend this year, even with the changes to the defensive formation and coaching staff. These changes will most likely make a bigger visible impact down the road for the Jackets when facing conference rivals, as well as the school down the road, but the Braves are not to be overlooked.
The Braves averaged 30 points per game on offense last season and will be returning quarterback Noah Johnson, who has appeared in 17 games thus far in his career. Johnson’s backup, Felix Harper, also saw a small amount of playing time last year, getting to throw for three games. Although the quarterbacks are experienced, their receivers only returned one of the top five, making Johnson’s targets slightly unpredictable. Johnson has also thrown nine interceptions in his 17 games, so it would not be surprising if the Jackets caught a few.
Look for returning player P.J. Simmons to lead the way in rushing yards for Alcorn, but there is not a clear second option behind him. Three of the six running backs are freshmen, creating a great position for growth in the team behind Simmons, who finished last year with 687 yards and seven touchdowns to his name. Another player to keep an eye on will be wide receiver Chris Blair, who transferred in from Hinds Community College and had an offer to play at Mississippi State, an SEC program, before joining the Braves.
The Jackets have greater depth than the Braves do, but the opposing team will test their work over the summer installing a new defensive scheme. After last season, the Jackets can rely on quarterback TaQuon Marshall to lead the team, but his backup position remains up in the air. Lucas Johnson, the assumed backup quarterback at the beginning of the summer, is out due to a non-contact injury suffered during camp.
Behind Marshall and Johnson are Tobias Oliver, James Graham, and Ryan Lantz. Oliver made fierce competition for Johnson in regards to the backup quarterback position, so it seems that he will be a shoo-in now with Johnson out of the picture.
Graham and Lantz are both freshmen who will probably not play in this game, but will likely add loads of talent to the roster in the coming years. Marshall focused on his passing game, a point of weakness for the starter, over the past spring and summer months and will be a dual threat.
Including Marshall, nine starters return for the offensive line including play making running backs Qua Searcy, KirVonte Benson, and Clinton Lynch. Lynch is back after an injury that kept him from seeing much time on the field last year, while Benson will likely lead the way in yards after a phenomenal 1,053 yards alongside six touchdowns last season. The Jackets finished last season ranked fifth in rushing yards, averaging 307 yards per game, owing significant thanks to Benson’s play.
Head coach Paul Johnson is returning for his eleventh year with the Jackets but faces the challenge of acclimating the team to the new defensive formation under defensive coordinator Nate Woody.
Woody’s 3-4 formation will be a welcome change for Tech fans who watched the defensive line struggle last year. There is plenty of talent on the Jackets defensive line, but it is up to Woody as to how he will position each player. Team captain Brant Mitchell will man the middle linebacker spot, with bigger athletes such as Brentavious Glanton and Desmond Branch expected to play on the ends of the line.
Last year, linebacker Victor Alexander led the defensive group with 60 tackles and two sacks, but his position is changing to one more on the outside of the line this year.
Although the Jackets have their fair share of injuries in supposed-to-be starting lineman Kenny Cooper and Lucas Johnson, the number of returners looks promising.
The defensive line seems confident in their new formation, but it will truly become clear as to where they stand after this weekend’s game against the Braves. While the game should technically be one of the easier wins for the Jackets and Johnson, it will also serve as a baseline to see where the team is at headed into the season after a grueling summer.
Tech and Alcorn State last faced each other three years ago, when the 2015 Jackets were coming off an Orange Bowl win and were highly ranked.
The 2018 Jackets, however, are coming back from a losing campaign. All roads back to national relevence must go through Alcorn.