Justin Lea, Courtney Strain and Leah Strain all were born and grew up hours away from Jacksonville. But major life milestones over the years have made Jacksonville State home for the trio.
For Courtney, it was meeting current fiancé Dalton Screws, who was a teammate of Lea under Bill Clark and John Grass, on top of countless basketball games played inside Pete Mathews Coliseum. For Leah, it was the friendships and memories created, joining the nursing program and, like her older sister, the time spent on the now ruined hardwood of Pete Mathews Coliseum. For Justin, JSU gave him an opportunity to continue playing the sport — football — he loves; a sport he hopes will continue giving in the future with a professional opportunity.
So, it’s easy to understand why they took the initiative to come and lend a hand … more specifically 100 hands.
Courtney, now a science teacher and coach at Handley High School, and her dad, Larry, brought 41 student-athletes from Roanoke, a city an hour and 18 minutes from JSU’s campus, to assist Lea and his brother, Jay, cutting and clearing trees from the yard of Jamie “Red” Etheredge, who has been a strong supporter of JSU student programs, and the area surrounding the Alumni house.
“I just know Red does a lot for JSU athletes … He’s one of the biggest supporters we have,” said Lea. “My hometown was hit in 2011 and we saw a lot of people come from out of town to help us, so I just wanted to find a way to come out and help.
“I give credit to my parents and grandparents and those who raised me when I think about the man I am today and to think about yourself last and if someone needs help, go help them.”
For Larry, who is the head coach at Handley, it was a no-brainer to bring some of his athletes to Jacksonville and help.
“There is no better team-building exercise than helping others,” Larry said. “It was actually about 10:30 Wednesday night when I decided we needed to do it. We got to school yesterday and the first people I called were my principal and superintendent and they were more than supportive about the idea. The kids knew nothing about it yesterday, so when I asked this morning, all their hands went up.
“I knew it was the right thing to do. As a team, we need to learn to help other people when they need help.”
Thursday morning, both Courtney and Leah reached out to get in touch with JSU athletic director Greg Seitz, who pointed Larry in another direction before he was able to connect the EMA and get the OK to help.
According to Larry, his initial intentions were to help clean up JSU’s softball field, tennis courts and the rest of the spring sports venues. However, with the school’s campus closed to all non-essentially personnel until April 2nd, the near 50-person clean-up crew spend most of Friday morning in Red’s backyard moving parts of trees.
“It was a great two-in-one scenario,” Courtney said. “You’re helping a community that’s very near our families but also bonding as a team. I told someone this earlier, but these kids need to realize life isn’t always about them and their wants and their needs. They may not realize it right now, but one day they’re going to look back and realize you’re supposed to do things for other people because one day you may be in the same situation.”
It may be called the “off-season,” but it’s not the part of the season where the players and coaches take off. The offseason is busy, busier than you may think. The Jacksonville State football team knows just how busy it is. Even in the off-season, the Gamecocks are continually trying to get better. Whether it’s in the weight room, in the gym, in the classroom or on the field, the Gamecocks are still working.
John Grass, head coach of the Jacksonville State football team, has his eyes on a National Championship and that’s exactly what the goal is, to win it all.
Last season, the team’s motto was ‘go for gold.’ The team finished with the Ohio Valley Conference Championship, but loss in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Now, this off-season, the Gamecocks are focusing on hard work and being better.
“We try to challenge each other to be a better person everyday,” says Grass.
Even in the off-season, the football players of Jacksonville State are still busy with academics.
“They’re student athletes, so student comes first,” says Todd Wilson of the Academic Enhancement and Tutoring Services. It all starts in the classroom with just about any sport. They have to make the grade if they want to play. College is an upgrade from high school, so of course, the level of difficulty rises, and as the water gets deeper, the student either floats or sinks. Because it’s college and because the coaches really want the players to play, there is plenty of academic help surrounding the athletes. The athletes have classes, but they also have tutoring and study halls to help them out. Players visit the Academic Center for Excellence for tutoring and study hall.
“Tutoring is all done around practice times and class schedules,” says Wilson. Tutoring is more mandatory and scheduled unlike the study halls which is voluntary where the student comes when they have the time. However, there is still a mission and objective that is set to get done before they leave the study hall.
Aid from the ACE Center helps the players graduate early. Last season, there were at least seven players that graduated before the season started with still a year left of eligibility. The classes and tutoring in the summer really helps them get closer to graduation.
“We don’t just give the summer off,” says Mike Davis, the team’s academic advisor. “Everything is going to stay the same structure as far as what your expected to do and where you’re expected to be.” The players have to maintain academic standards to stay eligible to play. They have to maintain a 1.8 GPA the first year, 1.9 the second, and a 2.0 for the rest of the way.
They also have to maintain degree percentages. Davis says, “starting your fifth semester, you have to be 40 percent of your degree, starting your seventh, 60 percent of your degree. If they’re redshirt and they go into a fifth year, they have to had completed 80 percent of their degree and that’s before the season.”
GPA wasn’t a problem this past season in the fall as the football team recorded a 3.0 team GPA for the first time ever.
“It’s the highest semester we had and I’ve been here 20 years,” says Davis. Coach Grass kept saying that the team was going to make a 3.0 and kept pushing the players to push themselves.
“Our 3.0 in the fall was huge and it shows that those guys are doing there job there and our ACE Center is doing a fantastic job there with support,” says Grass.
“It’s very important for them to play well and have success on the field, but ultimately, what’s going to take them even farther in many aspects is having that degree and education,” adds Wilson. Players get registered early so they can work their classes around practices and workouts.
Practices and workouts are part of physical conditioning, which may be the busiest work the players partake in during the off-season. Physical conditioning brings forth sweat, and sweat shows hard work. Therefore, there is a lot of sweating going on in the off-season. Trey Clark is an assistant coach for the Gamecocks and is one of the head operators for the strength and conditioning.
“In the off-season, you’re trying to get as big and strong as you can, and then in the summer time, transition that strength into power to play football,” says Clark. The team works out Monday-Friday. Wednesdays are the big conditioning days where they go on the field. After they lift on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, the team does some type of running around whether it’s in the gym or on the field.
“We’re able to have a workout in the morning and make some voluntary stuff in the afternoon for those guys to come back if they want to do some extra, that’s available to them also,” says Clark.
The weight room consists of the heavy lifting to build upper and lower body strength. If someone walks in during a workout, they will hear the clack and the ring from metal weights hitting each other. They will hear the screaming and yelling due to hard work with chants of encouragement. They will see the sweat dripping from the faces of players which looks like a bucket of water was poured on them. They will wonder when is it going to end because it feels like its been going on forever.
“It’s kind of like a three-part workout, we got to warm-up, [we] do like a pre-workout, then the workout, and then run, and competition. So, it’s like a four-phase workout,”says Justin Lea who is an offensive lineman for the Gamecocks.There is also a rehab session where the players go to treat their injuries. The rehabilitating players are in this session to get back to 100 percent. “If you’re doing what you’re suppose to do, you’re going to see improvements everyday,” says Dawson Wells, linebacker of Jacksonville State.
The workouts in the gym have the players doing speed, strength and conditioning drills where they are in a group for a certain period of time, going hard, until it is time to switch to the next station. At least in the gym they have a controlled thermostat, whereas outside on the field it’s either heaven or hell.
Being on the field can have its good times and its bad times. Nevertheless, the players rather be on the field. It’s just something about being out there with all that green around you.
“But you can’t take away from the weight room, because that’s what translate on the field, so they all work together,” says JSU defensive back Jaylen Hill. The field can be a lot of fun for the players being outside playing the game that they love to play. However, it can also lead to lots of vomiting where the players hang out by the fence, make irregular noises, and wet the ground with slime coming from their mouth. Coaches try to make sure they don’t over-train or over-work their players, so they follow the NCAA rules and regulations on offseason workouts. They have an eight-hour-a-week rule.
“Those stipulations are there for people who really overdue stuff,” says Grass. “We stay within the guidelines and as long as our guys, to me, are enjoying what their doing or having fun, we’re good.”
The team also stays pretty busy with some type of community service work. “We got different things where they’re going into schools and going to feed the homeless,” says Grass.
As spring training arrives, so does the spring game which was on April 11. In the 2015 J-DAY Spring Game, Team White defeated Team Red 17-9. Eli Jenkins led the White with two touchdowns. Jenkins passed for 151 yards completing 10-of-16 throws. He also rushed for 29 yards and a rushing touchdown of 14 yards to go with his passing touchdown.
This year, the Gamecocks are looking to build depth. JSU football has a lot of experience coming back, but the spring game is also to help find out who can replace the guys that they’re losing.
“Number one always for spring training is fundamentals,” says Grass. “We consider ourselves a fundamental football team.” The spring game shows what the team is looking like, but it doesn’t show who’s all on the team since recruits and transfers mostly arrive in the summer.
Recruiting is a 24/7, 365 days a year job for the coaches and staff. “Recruiting is just like anything else, it’s how hard you work at it,” says Grass. There are four big areas in recruiting; identify, evaluate, marketing, and customer service. “It all starts with a name,” says JR Sandlin, the recruiting coordinator for JSU. In recruiting, you’re always trying to find new names.
“Once we identify, we evaluate the guys,” says Sandlin. JSU doesn’t just look for good talent, they also look for good character in a player. Having talent is good, but if a player has a nice attitude to add to that talent and show that he’s easy to coach, then that’s just like icing on a cake.
When it comes to the recruiting rules and regulations, there is a calendar that shows everything. There are certain periods of time that may allow unlimited calls to players and coaches, and might allow multiple visits. Then, there are some situations that may require only one phone call a week or one visit. That’s just how it works.The off-season brings forth a little more flexibility in recruiting. It also can show a need for speed to get the guys you need.
High school can go by so fast that it forces JSU to recruit two classes at a time. According to Coach Grass and Sandlin, the recruiting class this year seems to be one of the better classes the Gamecocks have had.
“We feel like we got a great class coming,” says Grass, “probably the best high school class that we’ve ever had.”
JSU beat out a lot of teams along with some Big Ten teams. Players know they can come to JSU and compete. Sandlin says that there are only three teams in the state of Alabama who are continually competing for a National Championship and they are Alabama, Auburn and Jacksonville State. That sort of sells itself. Now, players look at the situation and will most likely decide they want to come to JSU and play football.
Sandlin believes the best part of recruiting is building a relationship with the kids and making them feel special. The future recruits as well as the fans want to see a good game and that’s where scheduling comes in to play.
Scheduling can take up some time and a lot of effort, so it keeps the coaches and staff busy as well. The schedule is announced during the off-season and it has a lot of thought and effort put into it. Athletic Director Greg Seitz puts the schedule together with help from Coach Grass. Game scheduling focuses on the team and tries to give a team the best opportunity to win.
“We try not to schedule tough games back-to-back,” says Seitz. According to Seitz, the JSU football team is ahead on scheduling. “We try to schedule three-to-four years ahead.”
The Gamecocks will play at LSU next year. This year, they play a big game at Auburn. The Gamecocks play Tennessee State for the first home game of the season on Sept. 19. For Homecoming, the Gamecocks play Eastern Kentucky which falls on Halloween. Jacksonville State opens the season on Sept. 5 when they play at Chattanooga.
Sometimes scheduling gets thrown off and a team like Furman, who was once scheduled to play at JSU stadium this upcoming season, can buy out of a matchup. This left the Gamecocks searching for a new opponent and another home game. Eventually, they found Mississippi Valley State, and now the two teams first matchup ever is scheduled on Oct. 3.
The Gamecocks started this years’ off-season when they came back from Christmas break. “Hopefully, next year we’ll be starting after the National Championship game,” says Grass.
The Gamecocks lost 45-7 to the Spartans in the debut of new head coach John Grass.
It was clear to see that the Jacksonville State Gamecocks were outmatched by the Spartans of Michigan State. Michigan State is the defending Big Ten champion and a serious contender to be in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
JSU came out strong with the first play of the game. It was a 32-yard pass from quarterback Eli Jenkins to wide receiver Josh Barge. That play turned out to be the Gamecocks longest play of the game. However, they did not score on that drive.
The Gamecocks scored their only touchdown in the third quarter when Max Shortell completed a 9-yard pass to Markis Merrill. Freshman placekicker Conner Rouleau scored his first point as a Gamecock with the extra point. The drive consisted of 9 plays and 54 yards.
Michigan State scored 38 of their 45 points in the first half. Connor Cook completed 2 passing touchdowns to Tony Lippett and a third one to AJ Troup. The three passing touchdowns consisted of 64, 71 and 17 yards. Nick Hill scored twice on a 17-yard run and an 8-yard run. Michael Geiger ended the half with a 35-yard field goal. Michigan State last touchdown came in the third quarter when Tyler O’Connor ran it in for three yards.
The Gamecocks had a low total of 22 rushing yards to Michigan State’s 211 rushing yards. DaMarcus James of the Gamecocks had no touchdowns, snapping a streak of 12-straight games with at least one rushing touchdown.
There were 11 Gamecocks that made their first career start on Friday’s game vs. Michigan State. The four on offense were Ruben Gonzalez, Justin Lea, Casey Dunn and Bo Brummel. The seven on defense were LaMichael Fanning, Devaunte Sigler, Tre Garland, Michael Carlisle, Folo Johnson, DeBarriaus Miller and Jaylen Hill.
Bo Brummel caught a 6-yard pass from Jenkins to give him his first career catch in a JSU uniform. Ruben Gonzalez also made his first career catch as a JSU player with a 23-yard pass from Shortell.
JSU senior linebacker Ben Endress recorded 10 tackles which led all defenders.This marked his third-career double-digit tackle game.
John Grass became the first coach in Jacksonville State history to face an FBS opponent in his debut with the Gamecocks.
There were 75,127 in attendance at the game. This marks the second-largest crowd to ever watch the Gamecocks play behind 82,691 at Florida on Nov. 17, 2012.
Next up for Coach Grass and the Gamecocks is Chattanooga. The game will take place Saturday at 5 p.m. in Chattanooga, Tenn.