Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, AL.com’s South Alabama beat writer Creg Stephenson discussed South Alabama’s up-and-down season, struggling secondary and quarterback situation.
Question: Barring a major upset in the last two weeks of the season, South Alabama is going to miss a bowl game. What’s gone wrong for the Jaguars?
Stephenson: First off, I think South Alabama is better this season than it has been in 4-5 years. First-year coach Kane Wommack upgraded the talent across the board through the transfer portal (13 Division I transfers) and it has shown. But the Jaguars are still too inconsistent to move into the upper echelon of the Sun Belt with teams like App State, Louisiana and Coastal Carolina. Assuming USA finishes 5-7, a missed field goal late against Louisiana (a 20-18 loss) and some late breakdowns in a four-overtime loss to Texas State (33-31) will be the classic “what might have beens” when it comes to bowl-eligibility.
Q: How has South Alabama’s offense changed since Jake Bentley was injured and Desmond Trotter took over at quarterback?
Stephenson: Trotter does not have nearly the arm strength of Bentley, so the intermediate and deep passing game has been taken away to some extent. They rely mostly on quick-hitters and underneath routes across the middle. Trotter is a better runner, so he’s been able to escape the rush fairly well. I figured we would see more designed quarterback runs with Trotter, but we have not as of yet.
Q: Who are the standout players on both sides of the ball for South Alabama?
Stephenson: Wide receiver Jalen Tolbert (8) is the best player on the team, and has been the best player on the field most weeks. He ranks third nationally in receiving yards with 1,140 and averages more than 17 yards per reception. Center James Jackson (68), a Mississippi State transfer, has been the top offensive lineman, but he’s been injured and might not yet be back at full strength. Tight end Lincoln Sefcik (88) is a reliable possession receiver.
Defensively, it starts with the line. Wy’Kevious Thomas (99) is probably the standout there. He can play all three positions. At linebacker, Missouri transfer Jamal Brooks (25) has been a solid addition. But the best player on the defense is cornerback Darrell Luter (18), who is among the national leaders in interceptions (4) and pass breakups (10).
Q: What is going to be the biggest challenge for South Alabama against Tennessee? What weaknesses can Tennessee exploit?
Stephenson: The secondary, other than Luter, is not great at defending the deep passing game. The pass rush has also been inconsistent, which goes hand-in-hand. Offensively, South Alabama has had trouble running the ball effectively, so I would guess the Vols dare the Jaguars to throw it to win.
Q: What is an area where South Alabama can hold its own or have success against Tennessee?
Stephenson: South Alabama needs to take some deep shots with Tolbert and fellow receivers Jalen Wayne (0) and Caullin Lacy (4), all of whom have above average speed. A series of explosive plays — plus turnovers on defense — is really the only chance they have to spring the upset.
Q: Score Prediction?
Stephenson: I don’t see how there is any way South Alabama can keep up offensively with Tennessee, which has proven it can score on just about anyone.
Tennessee 42, South Alabama 10