28 August 2012

Common experience: UTSA, South Alabama share common threads

Weather permitting, South Alabama and UTSA will play their inaugural games as NCAA FBS teams, albeit transitional ones, on Thursday night Saturday afternoon. Weather permitting, I’ll call the game on ESPN3 alongside former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. Fortune permitting, we’ll get a game as competitive as these teams played last year.

Yes, it is the first game at the FBS level for both teams, two of the four transitional FBS teams in 2012, along with Texas State and UMass. But UTSA and South Alabama met last year when both were competing as FCS independents, with the Jaguars winning at the Alamodome in double overtime. (Check out the highlights.) While there are plenty of differences in terms of Xs and Os (and I plan to look at some later in the week) and in terms of the path both teams took to prepare for an FBS schedule, they share any number of attributes and common storylines.

This game has been a long time coming for just about everybody on both teams: UTSA spent a full season just practicing in 2010, while South Alabama spent two years beating up on prep and lower-division schools in 2009-10. Last year, playing as independent FCS teams, both groups always had one eye on this year and this game. There’s going to be a lot of emotion attached to the first game at the FBS level, so in that sense, the teams come in on equal footing.

In scouting the teams, similarities also jumped out at three positions, providing three pairs of players to watch and focus on as we count down to the 2012 college football season:

1. Ubiquitous linebackers
Both teams’ defenses are led by take-charge players who seem to be everywhere on the field, yet they come at it in different ways. South Alabama senior Jake Johnson played two years at Virginia Tech, admits he got into weightlifting while watching professional wrestling as a kid, and plays with the savage power you would expect from a guy whose favorite NFL player is Jared Allen. His head coach, Joey Jones, calls him “a player I think will play in the NFL.” 'Nough said. On the other side, UTSA’s defensive soul starts with the less-heralded Steven Kurfehs (pronounced KERR-fis), a Division II transfer and Division I walk-on who earned a scholarship after that 2010 practice season. He proceeded to lead the Roadrunners in tackles through seven games last year before missing two games due to injury, although he was suspended for the final game of the year for a violation of team rules. A former safety, his speed and energy propel him from sideline to sideline, and head coach Larry Coker said he can play anywhere in Division I. Both teams have other excellent linebackers as well – Brandon Reeves for UTSA, Clifton Crews and Enrique Williams for South Alabama – but Johnson and Kurfehs are the guys who set the tone.

2. Eloquent centers
Each side sees its offense anchored by a true student-athlete at center. South Alabama’s Trey Clark has already graduated with a degree in exercise science (he is currently enrolled in a master’s program) and is the only Jaguar on the offensive side to start all 27 of the program’s games, dating back to 2009. UTSA sophomore Nate Leonard graduated third in his high-school class of more than 400 and readily employs appropriate metaphors when describing his search for Division I football in a must-read debut blog for the Huffington Post website. Snap counts should be in good hands with this duo.

3. Resilient kickers
Both South Alabama’s Michel Chapuseaux (pronounced Michael CHAP-uh-sew) and UTSA’s Sean Ianno (eye-AH-no), the latter from Pflugerville High School (where game sequences from ‘Friday Night Lights’ were filmed), played mostly soccer in high school, adding kicking duties in their junior and senior years, respectively. Yet they have already had to deal with plenty of adversity in their short football careers. In last year's meeting between the teams, Ianno lined up a 26-yard attempt for the win on the game's final play, only to see it blocked; Chapuseaux missed a field goal in the 2010 opener and has not attempted a competitive field goal since. Although both will surely say they have moved on, there will be a little extra pressure on each kick Thursday night this Saturday.

Weather permitting, of course.

Saturday afternoon's game will kick off at 2 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

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