I was reading in USA Today that they picked us 118th in the country, they were showing no respect for us on West End. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Does my defense have a chip on their shoulders? Absolutely.
Coach Derek Mason believes his more veteran football team can play some really good football in 2016, and even better football in 2017. There are pieces in place this season to win several games this season and go to a bowl game. It's not guaranteed, but Mason points to the fact that we now have 42 juniors and seniors on the roster after having massive youth on the team the last couple of years. He's very excited about 2017 too, when we'll have 57 to 59 juniors and seniors on this football team.
But first things first. South Carolina comes to town September 1st for a Thursday night game at 8 ET/7 CT on ESPN and it is a major motivator for this developing football team. Mason points to the fact that we don't have a tremendous amount of marquee players, but we have a lot of under the radar good football players.
"Zach Cunningham and Ralph Webb are two of the most underrated players in the conference," Mason says. "You can't sleep on those guys. They can really help you win a lot of football games."
Ralph is coming off an excellent year in 2015 in which he ran for 1,152 yards and five touchdowns. The 5'10, 210 pound redshirt junior is primed for an even bigger season in 2016. And he has good help alongside him in the backfield, which I'll get to in a minute.
Zach, a 6'4", 230 pound redshirt junior middle linebacker, posted 103 tackles last season with 16.5 for loss and four forced fumbles. Zach is a force in the middle of a deep, physical, talented linebacking corps for Coach Mason, and linebackers coaches Chris Marve and first year outside linebackers coach Osia Lewis.
Mason started off with the offensive line, which he says is a deep, big, physical group with leadership and SEC caliber players. He says his O line is 10-11 deep right now. Left tackle Andrew Jelks is back from a knee injury and that is huge for this offensive line. Jelks, a senior, is 6'6", 305, tough as Fort Knox, and one of the key leaders on the line. It's huge to have Andrew back. We have other leaders in center Barrett Gouger (6'4", 305), who's recored over 50 starts, and senior right tackle Will Holden (6'7", 312). There is great leadership amongst those three. Mason also listed junior guard Delando Crooks (6'5", 305), sophomore Cole Hardin (6'4", 305), redshirt freshman Ean Pfeifer (6'4", 290), sophomore Justin Skule (6'6", 305), freshman Jared Southers (6'4", 309), sophomore Bailey Granier (6'6", 320) and sophomore Bruno Reagan (6'3", 310) as SEC-ready football players. Our line should be a strength of this team. We can compete with any defensive line in the conference and out of the conference.
Tight end looks stacked and is led by junior Nathan Marcus (6'5", 244), who Mason says can really lead the position and make game changing plays, and the awesome DeAndre Woods (6'3", 238), who is back from a knee injury he suffered early in the 2016 season, after DeAndre got off to a spectacular start last season. We have five or six more guys at tight end who can play big time college football. Coach Mason pointed to the game changing ability of tight ends, with guys like O.J. Howard of Alabama, who caught 5 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson in Alabama's national championship victory over the Tigers, 45-40, and Arkansas Coach Brett Bielema's highly effective use of Hunter Henry last year at tight end along with Jeremy Sprinkle. Henry has graduated and is playing for the San Diego Chargers now. Sprinkle is back though and he will be a major factor in the SEC. Stanford, where Mason coordinated stellar defenses, features its tight ends extensively in its offenses and has been superb at tight end for years. Mason wants that in Nashville. We have the tools to get that type of production this season and in the future looks spectacular with all of our tight ends being underclassmen. Coach Mason also mentioned Sam Dobbs, who is 6'4", 220, and whom I watched last year in practice. Sam is a stud. Coach Mason really likes incoming freshman Turner Cockrell as well. Turner is 6'5", 220 and Mason says he is ready for SEC ball. Coach Mason loves Cockrell.
Running back looks super with Ralph, sophomore Khari Blansingame (6'1",235), who comes over from defense, and adds power to the backfield. Mason is really fired up about Khari. Dallas Rivers is back and also brings that power and has trimmed down from last year and has gotten his speed back. He has all the potential to be an excellent running back for us. Josh Crawford is another more speedy, shifty back, but Josh also has power. And Mason is ecstatic about incoming freshman Jamauri Wakefield (6'1", 215), who can be another game changer for us at in the backfield. Look for Wakefield to be in competition to get in the running back rotation. Coach Mason does not worry about playing freshmen if they are ready and he's high on Jamauri.
Kyle Shurmur is back at quarterback after playing five games as a true freshman last year, and Coach Mason is highly optimistic about what Kyle, who was a four star recruit two years ago, can do in his second season as a full time starter. I love the fact that Kyle's father, Pat, is a big time coach in the NFL. He was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles last year, and is the tight ends coach for the Minnesota Vikings now. We're in good hands with Kyle as our starter, and Wade Freebeck has made huge strides and is a highly capable backup who can step in and start and be effective if needed. Wade is ready to start in the SEC as well. But we're in really good hands with Kyle at QB1. Kyle is 6'4", 225 and Wade is 6'5", 225. Shawn "Stank" Stankage, and heralded freshman Deuce Wallace are behind Kyle and Wade.
Wide receiver is led by the outstanding duo of Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan. Trent had a pretty solid year last year and is a big play and possession guy. C.J. has come back from an Achilles injury that kept him out of all of 2016, but had a huge spring game and looks like he's back and ready to make explosive plays and critical catches in the clutch. Coach Mason is just as high on sophomore Caleb Scott, who brings big play and clutch pass catching ability. Darrius Sims is back as a full time wide out and always brings take it to the house ability. Darrius can return kickoffs and punts as well and make huge plays in special teams. Latevius Rayford is a talented player, so we're ready to see him take the next step and be a highly productive player for us, which he's capable of. Coach Mason calls freshman Donaven Tennyson one of the fastest players he's ever seen. He sees Donaven as ready to make a huge impact in the return game this season and catching passes. Mason also likes freshman Kalija Lipscomb, who he says is ready to step up in the passing game as well this season. Kalija is 6'1", 215, can make tough catches and take it the distance. The third freshman receiver, Jackson Winrow, has all the tools to be a super player for us, but needs to add some strength at this point. So we're not super deep at receiver, but we're talented. Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig will have a lot more weapons to work with on his offense this season and he's as creative an offensive mind as they come, so it's exciting to see what Coach Ludwig can do with this talent. And the future looks extremely bright with a lot of young explosive players and guys who will be back next year, who are veterans this season including Trent and C.J.
Jordan Matthews did extensive work with the wide receivers this summer and told Coach Mason they are ready. Hugely great thing to have JMatt working with the guys. Many thanks to the man who should have another huge year for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Coach Mason will coordinate the defense once again this season. He just says he hasn't found anybody who can run his system like he wants to, so he wants to call the shots again this year. He'll still make all the game time decisions, but just be in charge overall of the defense with help from his defensive assistants since he has to oversee the entire team. The defensive line looks solid led by Adam Butler (6'5", 300) and Nifae Lealao (6'5", 312) among others. We have SEC ready up front. Linebacker is loaded, led by Zach and Nigel Bowden, who is returning from a severe concussion he suffered two years ago. Coach Mason is really ecstatic Nigel being back and about his linebacking corps overall. Should be a stellar group. They're talented, physical, deep, and are playmakers. Look for veteran Landon Stokes and sophomore Josh Smith to be high impact players. Landon had a good year last year and is back and will be even better.
Coach Mason specializes in the secondary and he was disappointed in his group last year. He said his group gave up too many big plays last year, but he says there is good returning talent back led by awesome cornerback Torren McGaster, safety Ryan White, safety Emmanuel Smith, corner Willie Herndon, and Coach Mason sees freshman Joejuan Williams as ready to play college football this season. It's a pretty deep group with a lot of other talent back there. Coach Mason wants his secondary to get more ints, we had only six last year, so he really wants to see his unit take a step up in that department. We recovered 11 fumbles for 17 turnovers gained total and Coach Mason wants to see that make a major improvement this year. Mason's defenses are known for getting turnovers and that is something he wants to change this season in his defense. Our defense has a chance to be special.
Coach Mason loves his staff as well. He has the young, energetic guys in linebackers coach Chris Marve, secondary coach Marc Mattioli, first year defensive line coach C.J. Ah You, first year O line coach Cameron Norcross, and wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton, who are hungry young coaches and are all electric on the recruiting trail. First year outside linebackers coach and senior defensive assistant Osia Lewis, brings a superb resume from coaching defense at San Diego State, where his defenses were some of the best in the country, and running backs and special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk brings terrific experience as both coaching RB's and the special teams as Northwestern and other stops. Mason is really stoked about what Coach Genyk can do with our special teams. Veteran Gerry Gdowski is back to coach the quarterbacks. Our strength coach, James Dobson, who is in his second year after serving as the head strength coach at Nebraska, is as good of a strength coach as you'll find in the country. We'll be ready physically for 2016.
So we've got super talent, both with our players and our coaches. I don't want to put a number on how many wins we can get this season because I don't want to put any limits on this football team. We can win several games and go to a bowl game for sure, and carry that momentum over to recruiting for 2017 and 2018. I love where Coach Mason has this program headed. South Carolina, September 1st, is a tremendous test for our football team. We also play Middle Tennessee at home, Georgia Tech on the road, and @ Western Kentucky, so those first four are highly challenging. Then we host Florida in a critical SEC East matchup, we're @ Kentucky, @ Georgia, vs. Tennessee State, @ Auburn, @ Missouri, vs. Ole Miss and vs. that school from the eastern part of the state.
But it's time to get serious about our work and be ready for a Thursday night, Sept. 1st SEC war versus Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks at 8 PM ET/7 PM CT at Vanderbilt Stadium on ESPN. Can't wait for what Coach Mason has in store for us this season and in the future.