4 key takeaways from the first day of JSU football’s spring camp

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 2:45 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Tuesday officially began a new era of Jackson State football on the gridiron.

First-year head coach T.C. Taylor and his staff led some new and familiar faces out to the practice field for their first day of spring camp.

With the departure of some key players to the NFL draft and the NCAA transfer portal, including draft prospect Aubrey Miller, and transfers Travis Hunter and Shedeur Sanders, there will be some questions that will need to be answered this spring in major areas on the field from Coach Taylor and his staff.

Players will have an opportunity to step up and keep the ring-chasing mentality going in the 2023 season geared behind the season’s theme, “Start in Atlanta and finish in Atlanta.”

Here are four things Jackson State fans need to know and keep their eye on during Coach Taylor’s first spring at the helm of this storied program.

Who will be QB1?

A new era comes with a new starting quarterback to lead the program for the Tigers. Following the departure of Shedeur Sanders, Jackson State will have a highly-competitive and anticipated battle for the QB1 spot on Coach Taylor’s first depth chart.

But, there is no shortage of talent in the QB room for JSU.

Virginia Tech transfer Jason Brown, Louisiana transfer and former Ridgeland High School standout quarterback Zy McDonald, and Holmes Community College transfer Phillip Short headline the three-horse-race for the starting job.

Coach Taylor said all three quarterbacks had a good first day of spring practice and is excited about the competition that is set to last through fall camp.

“[Firstly], I just wanted to see them break the huddle,” Coach Taylor said. “I think they did an excellent job of that and getting the other ten guys lined up. Jason, Zy, Phillip - all three did some good stuff out there and made some big-time throws for us today. I’m very excited about that, and I told all three guys that this is a wide open job.”

Coach Taylor and his offensive coordinator, Maurice Harris, will have a tough decision to make when the time comes to name the next starting QB for JSU. All three quarterbacks will have a great opportunity with 14 more practices left before the Blue and White spring game.

Expect to see more clarity on the position with the performances on April 15.

Emergence of tight end D.J. Stevens

Tight end D.J. Stevens opted to return for the 2023 season after originally entering the transfer portal, and a big part of returning had to do with the new offensive coordinator.

Stevens emerged late last season as a go-to target for Sanders. With the addition of Coach Harris, look for Stevens to be heavily utilized in the new style of offense.

In Harris’ coaching career, he helped develop tight ends Evan Engram and Dawson Knox into first and third-round picks in the NFL Draft.

Last season at Liberty University, the Flames ranked No. 21 nationally in passing yards per game in 2019 and ranked number eight in the country in passing yards per completion in 2021.

Coach Harris said that the tight end position will be pivotal in the upcoming season.

“Next to the quarterback in this offense, our tight end [position] is the most difficult to learn,” Coach Harris said when WLBT asked about D.J. Stevens and his potential impact. “It is probably our most valuable position because we can do so much formation-wise. D.J. was locked in today and made some really good plays for us out there on the field, and I’m excited about him.”

Given his track record with talented tight ends, Jackson State fans should be excited as well for tight end D.J. Stevens to surface as a key player in the new JSU offense in the 2023 season.

Coach Harris also mentioned Stevens as one of the players offensively that “set the tone” during the first day of spring practice.

Aubrey Miller’s potential replacements

Aubrey Miller ended his final season with JSU last year after an outstanding career as a Tiger and declared for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Miller was the heart-and-soul and leader of the Tigers’ number one ranked FCS defense, and replacing JSU’s leading tackler for the past three seasons will be a tough task for new defensive coordinator Jonathan Bradley.

Coach Bradley said two linebackers stuck out to him during the first day of training.

“We’re excited about Allen Walker and Javarian Jenkins and what they’re doing,” Coach Bradley said. “[They’re] running around and making plays and controlling the defense, making sure everyone is lined up and ready to go. We’re excited about the guys we have.”

Walker and Jenkins both transferred from different schools and are approaching their first season as a Tiger.

Walker is a transfer from Louisiana Tech University while Jenkins signed from Jones Community College.

It will likely be a team effort replacing Miller, but with the addition of LSU transfer defensive end Phillip Webb Jr. and the return of elite pass rusher Nyles Gaddy, a major drop-off defensively should not be expected.

The new look secondary

A position group that Coach Taylor said has the most questions is the secondary.

With the departure of Shilo Sanders, Travis Hunter, Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig, and Isaiah Bolden, the secondary will have a new list of starters.

“We all know about the quarterback position, but we lost a lot in the secondary,” Coach Taylor said. “Those guys gotta continue to build chemistry. There’s a lot of new faces out there, and I thought they flew around for the most part. We have great length and great speed back there, but they gotta learn how to play together.”

Coach Bradley, who coached a top secondary last season at Alcorn State as the defensive coordinator for the Braves, said there are a few new players that he is excited about this spring.

“We have some new pieces that we’re excited about,” Coach Bradley said when WLBT asked about the secondary. “Keydrain [Calligan] and Esaias [Guthrie], players like that... they’ve been coming along. We’re excited about what they are bringing after being out there for the first time today. We are looking for great things out of those guys.”

Coach Taylor mentioned Calligan as a player who had a good day as well and could be someone that will step up alongside returning cornerbacks Ke’Vric Wiggins Jr. and Jalin Hughes.

Troy University transfer Tim Smith and four-star signee Tristen Sion are defensive backs that could emerge as well.

Fans will be able to see the new crop of JSU talent during the annual Blue and White spring game Saturday, April 15, at the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The game is set to begin at 3 p.m.

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