The coaching staff is new, but South Alabama’s quarterback situation is once again fluid as the first week of 2018 fall camp draws to a close.
Fifth-year senior Cole Garvin and redshirt freshman Cephus Johnson continue to compete for No. 1 reps at quarterback, though Johnson had the edge coming out of spring practice. Head coach Steve Campbell said this week that the evaluation process at quarterback won’t truly begin until the first scrimmage of the fall, scheduled for Saturday night at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“We’ll watch film after the scrimmage,” Campbell said. “We will let them all get reps, then go to the scrimmage and evaluate and see where you’re at.”
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Johnson has never taken a snap in a regular-season college football game, but showed plenty of playmaking ability during the Red-Blue spring game. The former Davidson High School standout completed 9 of 12 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-0 victory for the Red team.
A new coaching staff and a new offense means Johnson is not as far behind in terms of mastering the playbook as he might have been during the Joey Jones regime. He said he’s focusing on absorbing as much as he can, whether that’s from veterans such as Garvin and Evan Orth, or offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kenny Edenfield.
“I just take it one day at a time,” Johnson said. “Whether Cole or I (am) the starter, I am still learning from him and Evan. They are doing a great job teaching us young quarterbacks the little things, and coach Edenfield is doing a great job helping us out too.”
Garvin (6-1, 210) has the edge on experience, with 10 career starts, including seven last season while splitting time with the since-departed Dallas Davis. Garvin, a Newnan, Ga., native, passed for 1,490 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017, with his biggest performance coming in a 24-19 upset of Arkansas State late in the season, when he passed for 343 yards and two touchdowns.
Garvin also led the Jaguars to a memorable win over nationally ranked San Diego State in 2016, when he filled in for an injured Davis by passing for 242 yards and three touchdowns. He and Davis battled for the starting quarterback position last fall, with Garvin claiming the job before suffering a sprained ankle in Week 2 against Oklahoma State.
This is the third year Garvin — who transferred to South Alabama in 2015 after redshirting at Marshall the previous year — has been competing for the starting job with the Jaguars. He’s 1-1 so far in terms of winning the position, and said the yearly competition doesn’t bother him.
“The past three years, four years, it’s been the same thing, so it’s nothing new,” Garvin said, via JagNation TV. “It’s normal now, so I like it.”
Though it’s possible the quarterback competition could extend into the season, that’s a less-than-ideal situation for South Alabama. Three of the Jaguars’ first four games are against non-conference teams that made bowls in 2017.
USA opens Sept. 1 against Louisiana Tech (7-6 last year), then travels to Oklahoma State (10-3) the following week. After a home conference game against Texas State Sept. 15, the Jaguars hit the road for Memphis (10-3).
Still, Campbell hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing two quarterbacks in a given game. He’s done so in the past at previous coaching stops, notably with his Division II national championship team at Delta State in 2000.
“In baseball, you can’t have too many good pitchers and in football it’s the same way with the quarterback position,” Campbell said. “Quarterback is a very important position, but so is left guard. We’ll let the best player play and if there’s two really good ones there, which I think is possible, we’ll see how it plays out. I’m glad that there’s some competition, it means you’ve got some guys you feel good about.”
Though Johnson and Garvin have been regarded as the chief competitors at the position since the end of spring, Campbell has also been complimentary of third-stringer Evan Orth’s running skills in the past. Orth — like Garvin a fifth-year senior — played only sparingly in 2017, but came up with one of the Jaguars’ biggest offensive plays of the year during a September game against Idaho.
Garvin was already sidelined by his ankle injury, then Davis took a shot to the lower back that forced him to leave the field for one play. Orth then entered the game and ran 41 yards to set up a field goal just before the half.
So it’s possible that either Garvin or Johnson wins the No. 1 job, yet South Alabama still comes up with a package to take advantage of Orth’s rushing ability. (True freshman Desmond Trotter, the other quarterback on scholarship, is expected to redshirt this season).
“I liked the way Evan played during the spring,” Campbell said.
With still three weeks — and three scrimmages — to go before South Alabama opens the season, there are more questions than answers regarding the Jaguars’ starting quarterback position. But that will begin to change with Saturday’s scrimmage.
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