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CFF Targets - Will this Jax State freshman be Kyler Murray reincarnated in 2023?
The newest member of the FBS could produce an exceptionally greedy volume pig this season
Last season the James Madison Dukes (JMU) surprised everyone with their immediate success on the field and more importantly — their CFF relevancy. CFF managers everywhere scrambled to the wire in the early weeks of September for the likes of QB Todd (Toddy Touchdown) Centeio and slot WR Kris Thornton. These players paid dividends. In fact, I know this from first hand account. As is typically my strategy to punt on the QB position in drafts assuming (correctly) I can pick up some of the best performing QBs off the wire, I was quite chuffed to pick up the duo of Centeio and UW’s Penix (article coming soon on him, by the way) after week one of the season in my leagues.
It also put me on alert to the fact that these new programs who are moving up a rank can offer immense upside for CFF purposes; as, in many cases, their players go largely under the radar in the offseason.
So with that in mind, I felt it appropriate to share with you all one of my findings when looking at one of the FBS’ newest members — the Jacksonville State (Jax State/JSU) Gamecocks.
Coaching & System
There are some things to get excited about when assessing the JSU coaching staff. First is — a name some of you may recognize — head coach Rich Rodriguez. Coach Rod has a checkered past in CFB to say the least. Some, accredit him as the mastermind who invented the zone-read offence, other instances paint a less flattering picture of his play calling competencies:
Rich Rod joined the Gamecocks in 2022 after serving one year as OC/QB coach at Louisiana Monroe. His most notable coaching stint from a CFF perspective is the six seasons (2012-2017) he spent with the Arizona Wildcats. How many of ya’ll remember the name Khalil Tate? We’ll get to him in a bit.
There are also some notable events from his three seasons as head coach at Michigan (2008-2010). Specifically, in 2010 it was his sophomore dual threat QB Denard Robinson who lit the College Football world on fire. Robinson threw for over 2500 yards and 18 TDs, while accumulating an additional 1700 yards on the ground and 16 rushing TDs. The rushing upside was lethal, as his rushing statistics alone would have accounted for 20.64 fantasy points per game (FPG) in 2010. Robinson would go on to win Big-10 offensive player of the year that season.
Rich Rod was up to his old tricks again in 2017 with Arizona dual threat QB Khalil Tate. In the 2017 season, Tate accounted for over 1500 yards passing and 14 TDs, while scampering for over 1400 yards rushing and an additional 12 TDs. Are we recognizing a theme here yet?
Of note, dual threat QBs are not the only instance of fantasy relevant assets that have emerged under Rod’s watch. In 2012, Arizona RB Kadeem Carter was fed 303 carries, of which he paid that off for 1929 yards and 23(!) TDs. He also caught 36 passes for 303 yards and an additional score that season.
In 2013, the Wildcats once again leaned on Carter as they rode him 349 times to the tune of 1885 yards rushing and 19 scores. He also caught 26 passes for 173 yards and a TD.
Those are some mouthwatering numbers. Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to burst your bubble too much if you were getting excited, the track record of bell-cow usage pretty much ends there. There was RB Nick Wilson who ran 236 times for 1375 yards and 16 scores, while adding 12 catches for 90 yards and another TD in 2014; but after that, it is committee after committee for Rich Rod’s backfields.
Evidently, when it comes to coaches there are some that specifically and intentionally seek to facilitate a bell-cow RB for their system, and for others, they will resort to feeding one player an unreasonable amount if they just so happen to stumble upon an extraordinarily elite talent. It seems like that might have been the case at Arizona with Carter and Wilson, as no other runner has come close to that volume under Rod’s watch since.
However, with respect to dual threat QB usage there is a pattern across multiple players and programs with coach Rod. Even more exciting is the fact that his former assistant, Rod Smith, who was with him at Arizona and UM, is the OC for JSU in 2023.
Coach Smith was the QBs coach at UM during Denard Robinson’s prolific campaign, and was the co-OC/QBs coach at Arizona during Tate’s. He was also the QBs coach at WVU when dual threat QB Pat White won his second-straight Big East Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2007. White passed for over 1700 yards and 14 TDs that season, and accumulated over 1300 yards on the ground and 14 more scores.
Now these two dual-threat mad scientists have their hands on an intriguing athlete at JSU, and you’ll want to make yourself familiar with that player headed into the 2023 season.
Redshirt Freshman QB Te’Sean Smoot (6’0, 170)
Smoot, a former three star prospect out of Springfield, Ohio, and runner up for Ohio’s ‘Mr. Football’ in 2021, is a redshirt freshman in the Jax State program. He registered stats in only one game last season, September 17th vs. Group of Five (G5) opponent Tulsa, in which he completed one of two passes for 8 yards. He also rushed (of course) 6 times for 22 yards and a score.
Those prodigious numbers not enough to excite you? Don’t worry, there is a (slightly) more compelling argument coming…
Last season’s first string QB — Zion Webb, has now departed the program.1 In 2022, Webb threw for over 1700 yards and 10 TDs, while adding 647 yards on the ground and 13 more scores in 11 games. Not including turnovers, these numbers would have been good for approximately just over 22 FPG in four-point passing TD formats.
The returning QB with the most experience is Hawaii native redshirt sophomore Polo Soloman. So, there is not exactly a plethora of veteran options at Rich Rod’s disposal this offseason.
Smoot is the highest ranked QB on the roster and (from what I can tell) he is one of only two QBs on the roster that was ranked coming out of high school according to 247 sports (the other is freshman Earl Woods). So, Smoot is the highest ranked and has more seniority over the only other QB who had a ranking coming out of high school.
When Zion Webb’s status was up in the air against Southeastern Louisiana last October, two names were mentioned by coach Rodriguez:
So we'll limit him (Zion Webb) in practice today, limit him in practice tomorrow, see what he can do Thursday and Friday. It'll be more reps for Aaron (McLaughlin) and for Te'Sean (Smoot) and we'll see what happens game day.
Now is probably a good time to mention that Aaron McLaughlin is no longer on the roster, too.
It seems like ever since Smoot signed with JSU the Gamecocks’ staff have been grooming him to be their next guy. Now, as mentioned, all the veteran options are gone and the runway is clear for Smoot. Unfortunately, almost all info coming out of camp down there in Jacksonville is locked behind a paywall, but I did see this on social media a few days ago:
My guy looks like he’s been pushing more weight than a sumo wrestler at a rice eating contest (that doesn’t make any sense VP…), and I think he’s going to win the starting role for this team and by extension, could offer some sneaky CFF upside. He is a much higher ranked prospect than Zion Webb was; and, while they are making the jump up in competition, I am encouraged by the smooth transition of the JMU Dukes last season. That being said, I think JMU has traditionally been a stronger program than Jax State, so I would expect there to be some more bumps in the road for the Gamecocks.
That leads naturally into my next segment…
Te’Sean Smoot still has to win the starting job for the team. At this point in time it is too early to make any wild declarations about Smoot’s outlook as we don’t know yet who will be the starter. I think the signs point towards Smoot getting the nod, though. The dual threat QB track record and Smoot’s skill set appear, on paper, to be a perfect marriage if you ask me.
The biggest concern, in my opinion, is the jump in competition. The one G5 program that JSU played last season they lost to by over 30 points. I have no concerns that this team will be peddle to the meddle to score as often as possible in 2023, as I suspect they’ll be trailing in many instances this season. The silver lining from that is that whoever the QB is should have the ball in his hands often. But, if this team struggles to move the ball and score TDs, then that would limit Smoot’s ceiling.
(Post-publication addition) Bizarrely, 7th year Zion Webb is petitioning the NCAA to grant him another year of eligibility for 2023. He is not listed on the JSU roster and as far as everyone knows he has run out of eligibility. However, he is apparently still practicing with the team and preparing to play in the event that he gets cleared. Something to monitor this spring. This is certainly a first for me…
Even in an optimistic scenario, Smoot’s probably more of a deep-league best-ball asset rather than a standard CFF re-draft asset (unless the league is really deep). He also offers intriguing upside for 2024, and beyond, so at the very least his is a name to know going forward.
Of note, the JSU Gamecocks also have a RB who ran for over 800 yards last season and scored 8 TDs: Anwar Lewis. In 2022, Lewis split carries (115 attempts) with fellow RB Matt LaRoche (124 attempts). LaRoche is no longer with the program in 2023, potentially clearing the runway for Lewis to see a sizeable workload. As mentioned earlier, there is a history of bell-cow usage for coach Rod’s tailback position, albeit it was a long time ago and there have not been many since. I will be making an article about Lewis in the future.
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As it turns out, Webb is still practicing with the team. He is petitioning the NCAA to grant him a 7th year of eligibility, though he is not currently listed on the JSU roster, this is something to monitor.