College Sports

Is this the season for J.C. Smith’s turnaround? Here are 10 storylines to follow

Kermit Blount is entering his fourth season as football coach at Johnson C. Smith.
Kermit Blount is entering his fourth season as football coach at Johnson C. Smith. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

J.C. Smith football finally has some stability.

Golden Bulls coach Kermit Blount is excited about this year’s squad, which he says has better depth, athleticism and consistency throughout the roster. After going 2-8 in 2017, there’s a sense the program is on the cusp of a rebound, starting with the CIAA South.

“We know, we think, we feel where we should be,” Blount said. “There’s no pressure. We feel urgency for our own personal gain. When you’re in this business, you compete to win, you don’t compete to finish third or fourth.”

J.C Smith, which was picked fifth in the six-team CIAA South, has some work to do to move up. The Golden Bulls’ last winning season was 2012, when they finished 6-4. Here are 10 storylines to watch:

Finish close games: J.C. Smith was 0-3 in games decided by five points or less, which suggests the Golden Bulls were competitive but lacked killer instinct in critical situations.

Best depth in Blount’s tenure: With an infusion of redshirts moving into the rotation, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, competition has been keen. Blount expects it to pay dividends, especially late when the Golden Bulls were prone to stumbling against deeper opponents.

Antonio Wallace
Former South Mecklenburg High standout Antonio Wallace, a redshirt freshman at J.C. Smith, is the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Golden Bulls. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

New starter at quarterback: Redshirt freshman Antonio Wallace, a South Mecklenburg High graduate, is the front-runner in a field that includes senior Harold Herbin, a part-time starter his first two seasons. They also have a rebuilt receiver corps to work with.

Sa’Von Williams’ breakout season as an edge rusher: Williams earned a spot on the CIAA All-Freshman team last year after racking up 33 tackles and four sacks. Blount praised his offseason development and leadership.

A new free safety: Redshirt sophomore Camerron Ellis steps in for Carlo Thomas, J.C. Smith’s career interceptions leader with 22. Ellis has the size at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, but does he have the playmaking skill?

Get Desmond Dozier more touches: The Golden Bulls didn’t make many explosive plays in 2017, but the receiver/kick returner contributed his share. Dozier led J.C. Smith with four touchdowns – two on receptions and a pair on kick returns, including a school-record 97-yarder. He caught 12 passes for 114 yards in addition to averaging 30.6 yards per kick return.

Find some active run-stuffers: J.C. Smith allowed an average of 191.5 yards per game last year, near the bottom of the CIAA. Junior Marques Garrison and senior Zach Cannon are the top defensive tackles, and their improvement is crucial to controlling the point of attack.

Consistency on the ground: The Golden Bulls averaged an anemic 88.6 yards per game rushing last year, which often left them chasing long-distance third down opportunities. Jachin Watkins, who ran for 283 yards in 2017, is the top returning rusher, but the line needs to be more imposing.

Lift the special teams: As good as Dozier was as a kick returner, J.C. Smith struggled with in the kicking game. Preseason all-conference punter Brandon Howard averaged 35.8 yards per kick, but had six attempts blocked.

Defensive leadership: With Thomas graduated, senior linebacker Marcel Toran steps up as the focal point after leading the Golden Bulls with 66 tackles and five sacks last year. Another key is cornerback Basir Wright, who had 45 tackles and two interceptions.

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