When many Jacksonville State fans reminisce about the likes of quarterback Eli Jenkins, wide receiver Josh Barge and offensive lineman Justin Lea, the conversation may lead to their statlines, all-conference team nominations and stories about their performances in red and white.
Rightfully so, as the trio combined for 12 all-conference team selections and seven All-American team selections in their combined 144 games played.
However, years removed from their broken records, trophies won and names chanted at Burgess-Snow Field, the trio all said that what they remembered most was beyond their time on the field.
“The culture was a family culture,” Barge said.
The three players, who were among those selected to the All-JSU FCS team by The Chanticleer readers and staff, said that coaches and staff placed an emphasis on brotherhood and family both in and out of practice, with the players buying in and learning to work as a well-oiled machine.
Jenkins said that former Jacksonville State coach John Grass pushed for players to step outside their friend groups with players out of practice, assigning each player to a “huddle group,” designed for players to work together with players they wouldn’t typically interact with.
“Your friends weren’t in your huddle,” Jenkins said. “You had guys that you probably wouldn’t converse with any other time. He did that, and I think that was the best decision that any coach has ever did that I’ve seen. He really changed the game with it.”
As the team embraced the idea of family, Barge said that it didn’t just stop at the football field.
“Everybody was just in tune with one another,” Barge said. “The football team supported the basketball team, the basketball team supported the softball team, the softball team supported soccer, so we went to as many events as we could to support other sports.”
Even years removed from their last game, the trio said that they still share those bonds with their former teammates.
Lea said that he has many friends from his time playing, inviting a group of former players to go duck hunting close to where he lives every year.
“I made friends and connections for a lifetime,” Lea said. “Beyond winning games, winning conferences and all the stuff that comes with football was great, but truly the friends. I’ve got six or eight guys that I’m still tight with to this day.”
As the team embraced the preached brotherhood aspect of football, the developed chemistry helped players to excel at their craft on the field and in practice.
Twelve of the 22 first-team selections on the 2015 all-conference team were from JSU, seven on offense and five on defense.
JSU had one of the four offenses in FCS that averaged over 500 yards per game.
The average score of a JSU football game in 2015 was a 38.9 to 19.9 win.
JSU led the OVC in rushing offense by almost 2,500 yards (2,499) and scored the most points in the OVC with 584. UT Martin finished second in total points with 390, 194 less than JSU.
Jenkins, who holds the record for both all-time offensive yards (11,448) and single season offensive yards with his 2015 performance (3,949), said that the team knew that the season would be different than years prior in spring workouts.
“That year was super special,” Jenkins said. “From spring ball all the way to the end of the season, it was a lot different from those previous years.”
This high level of play from athletes in every unit proved to be costly for opponents, but elevated the level of play of teammates lining up against them in practice.
In Lea’s case, the high level of play from his teammates brought his talent to new heights.
“It was talent across the board. Everywhere you looked, each position was stacked.” Lea said. “I’m going against Chris Landrum, (Devaunte) Sigler, Darius Jackson, all these guys on the defensive line. Blocking them four days a week in practice and going to the game kind of made it slower. I knew if I could get it done in practice against those guys, the game would be a little bit slower, and it proved to be true.”
With JSU's upcoming departure from the FCS level, former players already have games circled on their calendar that they will look to attend, with coach Rich Rodriguiez doing some recruiting of former JSU stars.
Barge, who serves as wide receivers coach at Carrollton High School in Carrollton, Georgia, said that he met the JSU coaching staff at a summer football camp at Auburn.
“It’s not like I had to go and go up and introduce myself to them, they came and they introduced themselves to me,” Barge said. “You usually don’t get that at other colleges, especially with new coaches that come in.”