Whatever their ultimate record, the South Alabama seniors of 2022 will be remembered as the class that helped the Jaguars finally turn the corner as a football program.
South Alabama (9-2 overall, 6-1 Sun Belt Conference) has already set FBS-era program records for overall wins, conference wins, and road wins. The Jaguars host Old Dominion (3-8, 2-5) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hancock Whitney Stadium, which also serves as the school’s seniors’ day.
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It’s a diverse group of 17 seniors for the Jaguars, a roster that includes two sophomores who hail from the Joey Jones era: wide receiver Jalen Wayne and linebacker AJ DeShazor. There are also Division I transfers like center James Jackson, cornerback Jamar Richardson and offensive lineman PJ Mixon, junior collegiate transfers like defensive lineman Gi’Narious Johnson and cornerback Darrell Luter, and former walk-ons who have filled prominent roles like Trey Simpson and Terry Perry.
“With the advent of the transfer portal and the way things are now, you’re only going to have more people ending their careers somewhere different than where they started,” said South Alabama coach Kane Wommack. “Regardless of whether you came into our program as a freshman who, like AJ, has been here for five, six, seven years. DeShazor or Jalen Wayne, or if you’re a transfer like Omni Wells, who was in a junior college program and then another four-year institution, who then decided to come here for your senior season, it’s special for every single one of those guys because it’s a marker and an indicator.
“Just as graduating shows that you can do great work, it allows you to focus on the task and achieve your goals. Going there and walking on seniors day says you have tenacity and courage and assert yourself as a young man for who you are. I think those things will feed into other endeavors that these young men will undertake in life.”
Wayne and DeShazor are longest-serving with the Jaguars, members of the team since 2017. They’ve gone through two coaching changes — from Jones to Steve Campbell in 2018 and then from Campbell to Wommack in 2021 — and lost five straight seasons that came without ended a bowl game.
That changed this year for the Jaguars, who have secured their first win record in the program’s FBS era and their first bowl spot since 2016. Wayne said he’s particularly proud to be a part of the turnaround in South Alabama.
“I definitely feel good about it,” Wayne said. “…I feel like I’ve given the guys a lot of room to be better than me and better than the guys before me that they learned from. I just hope they just take everything I’ve done and use it in the journey they have to go through.
“When Wommack came here, I knew that (success) would come sooner or later, but I didn’t know if I would be here. For me to be here and for it to be my last year, this is a year I really couldn’t have dreamed of.”
Wayne is South Alabama’s leading receiver this season and one of four or five seniors expected to start Saturday against Old Dominion. It was different for DeShazor, a former starter who was more of a role player and special teamer in his senior year in college.
He still has a positive influence on his teammates and will be rewarded for it in his last home game. DeShazor will wear the honor number 5 on Saturday, which he also wore in the 2021 season opener against Southern Miss.
“It’s been a great journey just to see how the program has evolved here at South,” said DeShazor. “It’s a home away from home. I have many friends that I have made here or friends that have also become like family. The culture has changed. I feel like the last two years has been something that’s never been done in a real program. It’s a blessing. It was a blessing to play with these guys. Jaylen Wayne and I have been here since 2017 and it’s special to play ball with him too.”
The No. 5 jersey is awarded in honor of the late Anthony Mostella, who returned to the South Alabama first team in 2009. Mostella, a favorite player of Jones, died in a motorcycle accident in 2010.
Jones began handing Mostella’s No. 5 to a senior player each year, who wore it all season. Campbell had scrapped the tradition, but Wommack revived it with a change upon his arrival in 2021 – he gave it to a different player every week.
“When we brought back the No. 5 jersey last season,[DeShazor]was the person we felt most deserved as a staff member to fill in for Anthony Mostella for the first game of the 2021 season,” Wommack said. “It suits him very well to represent the 2022 team as a senior in the final game at Hancock Whitney Stadium for that team. It certainly represents this young man in how he goes about his business. Great things are ahead for AJ DeShazor.”
While Wayne, DeShazor, Simpson and others have spent their entire college careers in South Alabama, for some of their classmates it’s their second or third stop. Some played in junior college first, others at various Division I schools.
Jackson played his first three collegiate seasons at Mississippi State, playing both center and defense. A native of Pascagoula, Miss., used the NCAA transfer portal to return closer to home in 2021 and has been a stalwart with the Jaguars ever since.
Luter played two seasons at Jones (Miss.) College before joining the South Alabama team in 2020. He was an All-Sun Belt Conference first-team pick in 2021 and could potentially play another game at Hancock Whitney Stadium if, as expected, he’s invited to play at Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“I cherish this moment because it will be my last home game, but I will give it my all because it will be the last time I play with South Alabama,” Luter said. “It means a lot just to be here for the last three years. I’m grateful for the journey I’ve had with South Alabama.”
South Alabama has a chance to double its 2021 overall win by beating Old Dominion, against whom it’s a double-digit favorite. A win over the Monarchs and another in a bowl game would give the Jaguars 11 wins, the most in the program’s 14-year history.
All South Alabama seniors have family members or close friends present on Senior Day when they are recognized on the field prior to the Old Dominion game. It will be especially poignant for DeShazor, who is now married with a six-month-old child.
“I’m sure I’ll feel a lot of emotions,” DeShazor said. “I don’t know if I’m going to cry or not, but I’ll have my wife and baby there, so it’s going to be a great day.”
The Complete Senior Class of 2022 in South Alabama:
1. Sullivan Altman, linebacker, Rockledge, Fla.
2. Zeke Chapman, defensive tackle, Lake, miss.
3. AJ DeShazor, linebacker, Lakeland, Fla.
4. Kent Foster, offensive guard, Pell City, Alabama.
5. James Jackson, center, Moss Point, Miss.
6. Tyler Jernigan, offensive guard, Bay Minette, Ala.
7. Gi’Narious Johnson, defensive tackle, Gulfport, miss.
8. Darrell Luter, cornerback, Hattiesburg, Miss.
9. Victor McClinton, wide receiver, Eufaula, Ala.
10. PJ Mixon, offensive tackle, Montgomery, Ala.
11. Terry Perry, linebacker, Birmingham, Ala.
12. Jamar Richardson, cornerback, Aliceville, Ala.
13. Nick Ruggs, Tight End, Mobile, Ala.
14. Trey Simpson, offensive guard, Mobile, Ala.
15. CJ Thompson, Security, Tulsa, Okla.
16. Jalen Wayne, wide receiver, Spanish Fort, Ala.
17.Omni Wells, Running Back, Moss Point, Miss.