(Part 8 of a 10-part SWAC preview series)
Two-time defending SWAC West champion Jackson State is under new leadership as Harold Jackson returns to his alma mater following a 26-year NFL career as a player and a coach.
A five-time All-Pro wide receiver, Jackson played for five teams over a 16-year career and spent 10 years in the NFL as a coach for the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. His coaching resumé also includes head coaching stints at Virginia Union and Benedict (S.C.) College, plus stops as an assistant at Baylor and Kentucky.
JSU has lost back-to-back heartbreakers in the SWAC championship game, dropping a 34-27 double overtime verdict to Southern in 2013 and bowing to Arkansas-Pine Bluff 24-21 in overtime in 2012.
Strangely, the Tigers posted an 8-4, 8-1 record last season despite finishing dead last among the nation's 122 FCS schools in turnover margin at negative-21. JSU managed just 10 takeaways against 31 giveaways.
LaMontiez Ivy is the projected starting quarterback after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in last year's season opener. Senior Evan Ingram appeared in five games, passing for 289 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
Junior Rakeem Sims (100 carries, 475 yards, 5 TDs) is the team's top returning rusher. Also expected to contribute in the backfield are junior Alexander Montgomery and sophomore Jarius Moore.
Seniors Tobias Singleton (30 receptions, 476 yards, 2 TDs) and Michael Perkins (17-240-2) stand out among the receiver contingent.
Senior guard Jonathan Smith anchors the offensive line after collecting first-team All-SWAC honors a year ago.
Despite losing six starters, the Tigers return several key playmakers on defense.
Senior linebacker Ariane McCree led the team in total tackles (94) and tackles for loss (14.5) while end Javeny Jones registered 54 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks en route to being named SWAC Freshman of the Year. Second-team All-SWAC linebacker Tedderick Terrell amassed 46 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a team-high seven sacks as a sophomore.
Rounding out the incumbent starters are senior outside linebacker Ryan Griffin (62 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 interceptions) and senior defensive back Antonio Sutton (32 tackles, 8 pass breakups).
Both kickers are back. Junior Ryan Deising made 12-of-15 field goals while Dary Williamson was third in the SWAC with a 41.9-yard punt average, including a school record 81-yarder vs. Alabama State.