Whatever their final record, South Alabama’s 2022 seniors 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 program records for the era of total wins, conference wins and road wins. The Jaguars host Old Dominion (3-8, 2-5) at Hancock Whitney Stadium at 11 a.m. Saturday, which is also the school’s senior day.
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It’s an eclectic group of 17 seniors for the Jaguars, a roster that includes two sixth-year players dating back to 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 college transfers like defensive lineman Gi’Narious Johnson and cornerback Darrell Luter, and former backups who have taken on prominent roles like Trey . Simpson and Terry Perry.
“With the transfer window coming in and the way things are now, you’re just going to have more guys finish their careers in a different place than where they started,” South Alabama coach Kane Wommack said. “Whether you came into our program as a freshman that’s been here five, six, seven years like AJ. DeShazor or Jalen Wayne, or if you transferred like Omni Wells who was at a junior varsity program and then another four-year institution who then decided to come here for your senior season, it’s special for each of those guys. because it is a marker and an indicator.
“Just like getting a degree, it shows that you can do great work, that you can focus on a task, and that you can go out and achieve your goals. Going and getting out there on Senior Day says you are tough, brave and proving who you are as a young man. I think these things will carry over into other endeavors these young men take on in life.”
Wayne and DeShazor have been with the Jaguars the longest, members of the team since 2017. They have gone through two coaching changes — from Jones to Steve Campbell in 2018 and then from Campbell to Wommack in 2021 — and five straight losing seasons that ended without a bowl game.
That all changed this year for the Jaguars, who are assured of the program’s first winning record in the FBS era and first bowl berth since 2016. Wayne said he’s especially proud to be a part of South Alabama’s turnaround.
“I definitely feel good about it,” Wayne said. “… I feel like I left a lot of room for guys to be better than me and be better than the guys that came before me that they learned from. I just hope they take everything I’ve done and apply it to their journey that they have to go through.
“When Wommack came here, I knew (success) was going to come sooner or later, but I didn’t know if I was going to be here. For me to be here and for it to be my last year, it’s a year that I couldn’t have really dreamed of.”
Wayne is South Alabama’s leading receiver this season and one of four or five seniors expected to be in the starting lineup Saturday against Old Dominion. It was different for DeShazor, a former starter who was more of a role player and special teamer in his final collegiate season.
However, he remained a positive influence on his teammates and is being rewarded for it in his final home game. DeShazor will wear the honorary No. 5 on Saturday, which he also wore during the 2021 season vs. Southern Miss.
“It’s been a great journey, just seeing how the program has progressed here at South,” DeShazor said. “It’s a home away from home.” I have a lot of friends that I made here or friends that have become family as well. The culture has changed. I feel like the last two years have been something that’s never really been done on any 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 with him as well.”
The No. 5 jersey is given in honor of the late Anthony Mostella, a running back on South Alabama’s first team in 2009. Mostella, a favorite player of Jones’, was killed in a 2010 motorcycle accident.
Jones began awarding Mostello’s No. 5 each year to a senior player who wore it for the entire season. Campbell ended the tradition, but Wommack revived it upon his arrival in 2021 with one tweak — giving it to a different player each week.
“When we brought back the No. 5 jersey last season, (DeShazor) was the person we felt as a staff was most deserving to represent Anthony Mostella in the first game of the 2021 season,” Wommack said. “It is very fitting that he represents the 2022 team as a senior in the final game at Hancock Whitney Stadium for this 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 at South Alabama, it’s a second or third stop for some of their seniors. Several first played in junior college, others at various Division I schools.
Jackson played his first three collegiate seasons at Mississippi State, where he played both center and defensive tackle. The Pascagoula, Miss., native used the NCAA’s transfer portal to return closer to home in 2021 and has been a Jaguars fixture ever since.
Luter played two seasons at Jones (Miss.) College before joining South Alabama in 2020. He was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection in 2021 and could potentially play another game at Hancock Whitney Stadium if, as expected, he is invited to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“I appreciate this moment because it will be my last home game, but I will give it my all because it will be my last game 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 win total in 2021 by beating Old Dominion, against which it is 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 will have family members or close friends who know them on the field before the Old Dominion game present on Senior Day. It will be especially touching for DeShazor, who is now married with a six-month-old child.
“I’m sure I’m going to feel a lot of emotion,” DeShazor said. “I don’t know if I’m going to cry or not, but I’m going to have my wife and baby there, so it’s going to be a great day.”
South Alabama’s complete 2022 senior class:
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, Ala.
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, safety, Tulsa, Okla.
16. Jalen Wayne, wide receiver, Spanish Fort, Ala.
17. Omni Wells, running back, Moss Point, Miss.