After finishing its first season in Division I with a 7-3 record, including a 4-1 record at home last season, the North Alabama football team will play its first full season with an FCS conference schedule after its move to the Big South conference. The Lions only play two opponents they faced last year, in Campbell and Alabama A&M, in which they went 1-1.
UNA head coach Chris Willis believes his team is ready for the transition.
“I think we are gonna have to show everybody,” Willis said. “People still think we are still a Division-II team, small and they don’t understand that Division-II has good football. Now that we have moved up to the FCS, I think we are gonna be even better and team to contend with; we are just gonna have to go out there and prove it.”
Sophomore wide receivers Cortez Hall and Jakobi Byrd lead the team in receiving a season ago and are expected to be key weapons for senior quarterback Christian Lopez this season. Hall put up 591 yards on 39 catches with four touchdowns in 10 games, while Byrd put up 517 with 48 catches and five touchdowns in nine games played. Byrd was also elected to the Preseason All-Big South Conference by coaches at BIg South Media Days.
“That group showed out last year,” Willis said. “(They) got a year under their belt and they will be sophomores now. Jakobi Byrd, Andre Little, Dexter Boykin, Cortez Hall, those are the four guys, they stick together.”
According to Willis, the sophomore receivers are unique in both their talent and bond.
“They live together, they eat together, they are a talented group, a special group,” said Willis. “They are good men off and on the field, but behind them we have guys that are just as talented but it is so hard to get in there with this group in front of them.”
As part of its move to the Big South, the UNA football team will see all new faces in Presbyterian, Hampton, Kennesaw State, Monmouth and Gardner-Webb. Kennesaw State enters the season as the preseason favorite in the Big South conference and ranked No. 10 nationally, following back-to-back Big South championships and an FCS playoff quarterfinal loss to South Dakota State 27-17 last year.
The Lions also face a difficult non-conference schedule, including the No. 6 teams in the FCS preseason poll in Jacksonville State.
“I am not gonna lie, all of our opponents are extremely good,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Jakob Cummings. “They are very good programs and they all seem to have their strengths but the most well-rounded out teams are looking to be Kennesaw St., Montana, Monmouth, and Jacksonville State.”
The defense comes back for the Lions is expected to be stout, even with losing their All-American Safety Chris Johnson to the NFL. The Lions will play an almost new defensive line with big additions such Jbril Glaze, a JUCO transfer and former Virginia Tech recruit.
“There are always concerns,” said defensive coordinator Steadman Campbell. “Injuries are nothing major, but our concerns are just guys that we haven’t seen play yet, how will they perform under the lights. There will be a lot of jitters and new faces playing in Braly stadium for the first time.”
A 24-man recruitment class brought in 18 freshman. These freshman will have to fill the voids on the defensive side of the ball.
“Talking new guys, Camyen Feagins from Central Phenix City had a really good fall camp.” Campbell said. “Caleb Dawson at linebacker has had a really good camp. What their role will be as freshman will be determined, they can play four games and still be redshirted.”
The Lions open the season against Western Illinois on Aug. 29 in Braly Stadium. UNA reignites an old in-state rivalry with Jacksonville State on Sept. 21 in Jacksonville. The first conference game for the Lions will be against Presbyterian at home on Sep. 28.