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Jacksonville State teammates Zion Webb and Stevonte Tullis took a moment last week to soak in the start of the final few moments of a college football career.
They both came to Jacksonville at the same time. Webb, a two-star quarterback from Central-Phenix City, who had missed his junior season in high school with a knee injury. Tullis, a two-way standout from Class 3A Ashford High in Dothan. Both arrived in the summer of 2017.
Neither had an idea of what was to come.
“We were just standing there, looking around the stadium, taking in the whole moment,” said Tullis, who quickly became a full-time linebacker. “Just saying, we were just these young freshmen that came in, curious about everything that’s going on around here. In the blink of an eye, six years have passed and now we’re seniors.”
Two more blinks and their days in the Jacksonville State football program are done. The first blink comes Saturday when 11 seniors play their final game on Snow-Burgess Field. The Gamecocks play host to Eastern Kentucky in an A-Sun game. Seven days later, the seniors will close their college careers in another A-Sun game at Central Arkansas.
“I like making a big deal out of it,” said Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez. “I’ve told the seniors, it’s the greatest honor, I feel, that a college football player can have, is completing your senior year. Look around, especially nowadays, at how many guys made it through their four or five years. Now, there’s hardly anybody, right, because the transfer portal. We’ve got guys who have been around here four, five [or six] years. I’m really proud of this senior group. We’re going to kind of honor them in our own way on Thursday, Friday and of course Saturday before the game as well.”
For Rodriguez, this is an extra special group. He wasn’t the head coach that brought the majority of these seniors to campus. Former coach John Grass and his staff recruited these players to Jacksonville State. Rodriguez was hired at JSU last November and his staff began arriving soon afterward.
That’s not great timing for a senior.
“It’s tough when you have a new staff coming in,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve only got one year to learn the system, to learn how we want to do things. That’s why I’m so proud of this group. It’s always going to be different. Different personalities, different ways you call schemes and all that. They had an outstanding staff before we were here. I think we’ve got a really good staff. Our players, particularly our seniors, really bought in and helped us in the transition.”
For Webb, it was particularly tough because he was also continuing rehab on a knee that he injured during the 2021 spring season.
“It was challenging at first, because it was a new system,” Webb said. “Knowing Coach Rich Rod came from a FBS program, it was way different, just the weight program, running, everything was different. But, everything mattered to everybody so we really never shied away from learning and understanding what they wanted.”
Rodriguez leaned on the senior class, even if it was a small group. If they bought in, the rest of the team would follow. He learned quickly that buying in was not a problem.
“I think most coaches probably embrace their first senior class,” Rodriguez said. “We try to do a little bit more than that. I don’t like when people say, they’re not your guys. No, as soon as we got here on campus, every one of these guys were my guys. From an attitude standpoint, they took a tough situation for all of us and made it better. Our transition to a new staff, our transition from moving from FCS to FBS and all that, I couldn’t have been more pleased how they’ve adapted to all the stuff we’ve asked. They need to be honored. There’s no playoff, there’s no bowl games for our guys, so these last few games are really important, I’m sure, to them and it’s important to me for our seniors to enjoy the experience.”
Rodriguez doesn’t hesitate to single out the role that Tullis, who has played in 55 games at JSU, took for this team.
“I don’t mind telling you, in one short year, less than a year, that we’ve had him, he’s been as good of a senior leader as I’ve ever had,” Rodriguez said. “If you ask anybody in our program, particularly on defense, who’s the guy that’s kind of leading the way for you, [Tullis] will be the name that comes up. That’s how valuable he’s been for our defense, how valuable he’s been to our program. I say that without reservation that he’s been a great leader for us, particularly in this transition.”
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