Ohio Valley Football: An FCS conference with FBS talent

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (STATS) - A former FBS running back drops to the FCS level and goes on to win his conference's offensive player of the year award.

Easy stuff from the start, right?

Not necessarily.

Eastern Kentucky running back Dy'Shawn Mobley, who transferred in from the University of Kentucky, remembers trying to get both his confidence and legs going throughout the preseason and early in the regular season last year.

"It wasn't any easy transition," said the 2014 Ohio Valley Conference offensive player of the year, who is this year's preseason pick for top honors. "When I was at the FBS, I wasn't the No. 1 running back. So me going in there and taking all those reps and then in games, it was different. It was something that I didn't experience (previously). It grew on me. I feel like I will have a better season this year."

FBS-to-FCS transfers occur for many reasons, ultimately designed to help a program raise its talent level. But the expectations for such players are always high, and they too often go unfulfilled.

In the OVC, which installed defending champion Jacksonville State as the preseason favorite Monday, it's a formula for success that is paying off. A number of the FBS transfers are transitioning into all-conference players, and it starts with Mobley and Jacksonville State defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler, who was named the preseason defensive player of the year after winning top postseason honors last season.

In fact, one of Mobley's former teammates at Kentucky, Jalen Whitlow, returns as Eastern Illinois' standout quarterback, and Sigler only has to turn on Jacksonville State's defensive line to see his former Auburn teammate, Chris Landrum.

"Obviously they went to bigger schools for a reason," Eastern Kentucky's All-OVC linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill says of FBS transfers. "They're very talented. I think it really brings a more competitive mind-set to the team. It honestly brings you kind of closer - you kind of help each other and you realize you both have to do this."

As the OVC gets set to kick off its 68th season of football, many of the teams have key FBS transfers. Jacksonville State has an SEC defensive front with Sigler, Landrum and LaMichael Fanning (Alabama) - all three preseason all-conference picks.

This year's biggest transfer is former All-Big Ten defensive end Noah Spence, who has landed at Eastern Kentucky from Ohio State.

Whitlow has new FBS transfers at running back in Korliss Marshall (Arkansas) and Devin Church (Illinois) to combine with returning standout Shepard Little.

UT Martin has reloaded with six FBS transfers from Alabama, Florida State and UAB.

"Those guys come in, they have to work just like everybody else," said the leader of the Jacksonville State offense, quarterback Eli Jenkins said, "No spot is given to anyone. Every day is an evaluation."

Some players are forced to drop from the FBS level to the FCS after running into trouble at their former school or with the law. But some just want more playing time or a fresh start after a coaching change.

Most FCS schools don't bring in many FBS transfers - instead choosing to build with freshman classes and having players for longer periods of time. But the mixing and matching can pay off.

"It doesn't always work out. But the guys that we've got don't have a lot of baggage - they're good kids," Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. "It's relationships with our players and our coaches of knowing guys they played with in high school or knowing a high school coach. They know about our program and I think our program kind of recruits itself."

Added Eastern Illinois coach Kim Dameron, "We do our due diligence, we do our homework, we make sure that we're getting the right kind of person as well as the right kind of player, and that he's somebody that we feel like would add to our program and not be somebody who would be a detractor."

Despite the many expectations placed on FBS transfers, they can be a good thing. They let everybody in the program know the coaching staff wants to win - and win now.

"I knew the expectations were going to be great," Whitlow said. "I don't want them to be low, I want them to be great. And I want to hold our team to the same standards. The expectations are great and there's no reason why we shouldn't be great."

Jacksonville State received 16 of the 18 first-place votes in the OVC's preseason poll of head coaches and sports information directors. The Gamecocks, who finished 10-2 overall and unbeaten in the OVC last season, return 16 starters (nine offensive, seven defensive), including an impressive 12 all-conference preseason selections. No other team had more than four.

Eastern Illinois was picked second, although Eastern Kentucky, which went to the FCS playoffs last season along with Jacksonville State, received the poll's other two first-place votes while finishing third.

"This year, the league's back. Everybody has a lot of returnees," said Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown, whose team was picked seventh.

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OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=

(Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)

1. Jacksonville State (16 first-place votes), 128 points

2. Eastern Illinois, 107

3. Eastern Kentucky (2), 106

4. UT Martin, 78

5. Tennessee State, 66

6. Southeast Missouri, 63

7. Tennessee Tech, 45

8. Murray State, 38

9. Austin Peay, 17

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OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=

Offensive Player of the Year - Dy'Shawn Mobley, RB, Eastern Kentucky

Defensive Player of the Year - Devaunte Sigler, DL, Jacksonville State

OFFENSE=

RB - Eli Jenkins, Jacksonville State, R-Jr.

RB - Dy'Shawn Mobley, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

RB - DeMichael Jackson, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

WR - Paul McRoberts, Southeast Missouri, Sr.

WR - Josh Barge, Jacksonville State, R-Jr.

WR - Janawski Davis, Murray State, Sr.

TE - Bo Brummel, Jacksonville State, Sr.

C - Casey Dunn, Jacksonville State, Jr.

OG - Adam Wright, Jacksonville State, R-Sr.

OG - Trey Shelton, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

OT - Brett Eyckmans, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

OT - Justin Lea, Jacksonville State, R-So.

OT - Evan Kanz, Eastern Illinois, R-Jr.

DEFENSE=

DL - Devaunte Sigler, Jacksonville State, Sr.

DL - LaMichael Fanning, Jacksonville State, R-Sr.

DL - Dino Fanti, Eastern Illinois, R-Sr.

DL - Chris Landrum, Jacksonville State, R-Sr.

DL - Gabe Terry, Tennessee State, Sr.

LB - Kamu Grugier-Hill, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

LB - Jonathan Jackson, Murray State, Jr.

LB - Roper Garrett, Southeast Missouri, Jr.

LB - Tra'Darius Goff, Tennessee Tech, R-Sr.

DB - Jourdan Wickliffe, Eastern Illinois, R-Sr.

DB - Jermaine Hough, Jacksonville State, Sr.

DB - Stanley Absanon, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

DB - DeBarriaus Miller, Jacksonville State, Sr.

SPECIAL TEAMS=

PK - Ryan McCrum, Southeast Missouri, Jr.

P - Hamish MacInnes, Jacksonville State, Sr.

RS - Pokey Harris, Murray State, Sr.

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FIVE KEY OHIO VALLEY FOOTBALL CONFERENCE GAMES=

Jacksonville State at UT Martin (Sept. 26) - It's been coulda, shoulda, woulda for always-competitive-but-just-out-of-it UT Martin. Here's another shot.

Eastern Kentucky at Southeast Missouri (Oct. 17) - They have to find a quarterback, but Southeast Missouri and WR Paul McRoberts can fly under the radar for only so long.

Eastern Kentucky at Jacksonville State (Oct. 31) - A potential OVC championship game.

Jacksonville State at Eastern Illinois (Nov. 7) - Unless this is the OVC championship game.

Eastern Kentucky at Eastern Illinois (Nov. 21) - An FCS playoff bid could be on the line with both teams.

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