[Courtesy of Jimmy Mitchell, UAB Athletics]
Like every other FBS program this year the University of Alabama-Birmingham held a pre-season camp before getting into the routine of practices, workouts and meetings throughout the fall.
Something was missing, though: a weekly opponent.
That will change come September 2, 2017 when UAB hosts Alabama A&M. The game will mark the Blazers’ first since November 29, 2014 when they won at Southern Miss, but flew back to Birmingham and into an uncertain future.
That future is suddenly looking pretty bright. Coach Bill Clark, his staff and 118 players recently concluded a productive four months of football activity as UAB prepares to return to the gridiron following a two-season hiatus. The program was shut down – along with bowling and rifle — in the days after the victory against Southern Miss due to concerns school officials had with respect for, among other things, operating budgets.
“To go from that awful time to where we are now is really unbelievable,” said Clark, who in 2014 came to UAB from Jacksonville State and led the Blazers to a 6-6 mark. The win total equaled the second most in the program’s 19 seasons of FBS affiliation.
Following the shutdown there was tremendous community support to revive UAB’s athletic culture. A new 46,000 square foot operations facility is slated to open in time for fall camp and there are plans for a new stadium. Combine that with the number of players that turned out this fall and the university community has been provided with a considerable dose of optimism.
“Football is very important in Birmingham and what we are seeing is, wherever you go, whether it is in a store or walking around campus, people are thankful and excited,” said Clark, who did not leave following the shutdown and was given a five-year extension in September 2015, three months after it was announced the program would be revived. “Everybody is just ready to see 2017 get here.”
That includes the players. Quarterback A.J. Erdely was a midyear enrollee a year ago following two seasons (one redshirt) at Middle Tennessee and one at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The year off from competition allowed him to strengthen his throwing shoulder after suffering torn labrum while at MGCCC.
“The coaching staff did a great job through the fall at keeping people motivated and wanting to go out and practice,” said the Georgia native, who has two years of eligibility remaining. “The scrimmages really helped us, too. I am feeling pretty confident about 2017.”
Erdely’s decision to come to UAB was sealed after talking to players he knows that played for Clark at JSU or under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Les Koenning when he served as OC at Mississippi State 2009-13.
“I know that we have a good chance of being pretty good and I wanted to be a part of the history being made here,” he said.
Shaq Jones also wanted to be a part of that history. His perspective is much different than that of Erdely’s and most every other player who put on the pads this fall.
The linebacker played all 36 possible games in three seasons (2012-14) with the Blazers and when he takes the field in September he will have the opportunity to finish what he started.
“It was very exciting to get back on the field,” he said of the workouts that concluded a week before Thanksgiving. “It had been two years since I played football and to be able to get back on the field and get back in the swing of things was great.”
That feeling is very far removed from how Jones, who is on schedule to receive a sociology degree in the spring, felt when the tent folded on the program with one season of eligibility remaining.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he said of the days following the 2014 season. “There were times when I didn’t think I wanted to play football. There were times when I did not know where life would take me. It was a tough time and really hard emotionally.”
Jones had thoughts of transferring. Marshall, Western Michigan and Western Kentucky all appealed to him. The Hilltoppers were coached by Jeff Brohm, who was a member of Garrick McGee’s staff at UAB during Jones’ freshman season.
Yet it was Jones’ desire to remain close to home that was a major factor in his decision to stay at UAB. The native of Lanett, Ala., which is a little more than two hours from Birmingham, is close enough that he can easily return home to his family and son and they can attend his games.
Another thing that played a large role, though it did not come into focus until after it was announced the program would be resuscitated, was that Clark would continue as coach.
“When I realized he was going to stay that was another one of the deciding factors for me,” said Jones, whose 12.5 tackles for loss were good for second on the team in 2014. “He is a great leader and I pride myself on following him because he does great things.”
Clark, who also brought on a dozen midyear signees, is grateful for players like Jones who decided to stay and now serve as pillars within the program.
“That’s our senior class and you can’t say enough about those guys,” he said. “They waited around and have not played in games for two years. One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that this is a family and I think that is why they stayed. They helped sell the program and now that they are going to be able to get out there and make history in bringing this program back is pretty neat.”