By Barry Allen
By Tim Gayle
Montgomery - His statistics may not rank among the best passers in the history of the Camellia Bowl but what Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi brought to Saturday’s matchup to Arkansas State meant a lot more than yards and touchdowns.
The seventh year senior orchestrated a beautiful opening possession in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl, setting the tone for the Huskies’ 21-19 win over Arkansas State on Saturday afternoon at Cramton Bowl.
Lombardi rushed for 21 yards and a touchdown while completing 18 of 29 passes for 200 yards and another touchdown, closing out a long collegiate career with a satisfying win and capturing the Bart Starr MVP Award in the process.
“I’m proud to be a Huskie and I’m happy that I’m here, but I’m ready to move on,” Lombardi said. “It’s my time to be done and to move on, so I’m really excited about my future.”
Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock will hate to see Lombardi leave, giving his veteran the credit for directing the offense to three first-half touchdowns. The first touchdown was masterful as Lombardi converted three third-and-long situations into first downs.
“Those plays were all the quarterback,” Hammock said. “The quarterback, he made plays and he left the ball in the spots that guys need to make them. The first one was to Grayson Barnes, the second one was to Trayvon Rudolph. He just executed. And, obviously, when you start picking up some third downs, that gives guys momentum.
“I thought Arkansas State came up with some energy and juice, they had us behind the sticks on the first third down, but when you get that first down and you keep those guys on the field for an extended period of time, that allows you to start to wear them down. And, obviously, to finish that drive with a touchdown, a beautiful ball in the back of the end zone to Grayson Barnes, was outstanding.”
That pass has to rank among the best in his career. Facing third down and 13 and a hard-rushing Arkansas State defense, Lombardi placed the ball at the back of the end zone, where Barnes snared it and got one foot down in bounds for the points.
Unfortunately for Lombardi, he never saw it.
“I was hit as I threw it, but we had the look we wanted, we had Grayson one-on-one,” Lombardi said. “Just put it in the spot where I thought he could get it. He’s got tremendous ball skills and he’s got great hands. I saw him signaling touchdown. I tried to look up at the JumboTron afterward. I didn’t quite catch it, but I heard a lot of people talking. It was a crazy catch.”
Hammock said the communication with Lombardi helped the game plan and enabled the Huskies to keep the Arkansas defense off balance throughout much of the first half.
“First of all, the helmet communication was outstanding,” Hammock said. “We are a huddle team and have the ability to talk to the quarterback. We were able to put a lot more offense shifts and motions in the game plan, knowing that we had the communication. I think we probably moved five to six seconds quicker with that communication. I thought the guys executed at a high level, we weren’t jumping offsides, we didn’t have a lot of illegal formations or anything like that.”
Late in the first quarter, Lombardi added a 6-yard touchdown run to give his team a 13-7 lead, then watched from the sidelines as his teammate, placekicker Kanon Woodill, ran 32 yards with a reception out of field goal formation.
“You saw it open up and he was gone,” Lombardi said. “I mean, there was nobody catching him. It was awesome. It was very cool.”
Lombardi threw a two-point pass to Rudolph following Woodill’s touchdown to close out the Huskies’ scoring and ultimately provide the game-winning points in a 21-19 victory. It was a fitting end to a career that started at Michigan State, moved to Northern Illinois and ended with a medical redshirt year that allowed him a seventh season to get the Huskies from three wins last year to a 7-6 finish this year.
“People don’t understand how much work he puts in to be able to do his job at a high level,” Hammock said. “He was a coach on the field. I know he wants to play (in the National Football League) and hopefully he has an opportunity to continue to play. But for us, he’s been everything. He’s leaving a legacy of what that position looks like and we’re going to miss him.”
Perhaps fittingly, the last game in a long collegiate career earned a Lombardi the Bart Starr Award.
“It means a lot to go out a winner,” he said. “We’ve done a lot more winning than losing here. We didn’t quite have the season we wanted, but we made it to a bowl game and we’re proud to be here and we’re proud to be bowl champs.”
MONTGOMERY - Northern Illinois made it clear at the beginning of the week that they wanted to control the line of scrimmage.
The Huskies did just that on Saturday, grinding out a 21-19 win over Arkansas State in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl at historic Cramton Bowl.
“We are glad to walk off the field as champions,” Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock said. "It means everything for our seniors. It means everything for our guys coming back. It was a tough ball game.”
It was the ninth one-score game in the 10-year history of the Camellia Bowl.
Northern Illinois (7-6) led 21-13 at halftime, which marked the highest scoring first half in bowl history.
The Huskies didn’t score in the second half, but played keep away from the Red Wolves to clinch the school’s first bowl win in 11 years.
“We played complimentary football in all three phases,” Hammock said. “Our offense played well in the first half. Stalled out in the second half. Our defense stepped up in the second half, forced three straight three and outs.”
NIU only had five second-half possessions but two of those took more than five minutes off the clock.
The Huskies set the Camellia Bowl record with 40:23 time of possession.
“The 40 minutes in time of possession shows our physicality,” Hammock added. “I thought we won the line of scrimmage. We knew we were a physical team.”
Arkansas State (6-7), who only had 53 yards on its first four second-half possessions, marched 86 yards in the final two minutes for a touchdown.
The second half, offensively, we started with three straight three-and-outs, 56 yards of total offense,” Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones said. “When you play Northern Illinois, they average about anywhere between four to six minutes off the clock per possession.”
Freshman quarterback Jaylen Raynor tossed a 13-yard pass to Corey Rucker to pull the Red Wolves to within 21-19 with 1:14 left.
Raynor accounted for 77 yards on the drive. He completed 3-of-4 passes for 52 yards. He ran twice for 36 yards, including a 32-yard scamper on the second play of the drive.
Raynor’s two-point pass attempt fell incomplete.
A-State lined up for an onside kick and came up the football, but an offside call negated the play.
The Huskies recovered the next attempt and ran out the clock.
NIU took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards for the first opening possession touchdown in bowl history.
Seventh-year quarterback Rocky Lombardi completed 5-of-6 passes for 79 yards on the drive. Barnes caught three passes for 65 yards, including an 18-yard TD strike.
Gavin Williams' run for the two-point conversion failed and the Huskies led 6-0 five minutes into the game.
Arkansas State drove into the red zone before Raynor threw an interception.
One play later, Lombardi threw an interception giving the Red Wolves the ball at the NIU 42-yard line.
On the very next play, Raynor hit a wide open Rucker for a 42-yard touchdown pass to put ASU in front 7-6.
NIU marched right back down the field and capped the nine-play, 75-yard drive when Lombardi scored on a 6-yard touchdown run. Kanon Woodill added the extra point to make it 13-7.
The Huskies drove 87 yards on their next possession to take a 21-7 lead. Facing a fourth down at the ASU 33-yard line, NIU called a fake field goal.
Holder Tom Foley flipped the ball to Woodill, who ran untouched 33 yards for his first career touchdown.
It was the second special teams touchdown in Camellia Bowl history. It was NIU’s first TD off a fake field goal since 2012.
“We had some extra time to study things,” Hammock said. “We felt like it was a great opportunity to get the first down, but when they overloaded then we had a chance for a touchdown as long as Kanon didn’t trip over his feet. He did a great job. Probably the only touchdown in his life. It was actually the game winning play. It was our last touchdown.”
Lombardi threw to Trayvon Rudolph for the two-point conversion to push the lead to 21-7.
ASU added two field goals before halftime to cut the deficit to 21-13. Dominic Zvada hit a 45-yard field goal and then capped the scoring with a 23-yard field goal on the last play of the half.
Lombardi won Bart Starr MVP honors after he accounted for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
The Huskies had a 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the win.
Antario Brown ran 25 times for 132 yards. Barnes caught 5 passes for 105 yards and one touchdown.
Raynor had 299 yards and two touchdowns for A-State. His favorite target was Rucker, who caught five passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
By Barry Allen
Arkansas State; Northern Illinois Wrap Up Game Prep
Arkansas State and Northern Illinois put the finishing touches on preparation for the 10th annual Camellia Bowl, which will be played Saturday, Dec. 23 at 11 a.m. at the historic Cramton Bowl in downtown Montgomery.
Both teams had two days of practice while in town then held a walk through at the Cramton Bowl on Friday afternoon.
Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones said the Red Wolves have enjoyed the bowl week festivities but the goal is to win the game.
“This has been the first bowl experience for about 99 percent of our football team,” Jones said. “We don’t have a lot of bowl experience, so everything here this week has been a good first impression. The people here have been remarkable and everything has been outstanding. All the pageantry and events are great, but at the end of the day this is what it’s all about, competing and trying to find a way to win a football game.”
NIU head coach Thomas Hammock is pleased with the work the Huskies have put in this week.
“This has been a tremendous week for our football team,” Hammock said. “We really have enjoyed the bowl experience, things that we have seen and the events we have attended. The goal is to win the game. Our focus has really shifted the last couple of days to get ourselves locked in on what we need to do and how we need to execute to go play the way we want to play. We are excited and ready to play.”
Playing in a bowl might have seemed like a far-fetched idea for a pair of teams that won only three games in 2022.
Northern Illinois and Arkansas State were both 3-9 last season. They are among seven teams to win three or fewer games in 2022 and make a bowl game this season.
The list includes Arkansas State, Boston College, Northern Illinois, Northwester, Old Dominion, South Florida and Virginia Tech.
“There are seven teams in the country that made the biggest jumps in their win totals from last year,” Jones said. “We are one of seven and so it’s Northern Illinois. So, when you look at it these are two teams that have come from similar backgrounds in their past. You have to have good leadership, some resolve and resiliency to do that.”
After slow starts in 2023 both teams orchestrated in-season turnarounds as well.
Northern Illinois started 1-4 but rebounded to win five of the last seven games, including a two-game winning streak to get bowl eligible.
“Things have gone in the right direction, but I’ll take it a step further,” Hammock said. “At one point in the season, we were a 1-4 football team. So, we needed to make the transition in season to have this opportunity. Obviously with Arkansas State you see a young team that got better as the season went along. They played some tough games early and then they started to show what they are about in the second half of the season. We know it will be a tremendous challenge. I believe in our guys. We know who we are and what we are about.”
Arkansas State lost its first two games to Oklahoma and Memphis by a combined 110-3 but rebounded to win six of the last 10 games to go to a bowl for the first time in four years.
“It’s obvious the season didn’t start the way we wanted it to, but I knew our culture had kicked in when we got back to Jonesboro and the players called a players-only lift,” Jones said. “So it’s Saturday evening at 9:30 and our entire team is in our weight room lifting for two hours. I knew that our culture had finally set in and that culture, that connection, that connectivity has really guided us throughout the course of the year.”
The two starting quarterbacks in the 2023 Camellia Bowl are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Arkansas State will start freshman Jaylen Raynor, while Northern Illinois will counter with seventh-year senior Rocky Lombardi.
Raynor was the 2023 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year despite not earning his first career start until Week 4. Raynor threw for 2,293 yards and 15 touchdowns, while rushing for 331 yards and five scores. Among freshmen, the Kernersville, N.C., product led the nation with 12.2 points responsible for per game and ranked second in the country with 262.4 yards of total offense per game and 229.30 passing yards per game. The freshman quarterback led the Red Wolves to a 6-4 record in the 10 games in which he appeared to earn their first bowl berth since 2019.
I think the word is progression,” Jones said. “I think he has continued to elevate his game week in and week out. Every repetition he gets, whether he gets it in the game or in practice, it vital for his growth in the game. He’s a student of the game. Our players believe in him. His leadership capabilities, for being as young as he his, are very impressive. I challenged him to get in the training room and extra film while we were down here.”
Lombardi played spent four years at Michigan Stare before transferring to NIU. In 2019 at Michigan State, he played against Justin Herbert and Oregon in the RedBox Bowl. In 2021, he led NIU to the MAC Championship with a win over
“Rocky is a guy we got in the transfer portal and helped us win a championship,” Hammock said. “To me, if you win a championship that cements your legacy. He won a championship, got injured in 2022 and came back this year, his seventh year in college football and really given us a chance in every game. We lost five games by a total of 22 points. That takes a level of toughness and a lot of that starts at the quarterback position. He came back and responded after some bad moments and gave us a chance.”
Dr. James Andrews was the recipient of the Alabama Legends Award and was honored at the annual luncheon held at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa at the Convention Center on Friday afternoon.
The luncheon included players, coaches and administrators from Arkansas State and Northern Illinois, who will meet in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl on Saturday at Cramton Bowl.
Andrews is the ninth recipient of the award, joining Bobby Bowden, Pat Dye, Woodrow Lowe, Gene Stallings, Johnny Davis, Larry Blakeney, Woody McCorvey and Chan Gailey.
Both schools cheerleaders and bands participated in a pep rally on Friday night the Union Train Station.
Dr. James Andrews is the most renowned orthopedic surgeon in sports medicine, but the 83-year-old Louisiana native talked less about sports and more about education on Friday at the annual Alabama Legends luncheon sponsored by Regions Bank.
Andrews was the recipient of the Alabama Legends Award this year and was honored at the annual luncheon held at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa at the Convention Center on Friday afternoon.
“When I get a chance to talk to football players, you’ve got to realize there is life after football,” Andrews said. “If I say nothing that would influence you other than this one statement, education is more important than your athletic careers. So you have an opportunity to get your education. Make sure you get it because, sooner or later, you’ll find out how important it is. You can’t be a football player forever.”
Andrews’ patients are some of the most famous sports figures in history, including Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Bo Jackson, Roger Clemens, Jack Nicklaus and Adrian Petersen. Still, as he noted, Andrews has continued throughout his career to work at all levels of the sport, a demanding toll that he recognized when he quickly took the trophy and presented it to his wife Jenelle.
I started my career, not with the Brett Favres and the Jack Nicklauses but with young kids in high school,” he said. “And throughout my career, I’ve made sure that I continued to work at all levels in sports medicine, from the high schools to the colleges -- by the way, we still take care of nine colleges in the state of Alabama on Saturdays, including Alabama and Auburn. But my wife has been a big part of that. That’s why I wanted her to get that little trophy.”
The founder of Andrews Sports Medicine in Birmingham and the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla., Andrews was a 1963 Southeastern Conference pole vault champion in both indoor and outdoor track at LSU, but found a way to blend his sports and education into one of the most successful professions in sports history.
He closed his Friday speech with a challenge to the players in town for the Camellia Bowl.
“You know, football is king in this part of the country so you’re really in the hotbed of football,” he said. “So y’all better play real good tomorrow. We’ve got a high standard in this part of the country.
“I’ll be pulling for both of you tomorrow, just like I was doing at the Auburn-Alabama game. Somebody asked me the other day, well, who do you pull for? In Alabama, that’s a hard question. The answer to that is whoever’s winning.”
Nick Saban is famous for resurrecting the careers of fired football coaches with a rehab stint in Tuscaloosa.
The University of Alabama football coach has had volumes written about his work in turning around the careers of Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, just to name a couple of high-profile coaches who spent time with Saban.
Add Butch Jones to the list. The fired Tennessee football coach, who went into Club Saban for a three-year stay and emerged with employment at Arkansas State University, says Saban was the perfect cure at the perfect time in his coaching career.
“When you bring up Nick Saban, you’re talking to probably his biggest fan,” Jones said. “Him and Miss Terry and what they’ve done for me and my family.”
Jones’ coaching career involves stops at every level, starting with an internship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1987-89), followed by his first coaching job at Rutgers (1990-92). He served as an offensive coordinator at Wilkes University, Ferris State and Central Michigan, along with a brief stop at West Virginia before head coaching stops in Central Michigan (2007-09), Cincinnati (2010-12) and Tennessee (2013-17).
Fired from Tennessee in 2017 after an 0-6 start in Southeastern Conference play, he was contemplating his next move when the phone rang.
“I was sitting at home, all set to go to Ohio State and be with Urban Meyer,” Jones recalled. “Urban Meyer had to go out of town and the next day and I get a call from Coach Saban. ‘We’d like for you to come in and interview.’ I thought to myself, I ask our players to be comfortable being uncomfortable, I need to do the same. It was the first interview I had been on in a long time.
“You know Coach Saban through competition, obviously the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry, but I did not know him personally. So, I said I need to be uncomfortable. There’s only one person on the staff that I knew, but I went in and interviewed the entire day and left. The next day, Coach Saban called and offered me a job. Urban Meyer was out of town and I said, ‘You know what? What a great opportunity.’ And I took the job.”
His severance from Tennessee would pay him roughly $2.5 million per year (minus the $35,000 Saban was paying him as an offensive analyst) through February, 2021, so Jones was content to enter Club Saban and see how the most successful coach in college football conducted business.
“To be able to experience Alabama football, to be able to experience what Coach Saban has built there and the expectations and how you manage everything, it’s a great way to step back and look at everything,” Jones said. “I think you’re constantly evolving. College football is ever changing, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. So much goes into that. I think what I was able to do is self-reflect and evaluate everything. And a lot of the things were confirmation that we were doing the right things.
“So, when you come to Arkansas State, you apply every experience you’ve had as a head coach, as an assistant and then what we experienced at the University of Alabama as well, then you kind of mold it into our own at Arkansas State.”
By his third season at Alabama, Jones had been promoted to special assistant to the head coach, whatever that means.
“I would evaluate the offense at practice, give Coach Saban a report every single day, broken down,” Jones said. “I had a lot of head coaching responsibilities when it came to the (players’) leadership group, when it comes to a lot of the off-the-field things. I did the freshmen orientation. So guys like Will Anderson were in my first freshman orientation class.
“It’s really just taking things off (Saban’s) plate. You’ve got to be a free thinker, you have to run on your own gas and think like a head coach. I always thought, using my head coaching experience, if I had somebody in this role, what would I want from them? And the amazing thing is Coach Saban and I think identical.”
That season, Alabama went 13-0 during a Covid season with an all-SEC schedule, finishing with wins over seventh-ranked Florida in the SEC Championship Game, fourth-ranked Notre Dame in the CFP semifinal and third-ranked Ohio State in the CFP National Championship Game.
Just as Jones’ contract at Tennessee expired, so did his stay at Club Saban. After a three-year stint, he was refreshed and ready to enter the coaching world again. He went to Arkansas State, determined to rebuild a traditional Sun Belt power with great recruiting classes of high school players, supplemented with a few players from the transfer portal.
“We’re still not there yet but we’ve made significant process,” Jones said. “We’ve had two No. 1 (in the Sun Belt) recruiting classes back-to-back. We’re still the third youngest team in America. We only have 11 seniors. That’s one of the reasons I came to Arkansas State. I knew everything would be a learning opportunity, the ability to teach young coaches, teach a football program how to win.”
And he learned from Saban the value of a demanding workout.
“There’s only one speed at the University of Alabama,” Jones said. “And Nick Saban sets the temperament and the pace. And the pace is at an all-time high.”
After the Crimson Tide won the SEC Championship Game over Georgia earlier this month, Jones got multiple calls from both players and coaches. Several of those athletic personnel from Tuscaloosa will make the trip on Saturday to watch the Red Wolves battle Northern Illinois in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl.
Jones will return the favor a week later, traveling to Pasadena to watch the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide battle top-ranked Michigan in the CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
“We’re actually going to the Rose Bowl and they’re putting us up in the team hotel,” Jones said. “When I talk about them being family, they’re family. I consider Coach Saban a mentor and a great, great friend, him and Miss Terry. They welcomed me and my family at a time when we needed them. The ability to experience what we did and all the players and the opportunities that Coach Saban provided for me in that football program, I can’t say enough.”
Jacob Finley may not know a lot about Montgomery, but it certainly feels a lot like home for the Northern Illinois cornerback.
Finley, a former all-state player in high school at Hoover High, is back in his home state as he prepares for the Huskies’ meeting with Arkansas State on Saturday in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl.
“Just to come back home, in general, is exciting,” Finley said. “I haven’t been home since July. To come back home and all of my family comes to the game for the first time is a blessing. I’m just going to show out in front of them.”
Finley sat through a redshirt season last year as Jordan Gandy and JaVaughn Byrd started at cornerback for the Huskies in a 3-9 season. The redshirt freshman moved into a starting role this fall, starting eight of the first nine games and is now splitting time with fellow redshirt freshman Amariyun Knighten.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock said. “We were happy to get him. He started half the season as a redshirt freshman. Tremendous athlete, tremendous competitor and a guy that we hope we can keep in our program this day and age with the transfer portal.”
Hammock said Finley would have played more last season but had experienced players in front of him on the depth chart.
“Mentally, he was ready, further along than a lot of guys you see at that age,” Hammock said. “You can tell he came from a tremendous high school with great coaches. He had the fundamentals and technique.”
Finley was considering a Sun Belt Conference school before Northern Illinois entered the recruiting picture. An assistant coach with the Buccaneers, Preston Sanford, was friends with NIU cornerbacks coach Derrick Jackson.
“(Jackson) watched my film and he loved it,” Finley said. “I came up here in September of my senior year and I loved it. It’s just a great atmosphere, great coaches and a great team overall. I had about 16 offers, most of them G5 like Georgia Southern. It came down to a Sun Belt team and NIU, but I really felt that NIU was going to lead me to the place where my I wanted to be, my end goal, which is the NFL.”
Finley made strides this season, earning recognition as one of the Huskies’ “Freshman of the Year” honorees at the team’s annual banquet in December after recording 30 tackles with three pass breakups.
“From last year to this year, there is a big difference in the weight as well as the playbook and just being confident in general,” Finley said. “Last year, I wasn’t as confident, coming in as a freshman and trying to learn my way. This year, this is my year. I’m going to take over.”
He doesn’t have an interception yet in his young career, but there’s still one game left this season.
“I’m just ready to show I can make plays and make the big play on the ball,” he said of Saturday’s bowl matchup with the Red Wolves. “Hopefully, I come out with one.”
Individual statistics are nice, but Finley’s biggest goal is to show family and friends he made the right choice by celebrating a victory on Saturday afternoon.
“I just want to put a smile on their faces,” he said. “They’re coming an hour and 30 from Birmingham just to see us win. I really just want to get a win on Saturday.”
Cunningham’s Career Comes Full Circle
Jalen Cunningham’s college football career has come full circle.
The Arkansas State senior left guard began his playing career at Ole Miss and started his first collegiate football game against the No. 2 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide on Sept. 28, 2019 at Bryant-Denny Stadium He did not allow a sack, hit or hurry in more than 50 offensive snaps.
“I started my first ever game against the University of Alabama,” Cunningham. “We drove down the field on the opening drive and they stuffed us on the goal line. I vividly remember that. I was heavy (388 pounds) and was so tired after that first drive.”
Fast forward four years and Cunningham will close out his collegiate career at the 2023 Camellia Bowl at the historic Cramton Bowl in downtown Montgomery.
In between those two games, he’s dealt with a lot of pitfalls.
Cunningham had numerous offers during his prep career at St. Clair County High School in Odenville. While on his official visit to Ole Miss, his father, Kenny Wayne Cunningham, passed away after a brief illness. He ultimately chose Ole Miss and began his playing career with the Rebels.
He played four seasons with the Rebels under two head coaches (Matt Luke and Lane Kiffin) and three offensive line coaches (Jack Bicknell, Randy Clements and Jake Thornton). Plus, he played on the offensive and defensive line. He had never played offense until he landed in Oxford.
At the end of the 2022 season, Cunningham found a new home at Arkansas State, where he is playing for his third head coach (Butch Jones) and fourth different offensive line coach (Andy Kwon). He started all 12 games for the Red Wolves and was named to 2023 first team All-Sun Belt Conference.
“After going through adversity every single year, I wanted something new,” he added. “I wanted someone that I can trust and play my last year. I didn’t know anyone here. I came here and trusted the process. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I am glad I did that.”
He has one last game on Saturday.
“It’s really been full circle,” Cunningham reflected. “I’m hour and half from home here in Montgomery. I made the right choice.”
Sweet Home Alabama
Arkansas State and Northern Illinois have a total of nine players on the Camellia Bowl roster from the State of Alabama.
The list of Alabama natives on the ASU roster includes redshirt freshman offensive lineman Cameron Ambrose (Pinson Valley HS), freshman defensive lineman Brian Alston (Spain Park HS), freshman receiver Cam Bulluck (Russell County HS), senior offensive lineman Jalen Cunningham (St. Clair County HS), Clyde Curry (Gadsden HS), junior linebacker Cam Jeffrey (American Chrisitan HS; Tuscaloosa), freshman offensive lineman Mason Myers (Moody HS), junior safety Justin Parks (Gardendale HS), and junior tight end Emmanuel Stevenson (Eufaula HS).
Ambrose played in all 12 games as a backup on the offensive line. Jeffrey posted 35 tackles, four tackles for loss (-17 yards) and one sack (-6 yards) in eight games. He had nine tackles and one TFL at Marshall and posted eight tackles against Troy.
Parks has recorded 44 tackles and three pass breakups in 12 games. He logged a season-best 10 tackles against Coastal Carolina. Parks also recorded nine tackles against Troy. Stevenson, who is battling a knee injury, has 18 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns this season. He caught four passes for 44 yards and one TD against UMass. He also had five catches for 37 yards and one TD against Coastal Carolina.
Northern Illinois only has one player on its roster from the state of Alabama.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Jacob Finley played in 12 games and made eight starts this season. He has recorded 30 tackles, three pass breakups, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He logged four tackles, two PBUs, one TFL, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in the last two games. He had a season high five tackles in the season-opening win at Boston College.
Thursday was ladies day at the Camellia Bowl as the wives of both administrations and coaching staffs enjoyed lunch cruise on the Alabama River.
Both teams hit the practice field for the second straight day in Montgomery. The Red Wolves practiced for 90 minutes at Huntingdon College, while the Huskies held a 90-minute session at Alabama State.
The Camellia Bowl hosted both teams at two separate events in the evening. NIU enjoyed a dinner and bowling party at Bama Lanes on Atlanta Highway. Arkansas State attended a BBQ dinner and karaoke at the RSA Activity Center. The BBQ was provided by Dreamland BBQ.
He doesn’t lead the team in tackles and he isn’t up for any all-conference honors, but Arkansas State coach Butch Jones knows who is the most valuable player on his team.
Eddie Smith hasn’t even started every game in his career, but the sixth-year defensive back has a national championship ring and a pedigree that commands instant respect.
“The first day I stepped on campus, I was a leader,” Smith said. “Everyone looked up to me because I had been in college so long and I’m the only one on the team that’s won a national championship so I know what practice should be like and a lot of things about football.”
Smith and the Arkansas State Red Wolves (6-6) will close out the season in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl against the Northern Illinois Huskies (6-6) at Cramton Bowl on Saturday morning. For the Slidell, La., native, it’s a journey that took him to the University of Alabama and Illinois before finally winding up in Jonesboro, Ark., reunited with Jones, the coach who had once tried to recruit him to play at Tennessee.
“We had a relationship previously before I got to Alabama, then when I got to Alabama he was an analyst and he always joked around with me,” Smith said. “That’s where we built our relationship. I’ve been close to him since 2018. (At Arkansas State), it’s been really good, everything that I could have imagined. I wanted to come here and help Coach Butch Jones out because we had that previous relationship. When he recruited me, he told me how bad he needed a leader, he needed to build up the culture and I knew I could do that.”
When Smith was a high school senior, he wasn’t thinking about a future at Arkansas State. Recruited to play for national champion Alabama, he joined a secondary group that included future NFL players Jalyn Armour-Davis, Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain.
“It was really fast for me, the game speed going from high school to Alabama, so it took me getting used to that because I’m playing with guys that are as good or better,” Smith said. “It always felt like I was just a snap away. Always. But that’s what I signed myself up for, going up against that talent and playing with people that are really good. I knew what I was getting into.”
He played on special teams in seven games as a freshman in 2018, but just one in 2019 and two in 2020. The Tide won another national title and Smith got a ring, but he felt it was time to move on.
“It was a blessing to win a national championship,” Smith said. “I was playing a lot of special teams but I wanted to contribute more and feel like I was a part of it. So I wanted to transfer and go somewhere where I would get more playing time. So I went to Illinois for a semester and I didn’t really like it there. It was really cold there and I played a lot of special teams there, too. And I was playing corner and I really wanted to play safety.”
He checked with Jones, who had just concluded his first season with the Red Wolves. Jones knew the value of a player with Smith’s background.
“He came in our second year, but (he’s) an individual who speaks your language, understands the expectations and all that goes into it,” Jones said. “Eddie’s one of the highest character guys there is. We’re extremely close. He’s over at my house all the time. My wife has to keep cookies and cream ice cream in the freezer for him all the time. But just having someone like that, with that character, someone who has experienced football at the highest level and won a national championship, that really helps you.”
Smith was brought in to provide help in the secondary. But more than that, he was brought in to provide leadership in changing the culture. This year started with a 73-0 loss at Oklahoma, but the Red Wolves won three of their final five games to achieve bowl eligibility, a first since playing in the Camellia Bowl in 2019. Smith feels like he has helped point Arkansas State in the right direction.
“It’s a surreal moment,” he said. “I’ve been playing football since I was 5. I’m grateful I was able to go to college for free and I’m grateful for being able to go to three universities and contribute to all three universities. It’s definitely a blessing. It’s coming down to the end, so I definitely want to go out with a bang.”
For some players, that would mean a game-changing play, a key interception, a crucial defensive stop. For a player brought in to change the culture, Smith only has one thing on his mind.
“I want to win,” he said. “We’ve got to win. I don’t want to leave this program 6-7. I wanted to come in here and change this thing around. Knowing I was able to get us in a bowl game when this team had won just three games the year before and two the year before that, that’s my goal.”
Bowl games are a reward for a successful season.
The trips can also be educational, too.
On Wednesday, Northern Illinois and Arkansas State visited The Legacy Museum in Montgomery.
According to its website, The Legacy Museum sits “on the site of a cotton warehouse where enslaved people were forced to labor in bondage, the Legacy Museum tells the story of slavery in America and its legacy through interactive media, first-person narratives, world-class art, and data-rich exhibits.
“Travel through a comprehensive history of the destructive violence that shaped our nation, from the slave trade to the era of Jim Crow and racial terror lynchings, to our current mass incarceration crisis - and find inspiration in our soaring Reflection Space and world-class art gallery.”
The moment the teams were announced for the 2023 Camellia Bowl, NIU head coach Thomas Hammock has been excited to visit Montgomery and experience the history first hand.
“When it was announced that we were coming to the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, the first thing that popped into my mind was a history lesson -- a history lesson for my kids, a history lesson for our players,” Hammock said.
“We know the history of Montgomery, Alabama, and we certainly look forward to our players and our families learning more about the history here. Because one thing about it that makes you appreciate everything you have, right, when you think practice is hard, school is hard or whatever you’re going through, think back to the history of, you know, why do you have this opportunity? And for our players to have that experience and go through some of the things that has happened down here, I couldn’t be more excited about.”
Both head coaches had to juggle schedules on Wednesday to build for the future.
Wednesday was National Signing Day across college football and both coaches were extra busy during bowl week.
Arkansas State added 20 players from eight different states to its 2024 recruiting class that is currently ranked first in the Sun Belt Conference by at least one of the primary recruiting web sites, including Rivals. Coming off back-to-back No. 1-ranked classes in the Sun Belt Conference, A-State has a school-record 19 signees rated as 3-star recruits by 247Sports. The class includes the first ESPN300 recruit in program history and four additions who are slated to be available for the Red Wolves' 2024 spring camp. Arkansas State's 2024 class ranks as high as 75th by the major recruiting web sites, currently giving the Red Wolves three consecutive classes that rank in the top five in school history.
"Today was a good day balancing bowl preparation with National Signing Day," ASU head coach Butch Jones said. "Early signing day has become the major signing day. I thought our staff did an amazing job addressing a lot of needs, and I will emphasize that we are not done yet as we will have more to come.”
Northern Illinois announced the addition of 18 players, including 15 freshmen and three junior college transfers. The signees hail from 10 different states and included at least one player from every position group on the team.
The Huskies' class features four players from Georgia, a state already well-represented on the NIU roster, with Illinois and Michigan each sending three student-athletes to DeKalb. Of the 18 players announced Wednesday, 10 played offensive line (4), tight end (3) or defensive line (3), positions – along with quarterback – that Hammock referred to as important to develop for the future. "With this group, we had a long-term vision of filling some needs, some developmental positions that we need to address including the offensive line, tight end, defensive line and quarterback," Hammock said. "Those are premium positions for us as a program, positions that take time to develop."
Arkansas State and Northern Illinois held their first on-site practice on Wednesday.
The Red Wolves practiced for two hours at Huntingdon College, while the Huskies held a two-hour workout at Alabama State.
The Camellia Bowl hosted both teams at two separate events in the evening.
Arkansas State enjoyed a dinner and bowling party at Bama Lanes on Atlanta Highway.
NIU enjoyed a BBQ dinner and karaoke at the RSA Activity Center. The BBQ was provided by Dreamland BBQ.