John Hooper is one of HERO Sports' FCS Campus Correspondents, and he resides in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina. He's a longtime Southern Conference "expert" and tracks the league for HERO Sports, but this week branched out to talk to the folks at Austin Peay in the OVC. You can follow John on Twitter @SoConJohn
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Five years ago when Austin Peay quarterback JaVaughn Craig decided on a program to spend the next four years plying his trade as a quarterback, Ohio Valley Conference member Austin Peay might have seemed as distant a possibility as a playoff trip to Sacramento State and another FCS playoff debutante. That’s probably why stories oftentimes write themselves better than Hollywood’s best scriptwriters ever could, or as Craig put it, God is best chosen as the author of such unique and powerful testimonies.
“I had 23 offers from FCS and FBS programs so there were opportunities everywhere and then going into my senior year I tore my meniscus and I did it in the summer while training and I had surgery on that so I missed my whole summer circuit of recruiting and missed a lot of things of that nature and at that point I had to ask myself what my life would be like without football and at that point I prayed about it a lot and I decided to let God lead me in the direction to a place that to me is about more than just football, and I ended up here at Austin Peay,” Craig said.
“At the end of the day, my decision to come to Austin Peay was the best decision I have made,” Craig added.
Craig could have stayed home…He could have attended the hometown program Chattanooga. In 2015, the Mocs were hitting on all cylinders and a Southern Conference power under then head coach Russ Huesman.
The feeling…The look…The surreal moment. It was all in a look. Words need not express how the humble senior quarterback felt following the program’s first-ever FCS playoff win–a 42-6 win over Furman. Craig sat their almost in a state of peace, yet it was a moment that seemingly he was also trying to comprehend. Comprehend you might ask?
Well, he took what some might call a crazy chance in the recruiting process. He took a road less traveled–a road of crazy faith that led him to a place mired in a 29-game losing streak over a hometown program that was polishing off its latest of three Southern Conference championship trophies.
In case you missed it, Austin Peay turned in a season that saw a program knock down a proverbial brick wall it has been trying to punch through the past four seasons. The year was 1977, which was the last time the Austin Peay Governors lifted a football conference title trophy of any sort.
As I sat in the press box at Fortera Stadium, I saw a team that had no signs still evident of how far down the FCS ladder it was just a few years ago. This was a team that had a hunger like a team that has never even been in the FCS playoffs should.
Then there’s the even-keeled leadership of Craig, who had already faced adversity before getting to Austin Peay through injury. He would eventually face more adversity in 2017. After having an outstanding freshman season in 2016, which saw Craig, highlighted by one of the signature performances of any QB in Governors history with a school-record 466 yards of total offense and school freshman record five touchdowns.
While many took the opportunity to get out of Clarksville, Craig embraced the challenge and became a pillar of the community in many ways and as he put it following Saturday’s 42-6 FCS opening-round playoff game over Furman—“This is where God wanted me.” The only problem was the fact Austin Peay was 0-11 and 0-8 in the OVC.
A year later, Healy and Craig had things rolling in remarkable fashion to start the year and raised some eyebrows with competitive performances against three FBS programs, including putting 33 points on undefeated Central Florida—you know that team that beat SEC big boy Auburn in the Orange Bowl. However, in the seventh game of that season, Craig went down with a season-ending injury.
Jeremiah Oatsvall would start the final five games of the 12-game season, garnering OVC Freshman of the Year honors in the process. He also captured the starting job. It was a double-whammy of sorts for Craig, as he lost his job and the Governors somehow were not included in the FCS playoffs.
Through it all, Craig never wavered and he stayed the course, relying on his deep Christian faith to get him through the tough times, and ironically, his great friendship with the quarterback that beat him out for the job—Oatsvall.
“Jeremiah [Oatsvall] has been great…That kid is something else. He’s a great guy and obviously with the success he had coming out of high school and all the things he was able to accomplish and he came out of high school very highly recruited and you have two guys very highly recruited playing the same position at a school that’s still trying to build something from nothing and obviously the competition aspect of it and wanting to be on the field and wanting to play and Jeremiah has come in from day one and made me a better player and always pushing me to be better and I think he would say the same thing about me pushing him to be better.”
After starting the entire 2018 season, Oatsvall would have a new head coach following Healy’s departure for FBS Charlotte. Enter Mark Hudspeth. His guy was also going to be Oatsvall, and why not, as despite the Governors finishing 5-6, Oatsvall even entered the season as the OVC Media Player of Year.
This past season, Oatsvall was the player hand-picked by Hudspeth to be the starter at the outset of the season as the starting quarterback. Then adversity would strike Oatsvall, who went down with a season-ending injury in the second game of the season with a season-ending foot injury against North Carolina Central in October.
Craig was ready for the call. It was his moment. It was God’s moment and it was the moment he had been patient to get the call for. The moment wasn’t too big for the senior from Chattanooga.
“I knew God had me here for a reason from the outset. I didn’t know what that moment was, but I knew when it came, I’d be ready.”
Craig has made the most of that opportunity last night, and the numbers speak for themselves. So far in 2019, Craig has connected on 198-of-341 passes for 2,831 yards, 25 TDS and 10 INTs. He has rushed for 567 yards and eight scores this season.
Last week against Furman, Craig was an impressive 18-of-23 passing for 264 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
He had a seven touchdown game earlier this season in a 58-23 win over Tennessee Tech, he had seven touchdown responsibilities (5-passing, 2-rushing) and threw for 294 yards, drawing more than a few raised eyebrows around the Volunteer State, as he was named the Tennessee Sports Writer’s Association, OVC and College Sports Performance Player of the Week accolades. Craig is also the first Austin Peay quarterback since Sonny Defillipis in 1980 to garner first-team All-OVC honors.
But Craig wants you to know he’s more than football. He is the epitome of a leader on and off the football field. He shared a story with me I will now share with you.
“I’m a political science major with a concentration in international relations but political science is more about the people to me than the things that go on within government. I am a people person.”
“My life is a living testimony of what God can do for someone and the things I have gone through in my own life to get to this point and some people don’t know the back story of my journey and for me I try to see that in everyone else in that I don’t your story but I realize everyone has a story for a reason and God has them there for a reason and I try and take time out to try and be there for people whenever I can and that’s something I truly enjoy doing.”
Craig and the Austin Peay Governors return to the field Saturday night when the Governors take on Big Sky member and No. 4 seed Sacramento State Saturday night. Kickoff between the two rookie playoff teams is slated for 9 p.m. EST at Hornet Stadium.
Stay tuned for John's interview with Mark Hudspeth coming up next week and the second part of the Austin Peay story.
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