Former Ider and current Jacksonville State (JSU) offensive lineman Justin Lea is having a season to remember.
Lea anchors the offensive line of the top-ranked FCS team in the country in JSU and has helped lead the Gamecocks to an 8-1 record and a perfect 6-0 record in conference play. Their only loss of the season came on the road to Auburn in a 27-20 loss in overtime. With a win this week, the Gamecocks can wrap up back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championships
Lea plays left tackle and has helped lead the Gamecocks to the ninth best rushing offense in the FCS with 263.9 yards per game.
Lea said this year has just been a culmination of all the hard work the team has put in.
“I think the most fun part has been seeing all the work we’ve put in during the last two years and seeing how it has developed into success,” Lea said. “That’s what’s made this year very enjoyable, and to be on a team that goes out every week and just worries about going 1-0. It’s a great environment to be around.”
Aside from the team’s success, this season Lea has enjoyed a lot of personal success.
Last year, as a redshirt freshman, he started every game at tackle for the OVC champion Gamecocks, was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award given to the top freshman player in the FCS and was a freshman All-American.
After having so much success as a freshman, he wanted to build on that this season and get better at the little things to be a better football player.
After nine games it looks like that has worked.
He said the most enjoyable part for him is seeing quarterback Eli Jenkins and running backs Troymain Pope, Miles Jones and Josh Clemons have success moving the ball on the ground.
“I guess the thing for me, being an offensive lineman, is seeing the offense clicking, so I owe a lot of credit to our quarterback Eli, and we’ve got three solid running backs.
“When we can make a seam for those guys or a pocket for Eli to throw in then it makes us all look good.”
His former coach Brent Tinker said it’s a proud moment to see a former player have success.
“Anytime a kid gets to play at the next level, it’s special and he’s making the most out of his opportunities,” Tinker said. “It’s awesome to see how he’s growing and developing and how big of a part he is in their program. He was always a big part of Ider. He was a great player and a great student.”
Lea’s success stretches farther than just the football field. This season he was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Team.
During his time at Ider he was an all-state selection in his junior and senior seasons and was a Bryant-Jordan Scholar Athlete and Wendy’s High School Heisman honoree. He starred in three sports for the Hornets in football, basketball and baseball.
Playing college football was his dream and Tinker said he never stopped trying to reach that goal.
“College coaches would come in and tell him he was too light,” Tinker said. “He weighed 255 in high school, but he played all three sports and never stopped going.
“He would come in at 6 every morning and get his lift in, played all three sports and then would work all summer with his grandpa. He never stopped and I knew he would develop in size once he could dedicate himself to football. He went to nine camps the summer before his junior season and it wasn’t until that ninth camp that he finally got an offer from JSU. He weighs 295 now and is playing very well for them.”
Lea had an interesting journey to JSU. He committed under former head coach Jack Crowe, but signed with Bill Clark, who took over after Crowe retired. Clark then left for UAB and now Lea is playing for John Gross.
Lea said Clark changed the mindset of the JSU football program.
“His thing was changing the DNA of the program and how everything was,” Lea said. “I believed in that and the guys I came in with believed that as well.
“It’s been nice to see the program change over the years and see the success that we’ve had.”
He was a freshman during the 2009 season, when Ider finished 12-1 and made it all the way to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs for the best season in program history.
He said that season was the highlight of his football career at Ider.
“I think it was that year that I realized football is something I want to continue to play,” Lea said. “I see a lot of similarities in that 2009 team at Ider and this year’s team at Jacksonville. We are all playing with one heartbeat and for one goal. As a whole, this team is very close, just like the 2009 team at Ider.”
If the Gamecocks can win their next two games they will lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Lea said that would be a dream come true.
“That’s what all the work goes in for,” Lea said. “I think last year we realized we had a team capable of winning a championship and the goal all offseason was to win a national championship.”
That journey will continue on Saturday against Southeast Missouri.