The Southern football program is working with a six-month delay to its 2020 season and an overhauled offensive coaching staff, but don’t expect a transformed program.
Coach Dawson Odums said the Jaguars will look mostly the same because of the depth created by a large number of returning lettermen.
“It’s different, but it’s football, which is the same,” Odums said last week. “We’re just making sure we have a plan in place.”
Odums and staff have had plenty of time to think about that plan during the fall waiting period. The defense will be in its second year under coordinator Lionel Washington, but the offense welcomes first-year coordinator Zach Grassi, plus three other new assistants: wide receivers coach Vincent Marshall, offensive line coach Brian Lepak and tight ends coach Chris Browne. Safeties coach Jason Rollins is the only change on defense.
Odums said Grassi, who has NFL experience, will bring some innovations mixed with tried and true Jaguars staples to have offensive and defensive units that facilitate each other.
“Our game plan is for the team to win, not one side of the ball to be successful,” he said. “We build it for the offense to help the defense and defense to help offense.
“(On offense) the biggest thing was understanding where we struggled and how can we be better. What were our strengths? How do we tie those two together with our new coaches? We have some core plays we’re going to run. We recruited to those plays. We have individuals who know those plays, and they’ve been a staple of success. Coach Grassi has done a good job of taking those plays and putting them in his playbook. We pull what we really like from what we have done and add the creativity of coach Grassi. You’ll see things we have done and some we haven’t.”
Odums said the team’s strength will rest on deep and talented offensive and defensive lines, even though both units lost three starters each. Wide receiver and safety are the areas of concern only because of dependable players who graduated.
Here’s a look at each position group:
QUARTERBACK: Ladarius Skelton is the returning starter, but his ball security issues have kept him from having a firm grip on the job. Bubba McDaniel played in nine games and helped pull the Jaguars through some of Skelton’s rough spots. Odums is hoping Skelton feels the heat from McDaniel and redshirt freshman Harold Blood.
RUNNING BACK: The Jaguars have an embarrassment of riches here with senior Devon Benn (811 yards, seven TDs) and Jarod Sims, who had 331 yards and three TDs in his last three games as a freshman. Craig Nelson provides a good option as a third-down back and redshirt freshman Tavien Benjamin brings good speed after redshirting in 2019. Southern led the SWAC in rushing offense in 2019.
WIDE RECEIVER: The loss of Hunter Register leaves Southern without a designated go-to receiver but transfers Marquis McClain (Auburn) and Jorien Vallien (Tulane) bring size to a group that features slot specialist Jamar Washington (25-341-2), who is dangerous as a runner on speed sweeps. Tim Bedford (33-352-1)is another big receiver in the mix. Cameron Mackey is back along with Tyler Kirkwood and redshirt Corey Williams. “We need somebody to step up there,” Odums said.
TIGHT END: Odums said he likes the depth and diversity at a position that might become more a part of the passing game. Travis Tucker, Jadarion Davis and Gregory Perkins are back, and Odums cited Perkins as the surprise of the group, “playing really well with good size and work ethic.” Signee Ethan Howard is also in the mix.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Tackle J’Atyre Carter and preseason All-SWAC guard Jonathan Bishop return. Dallas Black is set to step in for Jaylon Brinson at center while Jeremiah Stafford, Antonio Smith and Brian Williamms vie for the two open spots. “We played nine guys last year, which not many D-I teams do,” Odums said. Freshman Traveon Newsome has been impressive with his “nasty” attitude.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Three starters, including run stuffer Dakavion Champion are gone, but LSU transfer Davian Cotton should step into his tackle slot. End Jordan Lewis is hoping to bounce back from a subpar sophomore season while Jalen Ivy is coming off a strong year as a reserve end. Odums is looking for Colyn Given and beefy Letrelle Johnson to keep improving and step into roles on the inside.
LINEBACKER: There’s no replacing a tackling machine like Calvin Lunkins, but Caleb Carter should handle his role as the defensive leader. He was the second leading tackler and had 4½ tackles for loss, six hurries, a fumble recovery and forced fumble. Raheem Short and Ty Farmer backed up Lunkins last year. Odums has high hopes for Youngstown State transfer Ray Anderson, who has missed some practices recently with an injury, and freshman Derrick Williams.
SECONDARY: Southern is loaded with cornerbacks. Robert Rehm and Glenn Brown won starting jobs in camp in 2019 but didn’t play a down because of injuries and academics, respectively. Tamaurice Smith, Jordan Eastling and O.J. Tucker played a lot of snaps in their place. Losing safeties Montavious Gaines and Benjamin Harris leaves the Jaguars thin on experience. Jakoby Pappillion will be a leader at rover and Chase Foster saw extensive action as Gaines’ backup. Washington and the defensive staff will be looking for more candidates to emerge.
SPECIALISTS: Having Cesare Barajas back probably brought a sigh of relief since he handled punting and placekicking. Martell Fontenot had some chances early in 2019 as the placekicker.