Southern lost its most productive wide receiver from last season when Lee Doss ran out of eligibility after having an All-Southwestern Athletic Conference year.
The Jaguars lost one of their most productive returning receivers when Randall Menard suffered a season-ending toe injury on the first series of downs this season.
Additionally, Southern has thrown the ball less frequently this season as it has put together a much more productive run game that has yielded a more balanced offense.
And yet the Jaguars receiving corps is one of the deepest groups on the team and has been a key factor in the team being in position to win a second consecutive SWAC West Division title if it beats Grambling in the Bayou Classic on Saturday.
Willie Quinn was a first-team preseason all-SWAC selection and has been a big-play receiver whether he lines up inside or outside. Reggie Travis, a newcomer who transferred from Memphis, has assumed Menard’s role as a big target at 6-foot-4.
Justin Morgan has been one of the more steady contributors, Mike Jones is perhaps the healthiest he has been all season after rehabbing an ankle injury and Sam Altman provides another target for quarterbacks Austin Howard and Deonte Shorts.
“On the exterior we have me, Reggie and Mike, who can stretch it,” Morgan said. “Then you have Willie and Sam, who have better wiggles and hips so they can go across the middle and make better plays.”
The Jaguars rank sixth in the SWAC in passing yards per game (224.5) and passing attempts (337). They have thrown the ball on 42 percent of their plays; last season they passed on 50 percent of their plays.
Quinn has been one of the most productive receivers in the conference despite being a frequent target of double teams.
He ranks fourth in receiving yards per game (68.6) and sixth in receptions per game (4.6).
“Everybody tries to double-team Willie,” Shorts said. “But we know that from the start, so that just gives other guys opportunities to make plays. If they double somebody, they’re leaving somebody else one-on-one, and we just make the best of the opportunity.”
In any given game, it could be any of a variety of receivers that steps to the forefront.
No one will come close to matching Doss’ totals of 78 catches, 1,172 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. The leaders are Quinn with 51 catches for 755 yards and four touchdowns, Travis with 29 catches for 507 yards and five touchdowns, and Morgan with 21 catches, 390 yards and four touchdowns.
Although Southern hasn’t passed as frequently as it did last season, it has averaged more yards per catch this season, 14.2 compared with 13.1 a year. That’s partly because of a series of big plays.
The receivers have combined for 19 receptions of 25 or more yards. Quinn has a pair of 79-yard touchdowns and a non-scoring 87-yarder, Morgan has touchdowns of 55, 68 and 79 yards, and Travis has a 79-yard score.
The improved balanced would not have occurred if the receivers hadn’t bought into receivers coach Chris Coleman’s insistence on them being as will to block as to catch.
“The relationship that he has developed with those guys,” co-offensive coordinator Chad Germany said, “they trust him and follow his lead, and that kind of goes hand-in-hand with how they go out and how they approach the game and how they play.
“First I think we always try to go from a run-game standpoint. I think those guys have bought into blocking, so I think they’re much better blockers this year than they have been in the past.
“I think we’ve put more of an emphasis on it in coach Coleman’s room, and I think they’ve bought into it, so I think they’re better blockers, and that helps overall with them being complete receivers.”
Germany pointed out that tight ends Dillon Beard and Montrell Jones have also contributed as the receivers have. They haven’t caught many passes, combining for 19 catches, 244 yards and two touchdowns.
But on occasion, the Jaguars have gone to a power formation with both tight ends and focused on the run game as they did when Howard made his first start in the SWAC opener at Prairie View A&M. Southern rushed for 195 and passed for 108 in a 34-24 victory. In victories against Jackson State, Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State, the past two coming in the Jaguars’ most recent games, they averaged 263 rushing yards and 211 passing yards.
“Montrell and Dillon have both developed tremendously in blocking,” Germany said. “They’ve spent a lot of time developing their fundamentals.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.