One of Southern’s top priorities in the offseason and preseason was to get better at stopping the run.
The Jaguars will get a good gauge of just how successful they’ve been when they open the regular season at the Univeristy of Louisiana at Lafayette on Saturday. The Ragin’ Cajuns ran the ball well last year, return virtually all of the key components, and appear even more committed to the run game.
“They’re probably one of the top 30 teams in the country,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said Monday. “They’re very good in the running game, and they place a heavy emphasis on it.”
Last season, UL-Lafayette, which was second in the Sun Belt Conference in scoring (33.8 points per game), was also second in rushing yards per game (204.5) and yards per rush (4.7).
The primary ball carriers were Alonzo Harris, who’s now a senior, and Elijah McGuire, who’s now a sophomore. Harris was third in the Sun Belt with an average of 72.5 rushing yards per game, and McGuire was fourth (66.4). Harris, 6-foot-1, 238 pounds, averaged 4.7 yards per carry and ran for 14 touchdowns. McGuire, 5-11, 198, averaged 8.4 yards and ran for eight touchdowns.
“They have two very talented running backs,” Odums said. “One is bigger than the other. He’s a bruiser and has decent speed. They like to run the ball with those backs, and there’s a reason they were both selected (first-team) all-conference.
“McGuire is a change-of-pace guy with his speed and his elusiveness. Harris just flat runs over people.”
The Cajuns have three other capable backs who will be candidates to get carries Saturday: juniors Torrey Pierce and Effrem Reed and sophomore Darius Higgins.
The deep stable of running backs and experienced offensive line (which features five upperclassmen all weighing 295 or more pounds) sounds familiar to the Jaguars, who return four starters on their offensive line and have up to half a dozen running backs they feel can be productive.
The defense got heavy doses of the Jaguars running game, which was another offseason priority, throughout the preseason and held its own.
“Our identity this year really is stopping the run and getting it to third down, then making plays on the pass,” nose tackle Gabe Echols said. “We’re just playing pounding defense.”
The preseason performance doesn’t guarantee anything at Cajun Field, but it does suggest Southern’s run defense is capable of continuing the improvement it showed during last season.
In the first three games, the Jaguars allowed an average of nearly 330 rushing yards per game, 6.4 yards per rush and 15 rushing touchdowns, more than half of the 28 they allowed for the entire season.
In the next 10 games, Southern allowed 162.6 yards per game and 3.9 yards per rush to improve their season totals to a more respectable 200 yards per game and 4.6 yards per rush.
“We gave effort and got to the ball in the first few games,” defensive end Arthur Miley said. “But as the season went on, everyone got more comfortable with what they were doing.”
Several Jaguars defenders said they had a chip on their shoulder because none of them was selected to the All-Southwestern Athletic Conference preseason team. Slowing down the UL-Lafayette run game would go a long way in raising the Southern defenders’ profiles.
“You look at the film, and you better get in the weight room and get ready,” Odums said of the Cajuns, “because their starting offensive line does a great job of blocking for those guys, and they’re definitely difference-makers.”
Senior quarterback Terrance Broadway makes a big difference too with his dual-threat capabilities. The Capitol High School alumnus is one of three Cajuns to pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in his career.
He was sidelined by a broken arm suffered in the second-to-last game in the regular season last year before returning to play in UL-Lafayette’s New Orleans Bowl victory against Tulane.
“He’s very smart and very tough,” Odums said. “He came back for the bowl game and led them to victory and when you do that you earn a leadership role and the guys following him know he’s done a tremendous job leading that program.”
Basketball lands commit
Southern got a 2015 basketball commitment as point guard Brendon Ganaway of Richmond, Texas, tweeted that he would be playing for the Jaguars. Ganaway, 5-10, tweeted, “Blessed to say I’ve committed to play basketball at Southern University.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.