The bull’s-eye attached to Southern’s defensive backfield has gotten more eye-catching.
Any Jaguars opponent — especially the first one, Louisiana Tech on Saturday night in Ruston — figures to look at the experience of the players in the three layers of Southern’s defense and decide the secondary is the one to take aim at first.
The six starting linemen and linebackers averaged more than 10 starts last season, if you fudge the numbers and factor in the 13 games linebacker Daniel Brown started in his last season — two years ago before he was ineligible last season.
The five starters in the secondary averaged fewer than seven starts last season even before nickelback Rhaheim Ledbetter was subtracted from the equation earlier this week after being declared academically ineligible. Jamal Jenkins will make his first career start in Ledbetter’s place, meaning the unit that’s expected to start Saturday averaged fewer than five starts last season.
“I expect (Tech to zero in on the secondary),” said cornerback Jamar Mitchell, one of three new starters in the secondary. “They know we’re inexperienced, but it’s just time for us to go out there and prove ourselves.”
The other cornerback, Danny Johnson, understandably has a matter-of-fact attitude about inexperienced players being up to the challenge of starting. He was a second-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference player after starting 12 games as a freshman last season and moved up to the first team on the preseason all-SWAC squad for this season.
“They’re new to the secondary,” Johnson said, “but they still can make plays just like everybody else can.”
Dionte McDuffy (nine starts) joins Johnson as a returning starter in the rebuilt secondary.
“(Johnson) is a returning all-conference player, so he’s got to take it to the next level, and I think he’s prepared to do that,” head coach Dawson Odums said. “A lot of it is falling on his shoulders and Dionte McDuffy’s shoulders. They’ve got to get some guys understanding how we prepare for games and what’s expected in games, and I think those guys will be ready. The young guys are going to make mistakes. You’ve got to live with them.”
Safety Nicholas McDonald is a junior-college transfer, and Mitchell started one game last season.
“I can help them build their confidence,” McDuffy said. “They’re not used to being out there on the field with us so I can let them know that it’s just football, a game you’ve been playing your whole life. So just go out there, play fast and do your responsibility.”
The second-team secondary is comprised of nickelback Jason Dykes, who like Jenkins is a fifth-year senior with limited defensive experience, sophomore cornerback Ki-Jana Curtis and three freshmen — safety Andrea Augustine and cornerbacks Demerio Houston and Arvin Huff.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys playing in the secondary, a lot of guys that are just getting here,” Odums said. “You’re going to see some freshmen playing. You’re going to see some guys that were defensive backs last year that maybe didn’t get as many snaps, so it is a concern.
“But like I told them, you’ve got to go play. There’s no better way to learn on the job than actually doing the job. They’re going to get a chance first-hand to see what kind of talent they have and what kind of mistakes they’re going to make and how we improve from them, so I think it’s going to be a challenge. I think it’s going to be a game where they have to step up and make some plays.”
Jenkins, who has played primarily on special teams, had the shortest adjustment period, having learned just Sunday that he would be replacing Ledbetter in the starting lineup. He’s a natural cornerback who said playing nickelback is easier.
“It’s a lot less pressure,” he said. “I can fly around and show my athleticism and make a lot of plays in the running game. I guess the biggest difference is not being on an island and not having to worry too much about the deep ball. I’m ready to play.”
Brown said the more experienced units up front can help the secondary survive any onslaught that might come their way.
“The D-line will have to play better, the linebackers will have to play better and the secondary will have to step up but we have a mentality around here that anybody can replaced at any time,” Brown said. “There’s an old saying that the secondary’s best friend is a good pass rush.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate