Dray Joseph gets it.
He is a native of Edgard, a small town on the Mississippi River, less than an hour from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
He is a junior at Southern University, now the etched-in-stone starting quarterback after two seasons of flip-flopping roles and inconsistent play.
His dad, Greg, attended Grambling. When Dray Joseph was a kid, they went to the Bayou Classic together.
Sure, the game’s not what it used to be. Joseph knows that. He has seen the dwindling crowds and lived through three rotten seasons with the Jaguars, who take a 3-7 record into Saturday’s showdown against archrival Grambling (1-9).
Judging by the records, this is the worst Bayou Classic matchup since the game began in 1974.
But Joseph gets it. It’s still the Bayou Classic, and Southern hasn’t won it since 2007.
“I haven’t beat (Grambling) since I’ve been here,” Joseph said. “I think our record’s better than theirs, and our record’s not that good. So if we lose to those guys, it’d be tough.”
Yes, Southern has suffered through another disappointing year. But if Joseph is already thinking about next fall, well, he has done a fine job hiding it.
“With one game left?” he asked. “Not really. ... As far as thinking about next season, I’m not going to lie: I’m not. I’m still trying to get the tough losses we had this year and last year out of (my mind). It’s kind of tough. What’s it take for us to get over the hump? That’s what’s really going through my mind.”
Saturday’s game, which gets under way at 1:30 p.m. with an NBC audience looking in, will give Joseph his best opportunity to shine against Grambling.
For much of his first two seasons at SU, Joseph was spectacular one week, average the next. He flip-flopped roles with other quarterbacks, starting one game, watching the next one from the bench.
Along the way, he was all too prone to the untimely turnover. Throwing pick-sixes in the first half, fumbling on key fourth-quarter scrambles, forcing passes into double coverage — you name it, he probably did it.
This year has been different.
In preseason camp, then-coach Stump Mitchell handed the full-time starting job to Joseph, saying the move was permanent. No more flip-flops.
The junior responded by putting his more mature skills on display.
For example: In the Jaguars’ last game — a 31-30 loss to Alabama State, in which Joseph threw for a season-high 349 yards — the coaches called a first-half screen that was quickly sniffed out. Instead of forcing a pass or trying to scramble for a sure loss, Joseph made the smart move: He threw the ball in the dirt.
“I vowed to myself (that) I’ll never make the same mistake twice,” Joseph said. “Last year, I think I threw nine interceptions, and I only played half the season. This year, I’ve (thrown) seven, and I’ve played every game. Things like that just keep me going.”
Joseph, in fact, has quietly become one of the most effective quarterbacks in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. He easily leads the league in passing yards (2,227) and touchdowns (20) and has improved his completion percentage to 58.4.
Although he’s taken plenty of snaps (and hits) over the past two-plus seasons, Joseph will start against Grambling for the first time Saturday.
If you’re a fan who’s perplexed by the Jaguars’ seemingly constant state of flux — and, for that matter, the program’s lack of progress over the past five or so years — consider this: In Joseph, Southern will have a different starting quarterback for the fourth consecutive Bayou Classic.
In 2009, the Jaguars started Bryant Lee, a fifth-year senior who became the school’s all-time passing leader (Lee, for all his success, later said his career wasn’t complete because “I didn’t win a ring”).
In 2010 — Stump Mitchell’s debut season as Southern’s football coach — Jeremiah McGinty took the ball (he completed 2 of 11 passes and had a critical interception in Southern’s 38-17 loss).
Last season, freshman J.P. Douglas — who spit time with Joseph for most of the year — started the Bayou Classic. Douglas completed 5 of 14 passes before he left the game with a concussion. Joseph came off the bench to throw for 138 yards, but Southern lost 36-12 before a crowd of 40,715 — the smallest in Bayou Classic history.
McGinty was kicked off the team last year, and Douglas was “suspended from the team indefinitely” this season, though interim coach Dawson Odums has declined to elaborate.
That leaves Joseph. Now it’s his team, and his chance to win the game he grew up watching.
“The Bayou Classic is not where it was when I was a little boy,” he said. “I just want to win that game and bring our people back.”