The preseason is over for Southern’s football team.
The Jaguars went 1-2 in nonconference games, but that doesn’t matter much. From here on out, it’s all Southwestern Athletic Conference games, starting with a trip to Prairie View on Saturday.
Southern won the conference championship last season, and its primary goal this year is to win another. Nothing that happened in the first three games changes that.
“When it gets to this point in the season, every game matters,” running back Lenard Tillery said before practice Monday. “The first three games were tests to see where we were at as a team. Every game now is going to count toward getting to the championship again. Right now, there’s a sense of urgency around the team.”
The Jaguars started with a 45-6 loss at Louisiana-Lafayette, beat NAIA squad Central Methodist 56-14 and lost to Northwestern State 51-27 on Saturday. This week could provide the first down-to-the-wire game against a team Southern beat 62-59 in double overtime last season.
“We’ve found our identity here and there,” Tillery said. “Now we’ve either got it together or we don’t.”
Southern still hasn’t settled on a quarterback as both Deonte Shorts and Austin Howard have done good things and bad things. Both are expected to continue sharing the position until one establishes himself as clearly superior.
“From my point of view and the team’s point of view, our quarterbacks are ready,” wide receiver Justin Morgan said. “There’s always going to be ups and downs in football. We’ve got confidence in our two quarterbacks, and they’ve got confidence now that they got their feet wet.”
The Jaguars have lost seven starters and four backups to academic ineligibility or a lack of academic certification. The latest losses came Saturday, when three starting defensive backs — cornerbacks Kevin King and D’Andre Woodland and safety Dionte McDuffy — were pulled from the lineup just before kickoff because of concerns about their eligibility, even though they had been cleared to play in the first two games.
Their status remained unclear Monday. The university has not responded to multiple requests for clarification of the situation.
In their absence Saturday, Demons quarterback Zach Adkins set school records with 19 consecutive completions and 30 completions for the game. He tied a school record with four touchdown passes.
In its two games against NCAA competition, Southern has allowed an average of 48 points.
“We had some busts in these three games, but I think it taught us,” nose tackle Gabe Echols said. “We’ve learned a lot and gained a lot from it. We’re going to fix what we messed up and keep on pushing. We bring the same intensity every week, but we’re more focused for the SWAC.”
Tillery said the unexpected loss of starters at the last minute Saturday, as well as the loss of five other players who would have started in the opener less than two hours before kickoff, has been a challenge that has included “good and bad.”
He said the losses the day of the opener sent a wakeup call to starters that nothing was guaranteed and to the backups that, no matter what they expected during the week, they could find themselves in a much more prominent role in the game.
“It helped the practices a lot because a lot of people came out and didn’t know if they were going to be able to play that week and everybody worked hard,” he said. “Everybody is trying to take the initiative to get better for the team.”
Coach Dawson Odums said there’s “a different feeling” around his team this week that he hasn’t felt before.
“I’m trying to figure out if that’s good or bad,” he said.
The players are bewildered by the ever-changing availability of players and lack of a clear explanation for it.
“One thing I know is that, by Saturday, we’ll be focused and locked in and ready to give our best,” Odums said. “I just feel bad for the players and the assistant coaches that work so hard. I can’t do anything else except take the punches. It’s hard when you don’t know who’s going to be able to play.”
In a strange way, perhaps the uncertainty has had a positive effect.
“I don’t know how teams prepare for us,” Odums said, “because we play different guys every week.”