Through the first four games of this season, the most stable area on Southern’s defense has been the line.
While the secondary has dealt with a series of injuries and the linebackers lost senior Demetrius Carter to a season-ending injury, the line has remained intact.
“I think we have the experience and the type of leadership that we need,” tackle Donald Phillips said. “I think we took the initiative to be the force where the defense could look to us. It starts with the defensive line.”
Still, coach Dawson Odums and his staff are looking for more from the line as the Jaguars prepare to visit Alabama State on Saturday. The line’s depth chart was essentially static for the first four games, but it was tweaked during the open date last week.
The Jaguars moved two freshmen into the starting lineup as Jaron Johnson replaced Phillips, a redshirt junior, and Christopher Jones replaced senior noseguard Gabe Echols.
Odums said the during the first four games, in which the Jaguars blew out Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State and were on the wrong end of lopsided games against FBS foes Louisiana Tech and Georgia, the line’s play was “steady.”
“But,” Odums added, “when you watch film you see some mistakes being made that shouldn’t be made by upperclassmen. They’ve been in the system. They know what’s required of them and they know it’s all about understanding your assignment.”
Odums said he hoped the changes to the depth chart, which may or may not carry into Saturday’s game, would yield an “attitude adjustment.”
“We’re asking our guys to play at a certain level, and if you’re an upperclassman and you’re not playing at that level then as coaches we have a problem with it,” Odums said.
The open date last week gave the coaches more time to study not only game film, but also practice film.
“We took the opportunity to watch the film, made our evaluations and made the moves,” defensive line coach Myron Jackson said. “We’re giving guys opportunities. We’re always looking for the guys that are doing the best in practice. If you’re doing your best, we’re always looking to put you out there.”
Sophomore Aaron Tiller remains the starting end and senior Daniel Brown remains the starter at the Sam linebacker, which is essentially a standup end.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Phillips said. “(Odums) probably watches more film than us so I think he did it for a reason. I trust the coaching staff and whatever decision they made I feel is the right decision.”
“He’s switching it up to see what he has,” Echols said of Odums.
Brown leads the group with 15 tackles and Tiller is next with 12, including a team-high two sacks. Echols and Phillips are right behind with 11 and nine tackles, respectively. Jones has five tackles and Johnson three.
“Chris Jones is a powerful young man — explosive and athletic,” Jackson said. “He tries extremely hard to fulfill any and every request that the coaching staff has put forth toward him.”
Jones (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) played at Franklin High School and Johnson (6-3, 235) played at Memorial High School in Port Arthur, Texas.
“Jaron Johnson comes from a winning football program,” Jackson said. “He’s technically sound. He hasn’t backed down from any challenge, which is sometimes what you’ll see from a freshman.
“The two of them give great effort and when they’re in the ball game we have no letdown.”
When asked if Odums’ move had gotten his attention, Echols, a preseason second-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference selection, replied, “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh, yeah.”
“We don’t have time to wait on you to decide how you want to practice to play,” Odums said. “Our expectation is that when you hit the practice field, you do it with a will and a determination to dominate.
“If you can’t practice like that, you won’t play like that. So those who practice like that will be the guys we play with. It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman. Those are our expectations.”
With the secondary getting healthier, if Odums gets the attitude adjustment he’s looking for on the line, Southern’s defense could raise its level of play as it enters the heart of the SWAC schedule.
“Definitely if we do our job up front, it makes things easier for the guys behind us,” Jackson said. “We have to be consistent, not only in how we play but in how we align, how we execute all of our responsibilities as it pertains to our defense.
“If we are not consistent up front it makes it very difficult for the people behind us to fulfill their responsibilities.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.