Southern has used numerous combinations of players on its offensive line this season.
But one thing that has remained constant is the line’s ability to protect the quarterback. The Jaguars have allowed the fewest sacks in the Southwestern Athletic Conference — just four in eight games.
What’s more is only one of the sacks has taken place inside the pocket, according to offensive line coach Chennis Berry.
“We take pride in not giving up sacks,” Berry said before practice Tuesday. “That’s something to be proud of and we want to continue to build on that.”
Berry noted the importance of timing between the quarterbacks and wide receivers and the communication between the running backs and the linemen in blocking in order to avoid sacks.
The line has seen various changes due to injuries and certification issues. Right tackle Dewayne Houston has been an anchor and Zach Brown has mostly lined up next to him, though he missed the last quarter and half at Alabama A&M two games ago after suffering a neck stinger.
Reginald Redding was the starting left tackle before being sidelined by a concussion and a certification issue. Eric Janeau and Neako Jones both saw time there, but Redding has returned.
Brandon Thibodeaux started the season at center before being injured and replaced by Terrell Lee, who was expected to start at left guard but missed time because of a certification issue. Walk-on Jamal Boulden became the starting left guard a day before the season opener at Louisiana-Lafayette and he has started every game.
“I told him the other day, “do you know how proud I am of you?”” Berry said of Boulden. “He has a come a long way. He works so hard. He’s an undersized guy (6-foot-2, 266 pounds), but he’s a guy who came in as a walk-on and he has really bought into the technique and the work ethic.
“He’s been a mainstay. He’s played very well and he’s been consistent. He has graded over 80 percent every week and he doesn’t mind cutting you and putting his hands on you. He’s a scrappy guy and he understands that technique has to be his saving grace.”
The line has stabilized during Southern’s three-game winning streak heading into its home game against Alabama State on Saturday. Redding, Boulden, Lee, Brown and Houston have settled in as a unit.
“After a while of playing with the same person next to you and not having to switch a lot you get more familiar with the players and with the position and it makes us much better as a whole,” Houston said.
Head coach Dawson Odums preaches about “the next man up,” emphasizing that players are expected to produce when they’re unexpectedly thrust into the lineup. But he conceded it’s not as simple as that on the offensive line.
“It’s easy to say next guy up, but the O line is not like any other position,” Odums said. “Those guys have got to have chemistry and it takes working together and knowing each other. That chemistry and that mindset have to be created. I think we have that consistency that’s starting to show in games.
“Teams throw a lot of stuff at them but they just sit back there and they protect that quarterback. We’re able to run the ball a lot better than we have in the past. A lot of it is predicated on how well that offensive line is playing.
Boulden said the linemen were comfortable with every permutation even though they required adjustments. Jones, Janeau and Thibodeaux remain part of the rotation.
“The line has great chemistry,” he said. “We all can work together no matter who is in. Even though we rotate seven, sometimes eight, we maintain good chemistry and nothing slows down when we rotate.”
In the Jaguars’ 42-28 victory at Jackson State last Saturday, they had their first 200-yard rushing game (267) against an NCAA opponent this season.
“We feel we can run against any team,” running back Lenard Tillery said.
Southern also had a season-high 324 passing yards and 591 total yards, their most against an NCAA opponent, last week.
“Teams never know if we’re going to run or pass,” Boulden said of the offensive balance.
But finally the Jaguars know who will comprise their offensive line.
“Those guys have bought in,” Berry said. “I set the ceiling high, but they’ve worked hard. They’ve been playing at a really high level. I’m proud of them.
“Definitely, comradeship is extremely important. When you get used to playing next to a guy and you develop a relationship with them, you tend to play better.”
Brown entered preseason camp expecting to be the left guard before becoming the right guard. He had to play some tackle as well early in the season.
“Things have changed around a lot since we started this season,” he said, “but now as we get to these final few games everybody is staying at pretty much the same spot. I wouldn’t expect to see any more changes. I think we’re good to go.”