The players were the same, but the performance was much different.
The same Southern secondary that was nearly defenseless in a loss to Northwestern State two weeks ago was much improved and a key component of the Jaguars victory at Prairie View last Saturday.
Late-breaking certification issues forced Southern to sit three starting defensive backs — strong safety Dionte McDuffy and cornerbacks Kevin King and D’Andre Woodland — against Northwestern State after game preparations were complete.
The Jaguars held out hope that the certification issues would be cleared practically until kickoff when it became certain the starters had to sit. NSU then completed 86 percent of its passes (30-of-35) for 230 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 51-27 victory.
Last week, the replacements — Blake Monroe, Danny Johnson and Justin Bethancourt — as well as reserves Ki-Jana Curtis, Lemar Martin, Jamaal Martin, Jamar Mitchell and Jonathan Wilson — prepared the entire week for their newly expanded roles.
Prairie View completed 60 percent (29-of-48) of its passes for 244 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions.
“I think they played better just because they got reps,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “The previous week they were thrown out there at the start of the game and this week they got all the practice reps.
“We’re very talented. I think those guys can play. They’re going to get better as the season goes along.”
Nickelback Rhaheim Ledbetter and free safety Bryan Anderson have started all four games after earning those spots early in preseason camp and each made an interception against Prairie View to lead the group.
“They were definitely a very cohesive unit,” secondary coach Marty Biagi said. “I think more than anything else they came to compete.”
Monroe and Bethancourt to a lesser extent gained limited experience on defense as freshmen last season. Johnson and Anderson are true freshmen and Ledbetter is in his first season at Southern after transferring from Florida.
“They’re still young in the defense,” Odums said, “but we’re just keeping it simple and allowing those guys a chance to play. You can’t create confusion. What we’re trying to do is get them lined up and let them go play. You might give up yards but at the end of the day it’s about points.”
Prairie View had more passing yards (244-108) and total yards (475-303) than Southern, but the Jaguars never trailed and after taking a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter they never led by less than two scores.
Anderson made his second interception of the season to set up a first-quarter field goal and Ledbetter’s first interception thwarted a Prairie View scoring threat and preserved the 14-point lead late in the second quarter.
“That was a game-changer,” Biagi said of Ledbetter’s interception.
Biagi described Ledbetter as “a heat-seeking missile”.
“He is going to play full speed every rep that he can,” Biagi said. “He’s one of those guys that’s going to go all game long and give his all.
“I think more than anything Rhaheim brings a lot of energy. He’s been in a program before where he knows it’s feast or famine. You have to step up and contribute or you get moved behind the next guy on the depth chart.”
Southern has made several moves on the depth chart in the secondary out of necessity.
Biagi said Monroe “had probably the toughest job” adjusting quickly to the demands of playing strong safety.
“In our defense,” Monroe said, “the strong safety has big shoes to fill in the run game and the passing game.”
Monroe led the defensive backs with nine tackles against Prairie View and he’s second on the team with 26 for the season.
“He knew he just had to perform and he had to be ready,” Biagi said. “Then he seized the moment.”
Biagi said Curtis and Martin came off the bench to play about 30 plays each, Biagi said.
“They were able to step right in and show that they can compete,” he said.
Each of the replacements said McDuffy, King and Woodland have continued to mentor them while sidelined, watching film with them and providing pointers during practice.
“They let us see things that we don’t see as young players and that helps us to mature,” Curtis said.
The Jaguars are still hopeful of getting the missing players reinstated, but in the meantime, their replacements seem to be growing into their new roles.
“I’ve learned to be patient, watch for the small things like the tendencies of the quarterbacks and the receivers,” Bethancourt said. “Those reps make all the difference. Since we’ve been on the field more we have more confidence.”