It’s the middle of game week, and Southern offensive line coach Chennis Berry doesn’t know what group he’ll start Saturday.
It’s OK, though, because he’ll have it figured out some time before 6 p.m. Saturday when the Jaguars kick off against Northwestern State in A.W. Mumford Stadium.
In each of the first two games this season, Berry hasn’t been able to settle on a starting group until gameday.
“I never know until kickoff,” Berry joked before practice Tuesday.
The line was the most stable part of the team entering preseason camp because four starters returned, and the fifth — senior center Brandon Thibodeaux — was experienced.
But by the time the season opener at UL-Lafayette rolled around Aug. 30, things had started to change dramatically. Left tackle Reginald Redding was sidelined by a concussion, and two other players — starting right guard Anthony Mosley and reserve center/guard Terrell Lee — found out they hadn’t been cleared academically. They had to get off the team bus as it was about to leave campus less than two hours before kickoff.
Berry, who insists all linemen be prepared to play multiple positions, planned to move left guard Zach Brown into Redding’s spot and put Lee at left guard. But Lee’s late absence left Brown at left guard.
Two walk-ons — tackle Neako Jones and guard Jamal Boulden — were going to have to start, but Berry had multiple combinations to ponder. As they were walking onto Cajun Field for warmups, Jones told Berry he would be most comfortable at left tackle, so Berry started there and went with Brown, Thibodeaux, Boulden and right tackle Dewayne Houston.
Despite missing three starters and starting two walk-ons, the line gave a respectable performance. It didn’t allow a sack, though the Jaguars rushed for only 77 yards on 32 carries in a 45-6 loss.
The following Friday, Lee was cleared, a day after Redding had been medically cleared for contact work. Berry put together three separate starting units because of the fluidity of the situation.
That came in handy when Redding’s academic certification was unexpectedly revoked 30 minutes before kickoff Saturday.
Brown thought he was going to start at one of the guard spots, though he didn’t know which. But when Redding was deemed unavailable, Brown wound up starting at right tackle. He later moved to right guard, then left guard, then back to right tackle.
“I was pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Brown split time between right tackle and left guard last season, but last week’s maneuvering was a first.
Houston bounced around quite a bit too, playing right tackle, left tackle and left guard.
The experience and versatility of Brown and Houston have given Berry a starting point each week.
“They’re my two seniors, and they have to be able to know it all,” he said. “I’m happy with those guys, and they’ll do whatever the part calls for.”
In the first quarter Saturday, Thibodeaux injured an ankle and did not return. Lee, who was academically ineligible for all of last season, replaced him, played the rest of the game at center and is expected to start there Saturday.
“He came in and graded out at 86 percent, which is outstanding,” Berry said.
Berry said Lee likely would have earned a starting position during preseason camp if not for the uncertainty about his availability.
At his weekly news conference Tuesday, head coach Dawson Odums praised Southern’s “makeshift” line. He then was asked if it really felt makeshift, given that the Jaguars rushed for 395 yards and didn’t allow a sack.
“Oh, it feels like a makeshift when you start calling out the names of some of those guys,” he said, “but they’re accepting the challenge.”
Odums, who worked with Berry at North Carolina A&T before both came to Southern, said he’s happy to have Berry on staff “because he’s having to earn every dollar he makes this year.”
The biggest blow was the loss of Mosley, a first-team preseason All-Southwestern Athletic Conference selection whom Berry called “our heart and soul and spiritual motivator.”
Though Mosley is not expected back this season, he is allowed to practice and be in meetings, and he has maintained his role as a leader in every way — except playing on Saturday.
Running back Lenard Tillery described Berry’s ability to plug in players and not miss a beat this way: “If somebody goes down, I don’t care if you’re a walk-on, I don’t care if you’re from the moon. You get in, you know the offense, you have confidence; now let’s go out and play.”
The Jaguars got some good news Tuesday night when Redding was cleared to play Saturday.
“It’ll help us to get him back,” Odums said.
Redding’s return means the best guess at a starting line this week is Redding, Brown, Lee, Boulden and Houston.
“We can win with that group,” Odums said.
But rest assured, Berry will have another group or two prepared. Just in case.