Photos: UAPB battles Southern _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern's Rhaheim Ledbetter (20), LeMar Martin (41), Dionte McDuffy (23), and Bryan Anderson (38) celebrate after knocking the ball away from Arkansas Pine Bluff's Isiah Ferguson (14) for an incomplete pass Saturday, Oct. 4, at Southern's A.W. Mumford Stadium.

The first seven weeks of Dionte McDuffy’s junior season at Southern were a roller-coaster ride.

In Weeks 1 and 2, McDuffy started and contributed on defense as expected, but he was one of several players pulled just before the Northwestern State game in Week 3 because of uncertainty surrounding their academic standing.

So he spent three weeks practicing, just hoping for good news. It came before the homecoming game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Oct. 4, when he was cleared to play.

“I found out at the beginning of homecoming week,” McDuffy said. “I was excited about it. Nobody wants to miss homecoming.”

In that game, McDuffy had five tackles and two pass breakups, but secondary coach Marty Biagi said the numbers don’t fully represent the effect of his presence on the field.

“After sitting out for three weeks, he had to knock some of the rust off,” Biagi said. “He still made a lot of plays but wasn’t as productive in terms of our stat sheet. I think he’s coming into his own and he’s making plays like we expected him to do.”

In Southern’s 35-34 win at Alabama A&M on October 11, McDuffy led the team in tackles — a result expected in August but in doubt in September. After last week’s open date, the Jaguars will have one of their defensive leaders back in a groove just in time for their rivalry game at Jackson State on Saturday (6 p.m., CST).

“Having him back there the past two weeks, we’ve been able to settle down and get more into a comfort zone,” Biagi said. “It’s one thing to have him cheering you on from the sideline, but it’s another thing hearing (his) voice right before the play and in the huddle saying, ‘Hey, this is what we have to do to stop the opponent.’ ”

When the Jaguars lost McDuffy in September, the team was without the secondary’s most experienced player — and its only returning starter. McDuffy transferred from South Alabama in 2013 to be closer to his family and son. After missing the first two games last season under NCAA transfer rules, he played in the final 11 and finished fifth on the team in tackles. He had 69 stops — 3.5 tackles for loss — to go with three pass breakups, an interception, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles.

Biagi said he was proud of McDuffy’s maturity and growth through this year’s upheaval, which helped keep his younger teammates calm. They knew they had to hold down the fort until the starters came back, but McDuffy didn’t do it alone. His family made sure he stayed determined.

“My dad called me every day to make sure I was being positive about the situation and not getting down on myself,” he said. “He just called and encouraged me. (My parents) called me just about every day, saying, ‘Don’t get down, and just stay positive.’ ”

Southern trailed by 20 points at Alabama A&M before rallying with 21 straight points to close the game. Biagi said McDuffy and fellow defensive back De’Andre Woodland emerged as leaders in that game.

“Those two were the ones that spoke up to the whole defense,” Biagi said. “ ‘We’re not playing to the level that we should be expecting ourselves, so it’s up to us. If we want to win this game, we’re going to have to put it on our back.’

“Those (comments) are what you’re excited to see — those kinds of guys that have been through some of the battles and are used to that kind of pressure.”