PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — The Southern football team may be figuring out who it is.
The Jaguars didn’t seem to have a clear identity during their three games leading up to the start of Southwestern Athletic Conference play Saturday.
They played three lopsided games, losing twice to teams with superior overall talent (the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Northwestern State) and winning against a team with inferior talent (Central Methodist).
Throw in an inordinately large amount of roster and depth-chart churning because of injuries and various eligibility and certification issues, and it was difficult to anticipate just what to expect from the defending SWAC champions.
Southern coach Dawson Odums said leading up to the game that “Nothing you did in 2013 is going to help you in 2014.” That had become even truer as the number of missing players approached 20.
So not only did the makeup of the 2014 team look a lot different than the 2013 team, the Jaguars of late September looked a lot different than the group of early August.
But Southern’s performance in a 34-24 victory against Prairie View at Blackshear Field indicated this is a team — and a coaching staff — that is figuring out who it is and how it can be successful.
Two days before the loss to Northwestern State in the pre-conference finale, Odums learned that three defensive backs who had started the first two games — Kevin King, D’Andre Woodland and Dionte McDuffy — might not be able to play because of uncertainty about their academic certification.
It was too late in the week to properly prepare replacements. And when the trio’s absence became certain just minutes before kickoff, the mental jolt as well as the physical losses contributed to a slow start and a 51-27 defeat.
When the Jaguars began preparations for Prairie View, they at least had a clearer understanding of who would and wouldn’t be available. They prepared expecting Blake Monroe, Justin Bethancourt and Ki-Jana Curtis to man the positions the other three had to vacate, which they did.
As near as anyone can tell, the subtraction part of the certification process is over, although everyone has learned to expect the unexpected in this saga. Southern is still hopeful that King, Woodland and McDuffy might be added to the equation — as well as fellow defensive back Jaleel Richardson, who already had been in limbo — but its preparations are now being conducted with a clearer understanding of who can take the field Saturday and who can’t.
The presence of the aforementioned four missing defensive backs, as well as more than a half dozen players lost to ineligibility and a similar number sidelined by injury, would have made the Jaguars a much more talented team than they currently are.
But it was the absence of stability as much as the loss of talent that contributed to Southern’s uneven pre-conference performance.
Last week brought clarity of personnel, and Odums and his staff crafted an effective plan based on that.
They went with two tight ends and ran right at the SWAC’s lowest-rated defense and set the tone for a physical game on the ground. They ditched the quarterback platoon and went strictly with Austin Howard and didn’t use Deonte Shorts to provide a more credible passing threat to complement the running game.
They zeroed in on the best back eight they could put together on defense, factoring in the most recent loss of middle linebacker Javon Allen to a broken hand.
Then they went out and won the battle on both lines of scrimmage and played with a higher level of confidence and sense of purpose than was evident previously.
Southern worked all offseason and preseason to become better at running the football and stopping the run. Though a tiring defense allowed a couple of long runs after Southern had Saturday’s game under control, the Jaguars mostly did what they wanted to do.
A lot of important roles have been turned over to a lot of understudies for a variety of reasons, and the SWAC season is still just getting under way.
But suddenly it looks like Southern might be on its way to becoming the team it had hoped to be all along.