The start of preseason football practice is supposed to be an opportunity for a team to pick up where it left off at the end of spring practice and for the coaches to start figuring out who’s going to assume roles vacated by the previous season’s seniors.
But when Southern reports Sunday and practices for the first time Monday, those challenges will be greater than normal.
The Jaguars didn’t have spring practice; they were banned from the workouts, finishing the final sanction from NCAA punishment relating to subpar academic progress rates. Additionally, 11 players who had remaining eligibility after last season are no longer on the active roster.
Six of those players are academically ineligible: defensive backs Bryan Anderson and Justin Bethancourt, offensive linemen Brandon Thibodeaux and Neako Jones, linebacker Jordan Taylor and punter Paul Randle Soden. Some of the academic casualties have appealed and could be reinstated, but Southern officials won’t say who falls into that category.
Four others left the team: running backs Jamarcus Jarvis and Tyre Bracken, offensive lineman Clayton Sylve and defensive lineman Gerald Brent. Also, kicker Kyle Yonke was dismissed.
The bottom line is that coach Dawson Odums and his staff have a whole lot of stuff to figure out before the Jaguars open the season Sept. 5 at Louisiana Tech.
“The first thing we’re trying to do is just figure out a little bit about our football team,” Odums said. “We lose guys every year. You lose some to graduation, you lose some to discipline, you lose some to academics. At the end of the day, we’re still going to kick off Sept. 5 and the guys who are here will be ready to go.”
The biggest loss is Anderson, who was a returning starter as a sophomore at free safety. Depth at running back took a hit with the losses of Bracken and Jarvis, though 1,000-yard rusher Lenard Tillery and third-leading rusher Malcolm Crockett return.
“We’re going to have to have some guys step up, but that’s what our program is all about,” said Odums, whose team overcame a rash of academic casualties early last season to win its final seven regular-season games and claim a second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title. “I know that, come Sunday, the 95 guys that are here are going to be the ones that give us the best chance to win, and we’re going to focus on the opportunity that they have.”
The absence of spring practice means the Jaguars have not been on the field as a team in pads since Dec. 6, when they lost to Alcorn State 38-24 in the SWAC title game in Houston.
“The purpose of spring practice is to knock the rust off,” Odums said. “We didn’t have that opportunity. When you miss that much time, you just don’t really know about your football team. We’re trying to figure out a lot about the new guys and get them all on the same page as well as getting the returning players to pick up where they left off.”
Odums’ colleagues in the SWAC still expect Southern to be a championship contender. They picked the Jaguars second to Grambling (by a mere two points) in the West in the league’s preseason poll.
Seven Southern players took up eight spots on the preseason All-SWAC first and second teams. The first team had cornerback Danny Johnson, offensive lineman Anthony Mosley, Tillery and wide receiver Willie Quinn, who made the second team as a return specialist and was joined by offensive lineman Terrell Lee, defensive tackle Gabe Echols and safety Dionte McDuffy.
So ,despite the missing players, lost time and question marks, the Jaguars still have plenty of talent.
And now they’re finally getting back to work.
“Now we do have the same number of practices as everybody else to make ourselves a better football team and get prepared to play,” Odums said. “If we can get them to have a spirited camp, have fun and do everything we ask of them, everything else will take care of itself.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.