Southern has scored 50 points against each of its first two Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents.
The Jaguars have the leading rusher in the conference in Lenard Tillery and one of the top-rated passers in Austin Howard. The receiving corps may be the league’s deepest; it’s led by Willie Quinn, who has three special teams touchdowns to go with one he caught and another he threw.
That’s a lot of weapons Southern (2-2, 2-0) brings with it to ASU Stadium in Montgomery, Alabama, to face Alabama State (2-3, 2-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s become a nightmare watching those guys on film,” first-year Hornets coach Brian Jenkins said. “I’m in disbelief of what I’ve seen on film. They have some good ballplayers, and they play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I don’t know if we can stop them. We can try to contain them or try to slow them down, but no one has stopped them yet. I don’t know if we will have the answer, either. Hopefully we can go in and try to control them and give us a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.”
ASU seems more capable of slowing the Jaguars than either of their first two SWAC opponents. Southern beat Mississippi Valley State 50-13 and Jackson State 50-31.
The Hornets rank third in the SWAC in scoring defense, second in total defense and run defense and fifth in pass defense. They started the season 0-3 under Jenkins, who was hired after five successful seasons at Bethune-Cookman, but they’ve won their past two.
“I think they’ve got an identity,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “When you’re a new coach and you take over a program like Coach Jenkins has done, it’s about finding the right players and finding an identity. I think they’ve settled down, figured out who they are, and they’re playing with a lot more confidence. They’re definitely playing a lot faster (on defense) the last couple of games than the first three. You can’t measure on paper the confidence of a football team. It seems like they’re starting to hit their groove.”
ASU’s defense is led by linebacker Kourtney Berry, the preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year and by far the leading tackler in the league.
“He flies around,” Southern receiver Justin Morgan said. “We have to look around at where he is.”
While Jenkins was preoccupied with Southern’s top playmakers, Odums said he’s looking for others to have an impact when opportunities present themselves.
“I think people understand our wide receiver corps, but it’s going to take somebody stepping up and making plays that we least expect,” Odums said. “The opponent knows who your playmakers are, too. So it’s time for (tight end) Montrell Jones to have a great game or (tight end) Dillon Beard to have a great game. It’s time for Lenard Tillery to have a breakout game. It’s time maybe for Willie Quinn to have a breakout game receiving. We’re 2-2, and guys have to step up and make plays in order to achieve the goals that we’ve set.”
Odums said he sees the Hornets finding identity on offense as well. They went through three quarterbacks during the losing streak but seem to have settled on redshirt sophomore Ellis Richardson during the winning streak.
Richardson was named SWAC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in a 42-23 victory at Texas Southern last week. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 135 yards and a touchdown. In the past two games, he has had a hand in nine touchdowns.
“We all know that they’ve had some problems with their quarterback play, but I think they settled in on the guy and he’s done a great job from watching film,” Odums said.
“I think he’s a very good runner, but that’s like everybody else in the conference. He’s a very good passer that I think is probably underrated as a passer. He has a live arm. He can make all the throws. He’s a very good decision-maker in their offense. He really understands the offense, and you can see it on film.”
Freshman running back Alex Anderson was named SWAC Newcomer of the Week after rushing for 134 yards last week, which nearly doubled his season total, on 14 carries. Two weeks ago, ASU beat Mississippi Valley 45-15, and its back-to-back 40-point games match its total for such games for all of last season.
So, like their defense, the Hornets offense figures to provide the biggest SWAC test yet for the Jaguars.
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.