Right after the 2013 season ended, the questions for Southern coach Dawson Odums centered on just how he would replace Dray Joseph, the school’s all-time leading passer, and his top receiver, Lee Doss.
They’re similar to the questions he’s getting now. Willie Quinn, the school’s all-time leading receiver, and Lenard Tillery, the most prolific rusher the Southwestern Athletic Conference has ever seen, won't be with the Jaguars anymore.
The answer to both are the same: It’s not about replacing greatness; it’s about creating the opportunity for others to create their own form of greatness.
“We don’t talk about replacing guys,” Odums said. “What we talk about is a new window of opportunity for somebody to have the spotlight shined upon them.”
The Jaguars rode Tillery and Quinn heavily this season.
Tillery won the SWAC rushing title with 1,665 yards, more than 400 yards ahead of Alabama State’s Khalid Thomas (1,237), who was the league’s only other 1,000-yard back.
Quinn faded after a superb start to the season as he dealt with nagging injuries and defenses that aimed to limit his big-play capabilities. Still, he paced the SWAC in receiving touchdowns (11) while finishing second in the league in receiving yards (955).
As a pair, they accounted for 27 touchdowns and more than 3,600 all-purpose yards. In other words, Southern will have a big play-making void to fill next year.
The key to answering that question may lie in the continued development of three-year starting quarterback Austin Howard.
With stars around him, Southern has asked Howard to be a game manager, and he has excelled in that role. Only eight of his 330 pass attempts this season were intercepted.
But he also stepped into a larger role as a playmaker this season, turning in career highs in passing yards (2,650) and passing touchdowns (29).
“He’s always protected the football,” Odums said. “This year, he threw the ball away more. Next year, I expect him to be even smarter. Now, he’s got talent around him. I think he can continue to improve to have an even greater year. It’s kind of hard to have a better year than he had.”
If Howard continues in his progression, Odums thinks the pieces are in place around him to help make up for Tillery and Quinn’s lost production.
At running back, the Jaguars stockpiled a handful of youngsters for this moment, bringing Darbbeon Profit, Devon Benn and Benjamin Harris in last year’s signing class.
Profit was the only member of that group not to redshirt. All are expected to compete with rising seniors Herb Edwards — the Jaguars’ second-leading rusher in 2016 — and Tevin Horton for time in the backfield next season.
“They’ll be ready,” Odums said. “We’ve got some special youths there. They’re just waiting on their time.”
The same can be said in the receiving corps, though that group will be more proven heading into 2017 than the running backs.
The Jaguars will bring back tight end Dillon Beard and a healthy Randall Menard, who were options 2 and 3 for Howard in the passing game this season, as well as Dontrell Brown, who was at times Howard’s go-to receiver in clutch situations.
A crowd of young receivers is also looking to make its mark. Rising sophomores Curtlan Williams (10 catches, 109 yards), Stacy Piro (seven catches, 109 yards) and Quentavius Monday (five catches, 92 yards) all showed flashes of ability throughout the season.
“I think we’ve got some talent at receiver,” Odums said.
And who knows? Maybe the one who will play the biggest role in replacing Quinn or Tillery’s production isn’t on the roster yet. National signing day is Feb. 1.
“Christmas is coming. You never know what Santa’s going to bring the Jags. We don’t know who we’re going to be able to roll in here from a recruiting standpoint that could be able to help us.”
RETURNING SKILL PLAYERS
QB: Austin Howard, Deonte Shorts, Darquez Lee
RB: Herbert Edwards, Tevin Horton, Darbbeon Profit, Devon Benn, Benjamin Harris, Jarmarqueza Mims
WR: Randall Menard, Dontrell Brown, Chuck Baker, Keith Miller, Tyler Walker, Cleveland Clark, Curtlan Williams, Stacy Piro, Quentavius Monday, James Howard, Daelon Richardson, Tyler Brown, Maurice Flowers
TE: Dillon Beard, Austin Opara, Jeremias Houston, Tedric White, Dennis Craig