In the past year or so, Jeremy Coleman has gotten a crash course in yeoman’s work.
Now a reserve safety at Southern, Coleman is fresh from a yearlong stint at the New Mexico Military Institute - which, to him, was sort of like a mouthful of bad-tasting medicine: It’s not pleasant, but it will probably help in the long run.
While in New Mexico, Coleman had to work out at 4:30 a.m. each day. He had to ask permission to sit down at lunch. He and his teammates ran for miles on end. Each night, the lights went out at 9 p.m. - no TV, no electronics. Just sleep.
“I wouldn’t say I liked it. I wouldn’t go back,” Coleman, a sophomore, said. “But I’m glad I did it. It was a great experience. It really taught me how much I love the game of football.”
That experience might come in handy now.
As a backup, Coleman’s main duties at Southern lie on special teams. And since preseason camp began, he has learned that covering kickoffs isn’t for everyone.
“You have power-hungry guys down there. You have guys trying to break your neck as they’re running full speed on you,” Coleman said. “So you’ve got to have a little agility, quick footwork. You also have responsibilities. You have lanes and gaps that you have to protect. It’s not easy. You can’t just run full-speed down there.”
Often, it’s not much fun. And it’s certainly not as simple as everyone seems to think.
We’ve all seen the television replays on Saturdays and Sundays - clips of some special-teams ace who sails downfield, then unloads on a kickoff returner, prompting a roar from the crowd (and, usually, a few fist-pumps from a very happy special-teams coach).
In truth, covering kickoffs is a little more nuanced than simply running full-speed and unleashing a knockout blow.
In other words, there is a plan involved.
“The responsibilities have to be clean-cut for these guys, and we’ve got a good little scheme,” said Jason Palermo, the team’s tight ends coach and special-teams coordinator. “We’ve changed it up from last year. It’s not drastically different, but I think it explains things better to the kids.”
The Jaguars certainly hope that’s the case. Although some of Southern’s special teams were more than sound last season (the field-goal and punting units come to mind), other areas were spotty.
SU ranked ninth in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of 21.6 yards per return.
Palermo spent part of the offseason looking for ways to improve on that - and, as it turned out, he got a little help from Tayrone Odums, the team’s new defensive line coach (Odums had special-teams experience in previous coaching stops).
Together, they simplified terms and schemes, hoping that in doing so, players could think less and play faster.
In essence, Palermo said, players on kickoff coverage have one priority above all else: to stay in their “lanes,” designated strips of the field that prevent the receiving team from opening a hole for the return man.
With that in mind, tacklers have to get through three “zones.”
“The idea is, you want to out-run that first line (of blockers),” Palermo said. “That’s your ?avoid’ zone. Then you get to that second line. That’s going to be your ?attack.’ You have to go ahead and run through guys.”
Because Southern scouts its opponents, watching their kick-return teams on film, players should know where their opponents are coming from.
At that point, Palermo said, tacklers can’t simply slow down and dance their way through the mess of bodies. They have to remain at full-speed. If that means colliding with an opponent, so be it.
“The next level is where you’re going to make the play,” he said.
Translation: By then, they should be close to the ball carrier.
Then it’s time to make a play - something Southern didn’t do enough of last season.
Palermo said in a perfect world, the first tackler to reach the ball carrier will hold him up, allowing for a second tackler to come in and strip the ball.
If that’s not possible, Southern instructs its players to make a strong, sound tackle.
“You’ve got to pay attention to the little details,” Palermo said. “Those little details add up, and they’ll get you killed if you don’t do it right.”
Final scrimmage Saturday
Southern will hold its final preseason scrimmage at 11 a.m. Saturday.
After that, classes begin Monday, and so does preparation for the Sept. 3 season opener at Tennessee State.
Southern had three preseason scrimmages last summer in its first season under coach Stump Mitchell, but the team’s third and final scrimmage was that in name only, with a light workout inside A.W. Mumford Stadium.