Dray Joseph said he doesn’t know exactly when the mood of a football team begins to shift.
But at some point, he said, everyone knows. At some point, the atmosphere changes. Everyone can sense it.
At Southern University, it changed sometime late last week, when the Jaguars turned away from the monotony of preseason. The anxiousness of game week took over.
In a few days, the Jaguars will pack for their trip to Nashville, Tenn., where they’ll break the seal on a new season. At 6 p.m. Saturday, they face Tennessee State, more than ready to prove they’re back on the path toward respectability.
Training camp shrinks in the rear-view mirror. LP Field, site of the opener, is coming into focus.
It’s here. It’s time.
“It’s an antsy feeling. You get butterflies from it,” said Joseph, the sophomore quarterback. “I had butterflies for the scrimmage we just played (Saturday) - just knowing how important it was. After that, you know the season is coming up.”
It certainly is.
“We’ve got some guys that can play, make no mistake about it,” coach Stump Mitchell said. “We just have to go out and do what we have to do. We (coaches) have to give them a game plan to be successful with. And these guys will be ready. We’ve got some guys that are mature - more so than we had last year. And we’re just excited that it’s here.”
On most campuses, true game-week preparations began Monday. The practice fields were empty at Southern, thanks to the NCAA-mandated practice limitations - one of a few penalties imposed on the program for its substandard score in the Academic Progress Rate.
This week, and the rest of the season, Southern will take Sunday off and use Monday for things like study halls and tutoring sessions. On Tuesday, prep work begins.
The Jaguars aren’t clueless about Tennessee State; they spent parts of the preseason watching film of the Tigers and installing parts of the game plan for Saturday’s opener.
The game itself is a fitting matchup for two proud programs that are sorely in need of a rebound.
Tennessee State went 3-8 last season and has a second-year coach in Rod Reed.
Southern went 2-9 last season and has a second-year coach in Mitchell.
The defensive line has to prove it’s ready to handle a stout rushing attack; though TSU didn’t fare well as a team, its ground game was sturdy last season, ranking 24th in the nation with 190 yards per game.
On the other side, Southern’s offensive line has to prove it can effectively open holes and protect the quarterback.
But the quarterback, Joseph, will have a big impact on SU’s successes and failures.
He isn’t new to the college game anymore. Joseph came off the bench in the second half of Southern’s only two wins last season, and he started three of the Jaguars’ final three games.
When junior Jeremiah McGinty missed spring practice with a shoulder injury, Joseph got an early leg up on the starter’s job. In preseason camp, he practiced well enough to earn it.
Joseph completed only 49 percent of his passes last season. He said he has to bump that number up, maybe to 60 percent or better.
The Edgard native stayed on campus during the summer, trying to get better. He has also tried to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
“My freshman year, I was mostly looking at safeties and corners, trying to distinguish the coverages,” he said. “Now ... it’s easy to understand the linemen’s techniques and their alignments. It’s easier for me to tell who’s blitzing from where.”
As he put it, experience is the best teacher.
“I think he’s still improving,” quarterbacks coach Chad Germany said. “It’s a slow process. It’s taking a little time, but I think he’s getting better in certain areas. I think he’s getting better with his drop-backs. Some of the throws, he’s still not making. But overall, I think he’s getting better.”
Mitchell, for his part, said he believes Joseph’s teammates believe in him, too.
They see how hard he’s worked for this chance.
“I think they’re responding extremely well,” Mitchell said. “Dray was here during the summer, doing what he felt he needed to do. So they understand what Dray can do and how he can lead them.”
At 6 p.m. Saturday, he’ll lead them onto the grass at LP Field. It’s only four days away.
The atmosphere has changed.
Game week is here.