Thursday afternoon at Southern University, about halfway through the first practice of preseason football camp, amid triple-digit temperatures and soup-like humidity, offensive players gathered around assistant coach Ricky Diggs.
Let’s leave it at this: Diggs had a few choice words for the players. Most of them weren’t flattering.
Officially, Diggs serves as the administrative assistant to second-year head coach Stump Mitchell, but he?s also a quality-control man for the offense.
And halfway through that first practice, Diggs hadn’t seen much quality.
During 7-on-7 drills, sophomore quarterback Dray Joseph threw an interception on his first pass attempt. Later, the defense forced three straight turnovers.
On the other half of the field, defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert grinned.
“Camp Stump: The Sequel,” is under way. And for what it’s worth, the defense held an edge.
“I think that there’s still going to be competition before it is all said and done, but I think Dray is going to be the (starting quarterback),”? Mitchell said. “But I’m not looking for an interception on the first 7-on-7 pass. Guys can’t be overconfident.”
It was only the first day of preseason practice. It was only a two-hour session with players in their helmets and shorts. No shoulder pads, no long pants, no contact.
Still, this was an encouraging day for the SU defense - a unit that didn?t have many of them last season, when the Jaguars finished 2-9 in Mitchell?s first year.
“The first unit was pretty good,”? Gilbert said with a shrug. “The backup unit struggled a little bit. But overall, the first-day performance - I liked it a lot more than the first day I got here.”
When the new coaching staff arrived last spring, Gilbert handed his defensive players a gigantic three-ring binder and demanded that they learn everything from front to back, telling them it was ?non-negotiable.?
Last year, during preseason practice, players said that although the scheme was complex, they were starting to get the hang of it.
When the season began, actions and numbers told a different story.
Players looked lost sometimes, and it showed; SU ranked seventh in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. No one in the conference allowed more passing touchdowns (25).
This summer, Gilbert is taking a slightly different approach. It’s not exactly the KISS method (?Keep It Simple, Stupid?), but Gilbert did make an effort to simplify his scheme.
“So now we’re only going to do certain things versus certain formations,” Gilbert said. “Instead of trying to do a whole playbook to counter everything (opponents) do, we’re going to make them figure out what we’re doing, and we?re going to be smart.”
That includes cutting out what Gilbert deemed to be too much terminology.
Last season, at different points during a game, the defense might have used a 3-4-4, a 4-3-4, and a 4-2-5.
In each case, Gilbert used different names for each alignment. Players had to memorize each one; process the play call and, in many cases, shuttle on and off the field before each snap.
“We had a lot of verbiage, and a lot of it meant the same thing. So we packaged it,”? he said.
“For instance, we?re going to play a lot with four linebackers, but sometimes, we?ll play with three linebackers and a nickel back. Instead of calling that two different things, we?ll call it one thing.”
Thursday afternoon, the minor changes look like they might have helped. For what it?s worth, the defense held an edge.
What, then, is Gilbert’s longterm outlook?
“Partly cloudy,” he said. “This was only the first day.”
Southern”s season opener is Sept. 3 at Tennessee State.
Between now and then, there are many more days to come.