First-year Southern defensive coordinator Trei Oliver is in the unusual position of working for the man he replaced.
Jaguars head coach Dawson Odums decided to relinquish defensive coordinator duties after last season, then hired Oliver away from North Carolina A&T to take over.
When asked recently about that unusual dynamic, Oliver quipped, “The one thing you’re not going to do is talk about the last guy that was in your position.”
Actually, the new defensive coordinator is a lot like the old defensive coordinator. Odums and Oliver were teammates at North Carolina Central, and they were assistant coaches together at their alma mater under current North Carolina A&T defensive coordinator Sam Washington.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Odums said. “He’s got a mindset like mine in that he’s going to put an emphasis on stopping the run, be simple and have guys flying around to the football.”
The one difference is that Odums’ background is up front, having played defensive end, nose guard and linebacker, while Oliver’s is on the back end, having been a safety and a standout punter.
“He’s a genius when it comes to the fronts; I’m more of a secondary guy,” Oliver said. “We’re not going to change a whole lot of what they did last year up front per se, but we’re going to do a lot more on the back end as far as coverages.”
Oliver is coaching the safeties while last year’s secondary coach, Steve Adams, handles the cornerbacks in addition to remaining special teams coordinator. The main difference in the secondary, Oliver said, is that Southern will play “split coverages,” often varying the scheme between the two sides of the field.
“We’re going to be a little more dynamic with the coverages,” Oliver said, “but we’re going to keep it simple.”
Oliver was the secondary and linebackers coach for the Aggies as they won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and beat Southwestern Athletic Conference champ Alcorn State in the inaugural Celebration Bowl for the black college national championship.
But he’s familiar with the SWAC, having coached at Grambling from 2007 to 2010.
“Our philosophy on defense is going to be first and foremost to stop the run,” Oliver said. “People think the SWAC is just a passing league. They see high scores and think the SWAC throws it all across the parking lot, but Alcorn ran the football.”
Alcorn led the SWAC with an average of 324 rushing yards per game last season but had just 104 in its 41-34 bowl loss to A&T.
Oliver said not having spring practice because of NCAA sanctions was “definitely difficult and definitely challenging,” but it’s nothing new to him because the Aggies had similar sanctions that cost them practices one spring and limited their hours during another early in his tenure.
“We’re going to have our hands full in (preseason camp), but we’ll be fine,” Oliver said. “If you’re a good teacher, you can teach people without having spring ball. You can bring them in the office and sit down, talk to them and show them on the board and look at some old film with them.”
Oliver said he will put together the game plans with the help of the rest of the defensive staff, though he said he’s sure Odums “will be sticking his head in quite a bit.”
“He’s been hands off in the defensive staff meetings,” Oliver said. “He chimes in with a few suggestions, but we have the green light to do what we do.”
Odums said his newfound freedom will let him provide “another set of eyes that can help” in every area, though he’ll probably be hands on most with the defensive line and special teams, which he handled when he arrived as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator in 2012.
“I don’t think there’s a team in the country that spends as much time as we do on special teams,” Odums said.
When the defense comes to the sideline during games, Oliver will be there to meet with it, letting Odums provide input to the offense more quickly than he could when he was meeting with the defense as coordinator.
Oliver, who replaced Chris Scott in the secondary, isn’t the only newcomer to Odums’ staff. Charles Cheek, who previously worked with Oliver at A&T, will coach the linebackers, replacing Lorick Arkinson. Juan Navarro, who played at Grambling when Oliver was an assistant there, will coach the defensive line, replacing Myron Jackson.
On offense, Odums had multiple responsibilities to reassign after Chad Germany resigned as assistant head coach/recruiting coordinator/co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and accepted similar responsibilities at Jackson State.
Offensive line coach Chennis Berry, who shared coordinator duties with Germany, is now the sole coordinator; running backs coach Elvis Joseph took on additional duties as senior associate head coach and recruiting coordinator; and Matt Leone was hired as quarterbacks coach.
In addition to giving Oliver his first opportunity as a coordinator, Odums elevated Cheek, Navarro and Leone to a Football Championship Subdivision program.
“I believe in giving guys opportunities. I think that’s what this profession is about,” Odums said. “I’m not in the recycle business. This is not aluminum or plastics.
“I’m about giving guys chances, because someone gave me one and I’m grateful for that. There are a lot of good coaches, and some don’t get a chance to be a coordinator or a head coach, and they are quality guys that are worthy of a chance.”