Now that the nightmarish season premiere is over, now that the Southern University football team has a full week to prepare for life without a veteran tight end, Stump Mitchell said he believes his running game can gain a little more traction.
Which, if true, is certainly good news for a team that needs good news.
Last weekend, in a season-opening 33-7 loss at Tennessee State, the Jaguars had 23 rushing attempts. They gained 37 yards. Their leading rusher was J.P. Douglas, the backup freshman quarterback who didn’t enter the game until the third quarter.
Suffice it to say, that was not what Mitchell had in mind.
At 6 p.m. Saturday, when Southern opens Southwestern Athletic Conference play against Alabama A&M in A.W. Mumford Stadium, the Jaguars have to hope for a more bountiful ground game.
“We’ve just got to get better with our fundamentals,” Mitchell said. “We tried running the ball a couple times (against Tennessee State), and we were not successful, for a variety of reasons. But there’s nothing that we can’t fix this week in practice. That will allow us to be much more successful this Saturday.”
The coaching staff didn’t learn until Wednesday that its top three tight ends - Javon Jordan, Kesean Peterson and Rashaun Allen - were academically ineligible for the Tennessee State game.
The late-breaking news was quite a blow for the Jaguars, who planned to use their tight ends heavily on running downs. When the staff moved right tackle Clinton Boyd to tight end, that forced a reshuffling of the offensive line, as well; Taylon Jones, a guard by trade, made his first start at right tackle.
Jones had almost no experience at the position, even in practice. He’ll stay at right tackle. Elsewhere, Dwayne Houston will continue to start at right guard, and two other players - left tackle Chris Browne and center Lee Almanza - are mainstays on the line.
That leaves left guard, where Mitchell expects to rotate freshman Zach Brown and sophomore Aaron Hall.
Wide receiver Mike Berry, at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, will flip-flop with Boyd at tight end.
Mitchell conceded the revamped package is not foolproof. When Berry is in the game, he said, Alabama A&M will know he’s not there to run-block.
“I mean, that’s not going to happen,” Mitchell said. “But it’s also a disadvantage to them. Someone (on their defense) has to cover Mike Berry. He’s an excellent receiver playing tight end.”
One other piece of good news came Tuesday for Southern’s ground game.
Mitchell expects junior tailback Brandon Rice, who missed last week’s opener, to be back in uniform.
Rice, the projected starter in training camp, suffered a shoulder injury during a preseason camp.
Rice, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, has 230 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 57 carries, averaging a little more than 4 yards per attempt.
Almost overlooked in Southern’s season-opening loss was the absence of two linebackers - junior Corry Roy and fifth-year senior Corey Ray, who figured to play extensively.
Roy, a native of Maui, Hawaii, who transferred from Eastern Arizona Community College, had not been cleared to play, Mitchell said.
Roy’s junior-college coach, John O’Mera, said the linebacker has gotten a green light from the NCAA Clearinghouse - but Southern has not received first-hand confirmation from the Clearinghouse.
“We couldn’t play him (at Tennessee State) and afford to take the chance that it wasn’t OK,” Mitchell said.
As for Ray, Mitchell said: “We’ve filed a waiver (request) with the NCAA, but we just don’t know yet.”
The loss of both players has thinned out a linebacking corps that was supposed to be “the strength of the defense,” as coordinator O’Neill Gilbert put it last month.
To help with depth, the team has moved Anthony Balancier back to linebacker. Balancier, the team’s third-leading tackler last season, moved from linebacker to safety during preseason camp.
“We thought that having him play defensive back would add some depth and get a bigger guy back there,” Gilbert said. “But there’s no question in my mind: We are short at the linebacker spot now, so we have to reach out and bring him back.”
WR Charles Hawkins, who was helped off the field after two hard hits in last week’s game, practiced Tuesday in a helmet and shorts, while the rest of the team worked in full gear. Mitchell said he expects Hawkins to play against Alabama A&M. ... Southern is asking its fans to wear white to Saturday’s game. ... Tuesday’s news conference was sponsored by the 6th Man and Blue & Gold clubs.