Now in his fifth season at Southern University, senior linebacker Corey Ray knows the drill. He’s used to it.
Every preseason, he said, players and coaches naturally believe they’ll be better than they were the year before.
“We said the same thing during camp last year,” Ray said.
Of course, they weren’t better.
The Jaguars went 2-9 in their first season under Stump Mitchell, and the linebackers had their share of disappointing moments.
All too often, in crucial third-down situations, SU linebackers blew assignments, missed tackles or did both at the same time. As a result, opponents had 58 third-down conversions last season, forcing Southern’s defense to stay on the field and wear down in the second half.
So why, then, will this season really be different? Why will the Jaguars linebackers be better, more dependable this year?
“I’ll tell you why,” Ray said with a grin.
“Last year, we had a couple spots where we were good. But most of all, defensively, we were going by our scheme. We were counting on our scheme to get us through the game. Now it’s combination of good athletes to go with the scheme. That’s a great combination.”
Now, of course, the linebackers have to validate Ray’s belief.
Southern returns this season with a modified scheme, using a 3-4 alignment - in part because its revamped linebacking corps is deeper.
“Last year, I think we only had about seven linebackers by the end of the season,” said Franchot West, now a sophomore.
“This year, we’ve got a lot of depth. We’ve got a lot of first- and second-string guys who can play. ... That’s a good thing, because if someone goes down, someone else can step up.”
Defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert seems to think so. When preseason camp began Aug. 4, Gilbert said he believed the linebackers would be the strength of the unit.
It starts with Ray, who, if nothing else, is the oldest of the bunch. This is his last chance to thrive for an entire season, something he hasn’t done since he arrived in 2007 from Clinton, Miss.
Ray has often drawn coaches’ praise for instincts, leadership and hard hits. But he has also paid a price for those hard hits, suffering a parade of back and shoulder injuries since his freshman season.
Ray, who has 70 tackles in 22 career games, underwent offseason shoulder surgery. He promises to be in fine form this fall.
He’s joined by Jamie Payton, a former Dutchtown High standout who spent the past three years at Lambuth, a private NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn., that closed down this summer.
Gilbert and Mitchell have both said that Payton, who made 224 tackles at Lambuth from 2008-10, has excelled in preseason camp.
“I’m enjoying it,” Payton said.
“It feels good to be back home.”
The outside linebackers include junior transfer Corry Roy - the name is similar, but he’s not Corey Ray - and another senior in Demetrius Bentley.
Bentley has spent three years at SU bouncing from one position to another, spending time at fullback, defensive end and outside linebacker.
Gilbert said the coaching staff must find different ways to use Bentley as a pass rusher.
“He’s going to move around a lot for us,” Gilbert said. “There will be times in ballgames where we need to just get speed on the field. ... We’re going to ask him again to stand up at times and also put his hand on the ground and rush.”
It’s also possible that West and yet another senior, Jared Detrick, could become starters at some point.
Detrick transferred from Virginia, where he made 17 tackles and one forced fumble from 2008-10. Since preseason camp began, Detrick has split time with the first and second teams.
West played in 10 games as a freshman, mostly as a reserve.
Last fall was, indeed, a new experience for West.
A native of Stone Mountain, Ga., he attended Stephenson High School, one of the football powerhouses in northern Georgia (this season, in fact, Stephenson already has four Division I commitments).
West had never been part of a losing team before, much less a team that finished 2-9.
“Heartbreaking,” West said. “I’d never had that feeling. I had to suck it up, get back in the weight room and try to get my teammates to rally around me, get stronger and come back, have a good season this time around.”
His optimism makes sense, especially in the preseason.
As Ray has learned, it’s the time when coaches and players always believe they’ll be better than the year before.