The Southern coaching staff had it figured out.
From the moment spring practice began, much less training camp, the coaches intended to use hard-running Brandon Rice as their No. 1 tailback.
Then the realities of football changed everything.
Rice suffered a shoulder injury during an Aug. 20 scrimmage, and Mitchell said Saturday the junior will probably miss SU’s first three games.
“We’ll have a lot going by then,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt. But that’s a part of the game. And the game won’t stop.”
The team has a host of running backs, including freshman Dallas Fort, junior Sylvester Nzekwe, senior Terrell Alex, senior Jerry Joseph and junior Byron Williams, and at times, each of them has stood out during practice, earning a shot at the starting job.
But when the Jaguars open their season at 6 p.m. Saturday at Tennessee State, unheralded senior Kaelan Mayfield will take the first turn.
“No question about that,” Mitchell said.
Mayfield, a St. Louis native, walked on at Ole Miss but never played. He transferred to Southern last season and played sparingly, gaining 18 yards on six carries.
But Mayfield started to practice with the first-team offense last week, mostly because he executed plays as they were designed, running between the tackles instead of constantly bouncing outside, as other backs had done.
Mayfield had a team-high seven carries in Saturday’s final scrimmage in A.W. Mumford Stadium, followed by Fort (six) and Nzekwe (four).
Mitchell said SU will use several running backs against Tennessee State, including 250-pound fullback Brian McCain, whom Southern might use to soften the Tennessee State defense.
“He’s a physical guy,” Mitchell said of McCain. “They have some DBs that I want to have to tackle him, because I think that’ll make it easier in our passing game.”
CB Pettaway making plays
Even before players reported for camp Aug. 4, Southern coaches already handed the No. 1 cornerback job to sophomore Virgil Williams, who played extensively as a true freshman last season.
Though the team had plenty of candidates at the No. 2 spot — including junior D’Mekus Cook and redshirt freshman Kevin King — it appears LaMarkius Pettaway, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Chattanooga, is closing in on a starting job.
“Absolutely. Pettaway has made great strides,” defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert said. “He’s gotten better every day. He’s still young, but he’s gotten better.”
Pettaway excelled in the team’s first two scrimmages and played mostly with the first-team defense Saturday.
John Mack, a transfer from Division II East Stroudsburg, will likely serve as the team’s top nickel back, with Cook, King and others playing against multiple-receiver sets.
On the call
Southern’s radio broadcast team underwent a reshuffling when longtime analyst Henry Baptiste retired after last season. But the new lineup is set.
Chris Powers will handle play-by-play, with former Southern head coach Gerald Kimble serving as analyst. Former quarterback Eric Randall will keep his role as sideline reporter. Powers was part of the radio team for football games from 2001-07. Kimble coached the Jaguars from 1989-91.