Amid the heat and misery of training camp, some three weeks before Southern’s season opener at in Nashville, Tenn., against Tennessee State, members of the Jaguars defense stopped in at a sandwich shop near campus, where they planned to rest and refuel for an afternoon practice.
As the young men ordered foot-long subs and fountain drinks, Gerald Sanders, a 43-year-old New Orleans native and self-described SU football fan, approached them.
“Hey,” said Sanders, addressing the players with a straight face.
“You guys think you can win three games this year??” Sanders smiled as he got in line. He thought he was funny.
The players did not.
“He’s got jokes,” defensive end Kadeem Lewis said later, reflecting on the exchange. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.”
Two hundred seventy-nine days have passed since last year’s Bayou Classic, when Southern’s disastrous first season under Stump Mitchell ended with a blowout loss to Grambling.
Players haven’t forgotten how it felt to walk off the ground level of the Superdome in shame, owners of a 2-9 record - the worst in school history.
Truthfully, that’s all they want to do - forget.
“We’ve had all this anger building up inside us,” wide receiver LaQuinton Evans said. “We want to give everybody a taste of it.”
Now’s their chance.
At 6 p.m. Saturday in the John Merritt Classic at LP Field, the Jaguars face Tennessee State in a matchup of two similar teams.
TSU has one of the proudest programs in black college football, but the Tigers are coming off a 3-8 record, and they begin their second season under coach Rod Reed.
Sound familiar? Southern, coming off a similarly dismal year, enters its second season under Mitchell.
“Southern is going to be a lot more mature than they were last year,” Reed said. “They were down a little bit last year, but I know coach Mitchell will have those guys ready to play.”
But a more important question remains. Are they ready to win?
Thanks to penalties stemming from their poor Academic Progress Rate, the Jaguars begin this season already knowing they’re ineligible for a berth in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.
Whereas most teams in the Football Championship Subdivision have 63 scholarships to give, Southern has only 54.
The APR penalties also cut into their weekly practice time.
The once-proud program hasn’t won a SWAC title since 2003. And in case anyone failed to notice, last season was not exactly a hit.
Mitchell, fresh from an 11-year stint as an NFL assistant coach, infamously predicted a 12-0 record. Then he watched his team fall apart as it dealt with an array of problems - among them, dropped passes, blown blocking assignments, missed tackles and sagging morale among fans.
Mitchell enters the second year of a three-year contract, and he knows the heat is on.
But he promises this season will be different.
“I know everybody didn’t want me here. That’s the bottom line,” he said.
“But I love being at Southern, and I’m here to try to make a difference in the lives of these young men. If we can build discipline and character with them, (and) if we can give them a game plan to be successful, everything else will take care of itself.”
So what, exactly, is that plan?
It includes a better, more efficient offense, which hinges largely on a revamped, more experienced line.
“We are a much better unit as a whole,” left tackle Chris Browne said, “and I never believed in everybody like I do now.”
The team will ask more of sophomore quarterback Dray Joseph, who has replaced junior Jeremiah McGinty as the starter but must improve his accuracy. As a part-time player, he completed 49 percent of his throws last season.
Said quarterbacks coach Chad Germany: “If we can get him to (complete) about 60 or 65 percent, we’ll be 9-2 instead of 2-9.”
The defense also will look different, both in personnel and scheme. Second-year coordinator O’Neill Gilbert has moved to a 3-4 alignment and simplified the terminology, allowing players to think less and be more aggressive.
The defensive line is undersized but has more experience than in recent years. The linebackers, armed with senior transfers Jamie Payton and Jared Detrick, “will be the strength of our defense,” Gilbert said.
The secondary has been overhauled. It has two new starting cornerbacks in Virgil Williams and LaMarkius Pettaway, as well as two safeties, Levi Jackson and Demetric Rogers, who say they have a better understanding of their roles.
Together, the Jaguars head into LP Field with a firm belief they’re not a 2-9 team anymore. They believe, in fact, that they’ll be much better.
Even if outsiders disagree.
“They didn’t see us in the weight room,” receiver Charles Hawkins said. “They didn’t see us at practice, helping each other along. They didn’t see us get better with our understanding of the scheme. They don’t know how much better we are.”
Hawkins delivered his message with an even voice, in a serious tone. He looked straight ahead.
He was serious.
He wasn’t in the mood for jokes.