Through a long winter, offseason workouts and spring practice, through summer conditioning and preseason camp, Levi Jackson couldn’t get one memory out of his head.
Jackson, now a junior free safety at Southern, kept recalling the team’s heartbreaking 49-45 loss at Jackson State.
Everyone remembers how the Jaguars allowed JSU to score the game-winning touchdown with 2 seconds left. That was bad enough.
But Jackson kept going back to another play. It came in the first half, when JSU went for broke on fourth-and-10, and quarterback Casey Therriault fired a 22-yard touchdown pass to wideout Marcellos Wilder.
If Jackson had stopped that play, he said, Southern could have saved itself from that last-minute meltdown.
“You can’t let that happen again,” Jackson said.
What happened, exactly?
Did Jackson slip? Did he miss the play-call? Did the receiver get away with a push-off?
“No. The guy flat-out beat me,” he said. “I can’t lie about it.”
Of course, scenes like that were all too common last year, when Southern’s thin, inexperienced secondary gave up big plays by the bushel.
Jackson, for his part, chalked it up to inexperience.
A graduate of Dutchtown High School who first enrolled at LSU, he transferred to Southern last season and worked his way into the starting lineup - in part because he’s a strong young man (the 188-pound Jackson can bench-press 365 pounds), but also because a series of injuries left the coaching staff with few options.
“I had to realize the speed of the game,” Jackson said. “College football (is) different from high school. You’ve got to mentally be in tune with everything. I mean, I think I grew over the last 12 months, and I think we grew as a team.”
Now, Jackson’s back in action.
He’s the projected starter at free safety, and his teammates have to hope he’s right - that they all grew over the last 12 months.
As the Sept. 3 opener at Tennessee State nears, the defensive backs are working toward a long-needed return to form.
Five years ago, in 2006, safety Jarmaul George led a secondary that ranked first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference against the pass, giving up 139.7 yards per game.
Since then, the secondary has caused more frowns than smiles among SU fans. It ranked eighth in the conference in 2007, seventh in 2008 and ninth in 2009.
Last season, in their first year under coordinator O’Neill Gilbert, the Jaguars ranked sixth - but that number really didn’t tell the story.
No team in the SWAC gave up more touchdown passes than Southern (25), and in the Jaguars’ first nine games, opponents gained 20 or more yards on 53 plays.
Enter a man named Donnie Henderson.
This summer, head coach Stump Mitchell fired secondary coach Otis Flowers, and just before training camp, he replaced Flowers with Henderson, a tall, imposing man with a baritone voice and a long résumé.
He spent 16 years as a college assistant and 10 more years with five NFL teams, including stops as defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions and New York Jets.
Henderson spent last season as the Arizona Cardinals’ secondary coach. The Cardinals finished 12th in the NFC against the pass last season, and the team did not retain Henderson, but he had success elsewhere.
Henderson was the Ravens’ secondary coach in 2000, when they crushed the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Later, as a coordinator with the Jets in 2004, his unit finished seventh in the NFL in total defense and second in points allowed.
At Southern, he’s already known for his all-business, no-excuses attitude - and he’s all right with that reputation.
“I believe in giving a little discipline. I think every young man wants it,” Henderson said.
“I think he wants you to be straightforward ... and take the gray out, so to speak. And I think when you do that, (players) don’t have to think as much. They know exactly what you expect, and you just give them guidance.”
As it stands, his first-team secondary includes Jackson, strong safety Demetric Rogers and more than a few interesting prospects at cornerback, beginning with sophomore Virgil Williams.
As a true freshman, Williams converted from running back to cornerback, then to free safety, and finally back to cornerback, which, Gilbert said, is Williams’ more natural position.
He is the team’s No. 1 cornerback, and teammates have already given Williams a lofty nickname: “Virgil Island.”
“I’m more comfortable now,” Williams said. “When coach O’Neill moved me to free safety, it kind of helped me out, because I looked at the whole defense. I understood what was going on. When he moved me back to corner at the end of the season, the defense was so much easier.”
On the other side, D’Mekus Cook, who had 23 tackles in nine games last year, is listed as the first-team corner - but he’s facing hearty competition from freshman LaMarkius Pettaway, who’s been one of the brightest stars in preseason camp.
All told, the coaching staff said it believes the defensive backs are more talented this season. Now they have to play like it.
“I know one thing,” Henderson said. “If they don’t score, you can’t lose.”
Balancier’s balancing act
During team drills this week, Anthony Balancier has spent some time with his old buddies - the linebackers.
Balancier, who had 45 tackles as a weakside linebacker last season, moved to strong safety early in training camp. Though he’s currently a backup to Rogers, Mitchell said Balancier could flip-flop positions if necessary.
“The good thing about Anthony is that ... he knows the entire scheme, so he can play in the secondary and in the linebacking corps,” Mitchell said. “So we feel good about that.”
Mitchell said Saturday’s final scrimmage - which happens at 11 a.m. inside A.W. Mumford and coincides with Fan Day - will be more important and more businesslike than last year’s final scrimmage, because the team has Sunday and Monday off next week. ... RT Clinton Boyd sat out Thursday’s practice with an injured shoulder that has bothered him during much of the preseason. ... Tight ends coach Jason Palermo missed Thursday’s practice to be with his wife, Kaitlyn, who gave birth to their first child, a daughter who’s yet to named.