A few months after Southern University wrapped up its worst football season in school history, Stump Mitchell agreed to make a big change.
It was a change in scheme.
Color scheme, that is.
As if to prove that everything old can be new again, Mitchell signed off on an order for new uniforms that, in a way, have an old-fashioned feel. When the Jaguars play their home opener Sept. 10 against Alabama A&M, players will emerge from their locker room in Columbia blue - the school’s original color.
“I think the whole athletic department is going back to that,” Mitchell said. “It’s something we looked at when I first got here. But with where we are financially, we couldn’t do it all at once. I don’t know all the details, but I think it’ll be a good look.”
Of course, fans would be happier if their team took on another look - the look of a winner.
Once the dominant program in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Southern bottomed in its first season under Mitchell.
The bold, intense coach, fresh from 11 years as an NFL assistant, infamously predicted last summer his team would go undefeated. Instead, the Jaguars finished 2-9.
Making matters worse, during the offseason, SU lost nine scholarships and a chance to play in the SWAC championship game - punishment from the NCAA and the conference for its lackluster performance in the Academic Progress Rate from 2006-09.
Long story short: Over the past 12 months, it’s been tough on The Bluff.
Mitchell enters the second year of a three-year contract, and to his credit, he has met fans’ criticism head-on. This summer, in meetings with alumni and boosters, he agreed that SU fans expect (and deserve) more than they’ve gotten lately.
Mitchell also acknowledged that if the Jaguars don’t show improvement, he could be out of a job.
“I’m not proud of the (2-9) record we had,” he said. “It won’t be tolerated by the president and the chancellor, and it won’t be tolerated by the fans. If we all don’t do our job, somebody else will do it for us.”
So now comes the hard part. Now, Southern’s attempt at a major turnaround begins.
Closer to contending?
On the heels of an ugly season and tumultuous offseason, the mere thought of a .500 record seems out of the question.
Or does it?
Consider this: Though the Jaguars were often manhandled during last year’s disaster, three of their nine losses were up for grabs in the final minute of the fourth quarter (they lost all three, against Jackson State, Alcorn State and Alabama State).
Now consider this: In the first month of last season alone, Southern played 27 newcomers. Now armed with a year of experience, they should be better equipped to handle a college football season.
Of course, it’ll take more than experience to win.
On offense and defense, the Jaguars will have to improve.
“You have guys with more experience coming back. That in itself is going to make for a better football team,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think there’s any one guy who’s going to do it all for us. It’s a team sport. We’re counting on 11 starters on both sides of the ball, and they all have to play better than they did last year.”
Stocked with tall, graceful athletes and sure-handed mighty mites, Southern’s receiving corps looks the part.
Mitchell has quietly raved about senior wideouts LaQuinton Evans and Jared Green, and he has praised the potential of two others, including junior transfer Michael Berry and junior Charles Hawkins.
At running back, hard-charging junior Brandon Rice, dependable junior Sylvester Nzekwe and redshirt freshman Dallas Fort, among others.
The true question marks on offense are quarterback and offensive line - two areas that looked overmatched in 2010.
SU completed only 47 percent of its passes last season - an alarmingly low rate for a team that used a pro-style offense with short, safe passes.
Dray Joseph, now a sophomore, entered camp as the No. 1 option, ahead of junior Jeremiah McGinty and freshman J.P. Douglas.
Though the starting job is open, Mitchell said he believes Joseph will win out.
No matter who wins the job, Southern must have a more efficient passing game.
“Dropped balls? You can’t do that. Lack of accuracy? Can’t do that,” Mitchell said. “You’re trying to run a control offense and you can’t complete 50 percent of your passes? Can’t do that. There’s a lot of improvement that has to be there.”
All too often last season, Southern’s defense blitzed heavily, but failed to register sacks.
All too often, players looked lost and uncertain - thanks in part to a thick playbook and complicated pre-snap adjustments.
Defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert spent much of the offseason paring down his playbook, simplifying the entire process for his players.
Mitchell also hired a new secondary coach in Donnie Henderson, a longtime NFL assistant who served as a defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and New York Jets.
In a nutshell: The defensive line is thin on tackles, but loaded with ends; the linebacking corps is “the strength of our defense,” in Gilbert’s words; and the secondary is replenished with young players and transfers.
“Everything with our defense is simpler now. It’s like saying your ABCs,” said sophomore Anthony Balancier, who has moved from linebacker to safety.
If nothing else, the Jaguars seem to believe in themselves a little more.
They believe they’ll look better, and it has little to do with the new uniforms.
“What you wear doesn’t really matter,” said Joseph, the sophomore quarterback. “The player makes the jersey. The jersey doesn’t make the player. We’ve got to make plays, get better and win games. We’ll look good by doing that.”