Southern's 2017 season ended the same way its 2016 season did: The Jaguars got to the final week of the regular season with a chance to reach the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game, only to see Grambling close the door.
But also like last year, while the Jaguars' 30-21 loss in the Bayou Classic may linger in memory longer than the other 10 games, there was plenty for coach Dawson Odums to feel positive about.
After taking a week to process the season that was, Odums put a bow on Southern's season in an interview with The Advocate.
Part 2 of this interview will address what lies ahead for Southern in 2018, including how Odums and the Southern staff will plan to move forward without senior quarterback Austin Howard.
The Advocate: What do you feel you learned about your team this year?
Odums: I feel we found out a lot about them after the Alcorn game. I thought we had a good football team all along, but we found that competitive group of guys that could compete for 60 minutes, and if we could do that on a weekly basis, we had a chance to be successful.
The Advocate: Was that finding the guys with the right mindset? Was it a personnel thing?
Odums: Since I’ve been at Southern, everybody should know that I will try whatever we’ve got to do to put a football team together and make it successful. We moved a receiver to running back (Chris Chaney). We ended up saying, ‘You know what? Let’s give these three freshman (receivers) a chance,’ and they started making plays. We started putting the pieces of the puzzle together and said, 'You know what? We’re going to find the right chemistry.'
What people don’t understand is when you don’t have spring (practice), your players that are redshirting or sitting out, they don’t really get (any) reps until you get to fall camp. Then it’s hard to get them reps because you don’t really know what they can do. So you don’t really have a way to evaluate them except playing games.
We started finding out. Tyran Nash started playing in some games. The three freshman (receivers) started playing in some games. We had quarterbacks that never had spring ball, so we couldn’t really tell who the backup was. (Darquez) Lee went into fall camp as the backup. There was nobody else on campus.
You really just figured it out after the first four games. You started moving puzzle pieces to make this puzzle work.
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The Advocate: You knew that four-game stretch to open the season was going to be tough. How do you think the team responded to that adversity?
Odums: I really thought we’d have been a lot better if our quarterback hadn’t have gotten hurt. Austin (Howard) being hurt set us back, because now you’ve got to play true freshmen against UTSA, Southern Miss. Austin tried to go against Alcorn, but he was not effective. I really thought if we could’ve beat Grambling and gotten to Alcorn again with a healthy Austin Howard, it would’ve been a totally different ballgame.
The Advocate: Even though the injury to Austin Howard made you less competitive in those games, was there some benefit in getting to see his backups get some more playing time?
Odums: Well, I don’t think that’s a benefit; that’s just the hand you were dealt. You've got some young quarterbacks work in big games, and it didn’t go our way. But when you look at it, people see the talent in Bubba (McDaniel) and see the talent in (John) Lampley and Lee.
We’re going to have to probably find another quarterback to go with it, because we like to carry four and five quarterbacks — and if it (doesn’t) pan out, you move them to another position. This year, we’ve got to do a great job of getting the right chemistry, the right guy at quarterback, the right leader. There’s a lot of intangibles you look at in that position, other than just being a quarterback.
The Advocate: What was the high point in 2017 in your eyes? The most difficult challenge?
Odums: The high point was winning six games in a row. I thought that was a great accomplishment, to be able to do that facing the adversity we had gone through. And I think the most difficult thing was coming up short — playing a really good football team down to the wire. Five minutes to go in the football game and you’ve got the lead (against Grambling). Just not being able to make the right plays at the end of that football game was the most disappointing.
But again, you had a lot of young guys on the field. We’re losing some seniors, but we’ve lost players every year that I’ve been at Southern. We’ve done a great job of figuring out the next year’s team, and putting a product on the field that is very competitive and capable of winning games.
The Advocate: That’s two years in a row you were right there and then lost (the Bayou Classic) at the end of the year, with that being your low point two years in a row. Can that motivate guys going into the next year, or do you purge that memory?
Odums: Every season is different, but in 2016 we only had 13 hours (of practice time per week) to prepare. We had to take two days off (per week), and you still go down with one game to decide, and you weren’t eligible to go to the Celebration Bowl. So ’16 had its own challenges. The challenge in 2017 was, you worked your butt off to get in position. I thought we were really prepared to play, and people could see that it’s not a big talent difference between Grambling and Southern. Everybody keeps thinking we’re far off from a talent standpoint, and we’re toe-to-toe with five minutes to go in a football game.
Where the difference comes in is, they’ve got 63 scholarships, and for the second year in a row we’ve got 58. So it’s going to be lopsided there as far as the total amount of talent that you have. That’s where the separation comes in, is the reduction of scholarships.
It’s the second year of that minus-five scholarships. It’s not the five you lose; it’s the amount of money you lose with the five that you could use to possibly get 10 players. You’re losing a total number of players because we can break our scholarships up. The more money you have, the more you’re able to break (it) up. You might be able to get two or three more guys, or four or five more guys, that you aren’t able to get.
The Advocate: Do you think this year’s team took a step forward or backward anywhere?
Odums: I thought defensively, after the Alcorn game, we played pretty good the rest of the way. They gave us a chance in that Grambling game to win it. I think we got better. I think we’re going to continue to look at some things and tweak some things to maximize the talent we have. Offensively, we picked up right where we left off. We averaged, in conference, right around 30 points per game.
The Advocate: It was actually probably a little better than that. (Southern’s actual scoring offense against SWAC teams was 34.1 points per game.)
Odums: So you’re right where you were a year ago with the explosive offense we had in 2016. I think we got it going; we just came up short. We lost to a very good football team, but we were toe-to-toe with them. We finished 7-4. That’s not great by no means, but it could be a whole lot worse.
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The Advocate: That senior class was made up mostly of your first recruiting class here. How will you remember those guys?
Odums: They represent what I stand for. They represent working hard. They’re just good character guys on and off the field. They’re going to get their degrees; they believe in the program; they play for the name in front of the jersey, not the name on the back. They did it the right way, and they’re going to be very successful in life. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to be their head coach for four years. Those guys laid a foundation and put a program back on the right track. They never had a losing season. That’s a testament to their class. Not a lot of classes can say they went through four years and never had a losing season. That’s what I’m proud of, their competitive spirit and buying in every day to be the best they can be and represent Southern University. They are quality young men. Their parents did a great job in raising them, and I was happy to be an extension of their family.
The Advocate: Anything you want to add on 2017?
Odums: Nah, it’s in the books. It was a good run. We had some exciting times. We’re going to miss those seniors, but I know new seniors will emerge, new challenges will come, new adversity we will face. But I’m very appreciative of 2017 and how it went. I just wish it could’ve ended differently. But we put them in position, and as a coach, all you can do is put them in position. We’re closing the gap. As long as we keep closing the gap, we’re going to be right there knocking on the door trying to get this thing solidified to where we win a championship.