College football rosters by nature turn over quickly. Whether leaving early for the NFL, transferring, injuries, continuity is fleeting and a daily battle coaches face.
The squad that reported for Southern University’s 2019 season Wednesday is the exception, and coach Dawson Odums knows it.
On Friday, the Jaguars will take the practice field with 34 fourth- or fifth-year players among the 104 listed on the team roster. In some spots, Southern is three-deep with players who have significant minutes in games.
Experience like that doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does make the task for Odums and the coaching staff easier while raising already high expectations.
“Some guys have done it, but some guys have joined this team that haven’t,” Odums cautioned at his opening news conference. “The seniors we have, the hunger from them has to transfer to their teammates. If that happens, we can bond and do something special.”
Southern nearly did that last year, falling short as Alcorn State rallied in the fourth quarter for a 37-28 victory in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game. Seventeen Southern starters and a large number of backups who participated are back to climb the mountain one more time and try to make it one step higher.
“I wouldn’t say there’s added pressure,” Odums said. “The mission each year is to get to your championship game. This team understands that. We have an older team that gives us a chance to do some things. We don’t have to be complicated in our approach. We’ve got to do the little things better. We didn’t lose that game because the opponent was better than us, they did the little things better.”
That was the focus in spring and summer, Odums said — little things like in-game discipline, technique and staying on assignments.
The Jaguars have the look of a team that could go far with depth and experience in the offensive and defensive lines, and a highly skilled returning quarterback in LaDarius Skelton. He went 5-1 in the last six games, and now has the benefit of a spring and summer to add to the 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns accounted for last year.
“You could see him taking the next step,” Odums said of Skelton’s offseason improvement. “We have three quarterbacks with experience. We know LaDarius is our starter, but it’s good to have depth behind him. You’re one play away.”
Skelton will play behind an offensive line with five starters returning and in front of the league’s sixth leading rusher Devon Benn. The only hiccup is the loss of leading receiver Kendall Catalon, but Odums likes the group he has, led by 6-feet-5, 215-pound Hunter Register, who missed 2018 with an injury.
“Next guy up,” Odums said. “Every year some position is going to have question marks. It creates an opportunity for someone else to write his story. We have guys in that room willing to step up.”
The Jaguars’ opportunistic defense figures to only get better. Odums said 2018 Freshman of the Year Jordan Lewis has beefed up to 210 and is ready to be an every down player. He led the SWAC with 10 sacks and more playing times could mean a lot more big plays on defense.
“He can change the game on any snap,” Odums said.
He will have a lot of help. The addition of LSU transfer Davin Cotton gives the Jaguars a six-man rotation at defensive tackle and pairing him with Dakavion Champion makes Odums’ eyes light up. The line plus the return of leading tackler Calvin Lunkins makes the goal of improved run defense look like a sure thing.
Odums said the incoming recruiting class was one of his better ones but the one before that is also beginning to bear fruit. Cornerbacks Glenn Brown and Robert Rheims, who saw significant action as freshmen last year, are ready to step up as starters. It’s one more place where the Jaguars are three-deep.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum,” Odums said. “We didn’t end the season to our liking but we did make it to the championship game and that’s hard in itself. We added some pieces, now we’re ready to see what the picture really looks like. We’ve got to jell together. If we do, we have as a good a chance as anybody.”