When Southern football coach Dawson Odums planned out spring and summer for his team, he pinpointed run defense as a must-fix.
The Jaguars defense had just been left in ruins by Alcorn State, which rushed for 370 yards in the 37-28 victory in the SWAC Championship Game.
Defensive lineman Dakavion Champion got the message loud and clear.
“We took it as a challenge,” said Champion, a 6-foot-1, 295-pound nose guard. “Alcorn State had a lot of rushing yards in the championship game. That our job, to stop the run. That’s our emphasis every day. We’re going to take it day by day, get better, work on the small things and get on a roll.”
Champion, a senior whom Odums calls one of the best defensive tackles in the nation, was a solid run stopper inside whose value goes well beyond the 20 tackles and three quarterback hurries he compiled last sesaon. His job is to occupy blockers and funnel the ball to the Jaguars’ experienced linebackers.
The defensive front isn’t the only group responsible for run defense, but it’s the first line in defending the run. Odums often cited poor run fits as the issue. Now he thinks the depth they've built up front will turn the defensive line into the Jaguars’ strength — and Champion agrees.
“This is the most depth we’ve ever had on the defensive line,” Champions said. “It gives us a chance to compete and work on our craft every day. We’re going to create a lot of havoc in the SWAC this year.”
The line got a huge addition in the offseason when LSU defensive tackle Davin Cotton transferred in. With Ceajae Bryant and Robert Square backing up Champion and Cotton, the Jaguars should have one of the strongest rotations in the conference.
Cotton’s first-step quickness will make Champion all the more effective, cutting down on double-team blocks.
“He allowed us to make a starter a backup,” Odums said. “We’re six deep at defensive tackle. Cotton is an explosive body. When you put him and Champion in there, they’re going to create some problems. We haven’t seen it in pads, but I think this will be special.”
The Jaguars are rebuilding at the end positions. Jahmal Tillman is out of eligibility and Tyran Nash is out until after preseason camp. Jalen Ivy has stepped in at one spot after playing as a backup last year, and Odums is now committed to Jordan Lewis — listed at 195 pounds — at the other. Odums likes the depth Joe Davis and Brad Porter bring.
Tying it all together is defensive coordinator Lionel Washington, who moved up to the job in the offseason after Trei Oliver left for North Carolina Central. His biggest challenge may be to stay hands-off and let his experienced group play without giving them too much to think about.
“Our relationship is pretty good with coach Washington,” Champion said. “He played in the NFL. It feels good to get the experience of a coach who has been there, where we are trying to get to. We hear the messages he has for us every day. We’re not changing anything, just working on the small things we need to polish up.
“We have a lot of seniors that know the defense really good, seniors and older guys who have been in the program for a while. We know the defense, so we’re just trying to get the younger guys in the playbook.”