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Southern football coach Dawson Odums watches players warm up before practice in preseason camp Aug. 14, 2019, inside A.W. Mumford Stadium. With four new assistant coaches and plans for a spring football season, Odums says his team will build slowly.

There were unknowns aplenty for the Southern football program, even before the coronavirus pandemic settled in to scuttle the 2020 season.

Coach Dawson Odums wasn't just replacing half of his coaching staff. Among the losses was his right-hand man, Chennis Berry, who became the head coach at Benedict College in February. Berry had served eight seasons at Southern, the final five as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. He will be replaced by Zach Grossi.

Also coming aboard were Brian Lepak (offensive line), Vincent Marshall (wide receivers), Chris Browne (tight ends) and Jason Rollins (safeties). Instead of spending the spring getting acquainted with players on the field, they learned the fine art of Zoom conferences to fill in the gap.

Odums himself found it hard to rate his coaches when he couldn’t see them face-to-face in drills, interacting with the players. But he likes what he has seen so far.

“As individuals, they are some great young men,” Odums said last week. “I haven’t seen them coach. I haven’t been able to watch the instruction to the players, but you can see the day-to-day operation, hard-working individuals getting a great understanding of what our program is about and what we’re asking them to do.

“Players have been on Zoom with them, trying to bond as much as they can in a virtual world. I’m excited about who we have and more excited to see them on the field.”

The Southwestern Athletic Conference announced last week that fall sports will move to the spring, with teams playing a possible seven-game schedule — six conference games with one optional nonconference game. The first eight weeks of the 2021 calendar will be set aside for training.

Although he wasn’t clear on the details, Odums said the team will do some early fall training, mostly strength and conditioning, in late August or early September and move on to more football-specific work at the end of September.

Grossi, who has NFL experience, is the coach to watch. Odums was so impressed with Grossi when he interviewed for the quarterback coach position, he extended it to include offensive coordinator.

Grossi was quarterbacks coach at Hampton last year but worked for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a scout, assistant to head coach Dirk Koetter and quality control assistant.

“When he was interviewing, I felt he could be our offensive coordinator,” Odums said. “We give guys a chance. I’m not afraid to say to a first-year guy, ‘Here’s your opportunity; show us what you can do.’

“He’s a great communicator, easy to work with. He allows the guys around him to have input, and he’s created a good working relationship. Listening to him on Zoom, the knowledge, understanding simplifying things ... we have a chance to continue the success left off by Chennis Berry when he was here.”

The transition will be crucial to the Southern offense, which returns its top four quarterbacks. Grossi will try to get a more consistent performance from starter Ladarius Skelton, who dominated games at times but struggled with turnovers and key negative plays.

The Jaguars return six starters on offense and 11 overall, though they lost their top receiver, Hunter Register. (Odums does not permit first-year players or coaches to speak to media.)

Lepak replaces Berry as a position coach after three years as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, where he played offensive line and earned a law degree in 2014.

“He’s very intelligent; with O-line coaches, that’s one of the intangibles that may be missing,” Odums said. “You’re dealing with five guys and have to have a cohesive unit. He’s replacing one of the best O-line coaches in the country. Having that knowledge and bringing experience to us — they do some unique things in the running game (at Oklahoma) that we can add to our repertoire.”

Southern led the conference in rushing and had an emerging star in the backfield in Jarod Sims, who ran for 149 yards and a touchdown in the Jaguars' 39-24 loss to Alcorn State in the SWAC title game.

Pairing Sims with senior Devon Benn will make the Jaguars formidable as a running team depending on how the offensive line develops after losing three starters.

Odums said he likes the fact that Marshall has a degree in special education, making him a strong teacher.

“Being able to teach and have patience makes a good coach,” Odums said. “If you don’t get it, he can come at you from another direction.”

Browne is a former Southern offensive tackle who coached at Morehouse College and Louisiana Tech. Rollins coached for nine seasons at Tulane, part of that time alongside Southern defensive coordinator Lionel Washington. That predicts some continuity early on for the defensive staff, which will be important with so much uncertainty.

Odums admits it will feel strange to flip fall and spring, but moving the season will recoup some time to get to know the players as long as the Jaguars can maintain their plans for practice in the fall. Odums emphasized that the key quality for players and coaches will be patience as they try to come to terms with a “new normal” on the field and in the classroom while dealing with the severe health and safety concerns of the pandemic.

“We’ll bring them in patiently,” Odums said. “We’ll get our feet underneath us from a student standpoint, policies and procedures, how we operate, making sure environment is safe, testing measures.

“We’re going back to the foundation — elementary football, building the house all over again. It’s going to be boring: stance, steps and starts before we get to 11-on-11. It could be a good thing. A lot you take for granted. We’ll get back to the basics, what it takes to play this position.

“There will be some tough decisions, but that’s why you are the head coach. I always ask assistants, ‘You want to be a head coach? Try it in these times.’ It’s difficult and trying.”