With most of Southern’s roster having already hit the showers after practice, the dominant sound on a steamy morning at the Bluff last week was that of defensive line coach Juan Navarro laying into his position group.
Whatever had disturbed Navarro was unclear, but it was obvious what would come next: A whistle blew, and the big men ran sprints from one sideline to the other and back.
Southern was in the midst of an open week and was coming off what was by far its best defensive performance of the season, limiting Alabama A&M to 52 rushing yards in a 35-14 win. No time was allowed to bask in that accomplishment.
While the linemen sprinted, linebackers coach Charles Cheek went for a post-practice jog around the track encircling the football field. As he came around a bend in the track, he nodded in the direction of the defensive linemen and remarked on the lack of room for complacency.
Southern (3-3, 1-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) begins the second half of its 2017 season Saturday against Jackson State (0-6, 0-2), and the Jaguars do so with what they believe is new life brought on by a change in practice demeanor.
The idea: Hard coaching yields hard players.
“We’re not playing around,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “It’s down the stretch we go, and we’re going to get after our guys and we’re going to show up and we’re going to play hard — you can count on that.”
This Southern coaching staff deemed this shift in philosophy necessary after allowing 383 yards rushing in a loss to Alcorn State, including 272 to running back De’Lance Turner.
That was the low point.
“We were embarrassed,” Odums said.
Southern had allowed 747 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns on the ground during a three-game losing streak. The Jaguars defenders were missing tackles they should have made. Running lanes that should’ve been plugged were left free and clear.
“The Alcorn game did it,” senior linebacker Kentavious Preston said. “We definitely don’t want to see a performance like that again.”
Southern’s practices took on a new intensity.
In defensive coordinator Trei Oliver’s eyes, the biggest problem during the losing streak was the number of missed tackles.
It was a problem Southern knew it was going to have to deal with in some capacity, a by-product of the team not being able to participate in spring practice and thus having to cram everything into a month of preseason camp.
But the problem was lingering longer than the coaching staff had hoped. The drills and lessons weren’t seeming to get the point across.
“If you have a boxer, you tell him to keep his hands up and bob and weave,” Oliver said. “… You don’t understand what they mean by keep your hands up and bob and weave until you get hit a couple times.”
Previously, the Jaguars did not practice in full pads during the week. After the Alcorn State game, they were in full pads on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Full pads mean full contact.
Quarterback Austin Howard chuckled when asked whether the team’s demeanor changed once full-contact practices were instituted.
“You know, them boys are tired of getting fussed at, tired of being chewed out about missing tackles and not being in the right place at the right time,” Howard said. “Coach Odums did something about it and started going full pads. You can’t blame him, because we brought it on ourselves.”
Southern’s coaching staff also made it clear to the team after the Alcorn State game that playing time was going to be merit-based. Established starters were once again competing for playing time.
“As coaches, we had to get their attention,” Oliver said.
“(The coaches) turned it up a notch,” senior defensive back Danny Johnson said. “We turned it up as well.”
The most difficult thing about success is sustaining it. Southern has turned in one excellent defensive performance and is looking at an excellent opportunity for another.
Statistically, Jackson State has one of the worst offenses in college football. It is gaining fewer yards per game (210.2) than any team at the Division I or II level.
Just don’t expect things to get easier for the Southern defense if it turns in another solid performance Saturday.
Hard is the new normal.
“We ain’t going to go back,” Odums said. “That’s going to be our M.O. going down the stretch. We’re going to get after it; hopefully we’ll play like that on Saturdays.”