southernpvam1081.110517.jpg

Southern University wide receiver Cameron Mackey (25) sprints downfield with his 56-yard second quarter reception, on a big drive that Southern's offense capped with a touchdown to take a lead and momentum into halftime against Prairie View A&M, Saturday, Nov. 4 , 2017 at A.W. Mumford Stadium. Prairie View linebacker Anthony Stubbs (20) trails the play.

Southern’s current starting wide receiver corps does not align with conventional wisdom.

It is atypical. Not only are Jamar Washington, Kendall Catalon and Cameron Mackey all freshmen, but all are listed as 5-foot-9 or shorter on Southern’s official roster.

This is not how the Jaguars planned for things to unfold. But, though they are all young and are all undersized, the Southern offense has taken flight as those young wideouts worked their way into the starting lineup.

“When we made the commitment to go ahead and start those young guys at receiver, they really helped blossom our offense,” said Southern offensive coordinator Chennis Berry.

In the five games before those three freshmen were inserted into the starting lineup, Southern’s passing game was mired in a funk. The Jaguars were averaging 146.6 yards passing per game and had totaled only three touchdowns through the air.

In the five games since Washington, Catalon and Mackey were inserted into the starting lineup, Southern has scored 14 touchdowns through the air and has seen its passing yardage spike to 259.8 yards per game.

Though some of that disparity can be chalked up to stiff competition and an injury that cost starting quarterback Austin Howard two games, Southern sees a clear delineation between its offense before and after the decision to start the freshmen.

“Putting them in gave us an opportunity to get some mismatches,” said Southern coach Dawson Odums. “Usually, when you think of mismatches, you think of big over small. You don’t usually think small over big, but sometimes small over big is just as good.”

The decision was made after the Fort Valley State game, when Southern managed just 90 yards passing. Southern saw missed opportunities and a lack of separation from the receivers it used in those first games.

Berry remembered arriving at a potential solution after a conversation with receivers coach Mark Frederick.

“Over and over again, coach Frederick was saying, ‘Coach, they’re doing an amazing job, giving great effort, they’re finishing runs and looking good in one-on-ones,’” Berry recalled. “I said let’s make the big decision and go with those guys.”

Said Frederick, “The young guys got their opportunity and never looked back.”

Southern operates in a rhythm offense. It took some extra effort by Howard and the young receivers to generate the trust and timing needed to be successful.

“At first, Austin used to say it’s hard to see them,” Frederick said.

When practice ended, they stayed on the field for extra work so the quarterback could get a better feel for when they would be where they were supposed to be.

“He started to learn them and they learned him, and it kind of gelled faster than you would think,” Frederick said. “It just happened.”

Washington, Catalon and Mackey have been especially effective the last three weeks.

Against Pine Bluff, they combined to catch 12 passes for 167 yards, with Washington hauling in two scores. A week later against Prairie View, they combined for 12 catches and 262 yards. Even last week, when Southern spread the ball out to 11 different receivers against Texas Southern, they caught nine passes for 98 yards.

Though none of them possess prototype size for an outside receiver, Odums believes that can actually work to their advantage against defenses geared up to stop the trend of big, long-striding receivers.

It is guerilla football: Southern took what appeared to be a disadvantage and used it in its favor.

“We sort of flipped the script,” Odums said. “Most teams have big corners and big safeties. Well, that’s good if they’re going against big receivers.

“Now, you’ve got to take those big guys and cover these little guys in space. That’s tough. It’s tough to corral that mouse.”

And, if any team would not be shy about using a receiver that is undersized by usual standards, it is Southern. It was just last season that 5-foot-6 Willie Quinn set the school’s all-time receiving record.

And Howard sees a bit of Quinn in his three freshman targets.

“Just like Willie; they're the smallest ones on the field but they have the biggest heart,” Howard said. “They never shy away from contact, they never shy away from anything. That's what I like about them.”

Since the Alabama A&M game

Jamar Washington: 17 catches, 238 yards, 3 TD

Kendall Catalon: 19 catches, 292 yards, 1 TD

Cameron Mackey: 14 catches, 197 yards

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.