Southern football coach Dawson Odums talks incessantly about the importance of the running game on offense. That’s one reason his smile was a little wider than usual after the Jaguars’ Bayou Classic victory Saturday.
Outside of the quarterbacks, the Southern running game hasn’t been running on all cylinders. But it lit up Grambling for 247 yards in the 31-28 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Running back Devon Benn had his first 100-yard game of the season with 167 on 19 carries and Odums went out of his way to praise his offensive line for playing “its best game of the season.”
It’s particularly crucial for the Jaguars going into Saturday’s SWAC Championship Game at Alcorn State at 3:30 p.m.
The outlook for Benn, a former John Curtis star, was optimistic coming off a freshman year with 442 yards and four touchdowns on 87 carries. Odums said some issues on the offensive line prevented him from having more of a breakout season, but his totals boosted to 146 carries for 728 yards and three touchdowns. He’s averaging 5 yards per carry.
It also took some time to convince Benn to play to his strength as a straight-ahead runner.
“I wouldn’t say he was lacking confidence,” Odums said. “The holes were not present (earlier this season). Our offensive line took the challenge. They have to take the same challenge this week.
“(Benn’s) finally running how we expected him to be running. A couple of times during the year you see him taking a couple of cuts. That’s not his style. He’s bruiser. Get downhill, square your shoulders, we’ll take that 3 yards and a cloud of dust. In this game we’re about to play, every inch is going to matter.”
Benn has experienced success against Alcorn before. In last year’s 48-31 loss, he rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He also caught five passes for 30 yards, including a 23-yard TD reception.
The last meeting was not so pretty. Alcorn shut him down on 20 carries for 60 yards on Sept. 29, the last time the Jaguars lost.
“Devon has been running hard in practice, too,” wide receiver Kendall Catalon said. “Since the Alcorn game he’s been explosive. We needed him last week and we need him this week to win.”
Offensive coordinator Chennis Berry said Benn has come as long way in learning the little things about his position.
“Devon is an every-down back, a guy we can trust,” Berry said. “He understands the protection part and where he fits. He’s running hard. He’s not a cut guy; he’s a one-cut-and-go guy. He has to understand his strengths. He’s done a good job of embellishing his role.”
The offensive line has contributed and Odums said it’s because they’ve adopted a better mindset of playing aggressively. He said guard Jeremiah Abby illustrated that point during the game on a play run toward the Jaguars sideline.
“I watched Jeremiah Abby running toward the sideline, he just treated the guy so bad,” Odums recalled. “The O-line is like ‘Call whatever you want to call, coach.’ That’s the mindset you got to have. We watched the film, watching the game you don’t see how dominant they were.”
Benn isn’t the only improving running back. Berry said he likes the way the others have progressed while waiting patiently behind Benn. Christopher Chaney has advanced from passing downs to reliable on every down. Jamarqueza Mims has embraced his role and Berry has high hopes for Carols Stephens' explosiveness.
“He hasn’t broken out yet, but he’s a guy who can take that 5-yard run and take it to the house,” Berry said. “We’ve got to get him in space so he can do those things.
“We’ve got a good room with those running backs. They’re unselfish, have bought into their roles. They understand Devon is the guy and everybody has gotten into their role.”