Southern football coach Dawson Odums has talked incessantly about how deep his eighth Jaguars team is, and for good reason.
It’s rare that a coach at any level has such vast riches in talent, game experience and character. Southern's 110-player roster for preseason camp boasts 34 players entering their fourth or fifth seasons on the Bluff.
It’s like having aces in your hand and up both sleeves. Rather than worrying about plugging gaps in the starting lineup, trying out freshmen for backup positions and hoping a seldom-used player can develop into a leader, Odums can turn his team loose.
And he can tighten up on them too, in a way he rarely has the luxury to use.
By no means will the 2019 Southern team be on automatic pilot. Odums laid down the law of discipline on the first day of camp, with sprints for such minor transgressions as crooked stretch lines during warmup.
But Odums also has the rare opportunity to work his players from the inside out as the Jaguars try to meet big expectations and get back to the business of winning conference championships. Southern is a clear favorite to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division and also has made up ground on reigning SWAC champion Alcorn State, the team that has dominated the conference lately and beat Southern 37-28 in last year's title game.
“You have a better understanding of the guys you’re working with,” Odums said of the benefit of having the most experienced team in his eight-plus seasons as coach. “Players know coaches; coaches know players. There are more guys in the system who have ben around for a while. It creates a comfort level of guys getting along with each other and having a better understanding of what we expect in our program.
“We’re working on our mindset, our creativity. We’re getting a better understanding of what it’s all about beyond football, getting these guys ready for the next chapter of their lives. We’re spending more time investing in their lives to have a better relationship with them. Life beyond the playing field. They’re only going to play football for a short period of time; (we're) trying to focus on the whole thing.”
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Odums is taking the opportunity to build better men, which in turn should make them better, and more reliable, football players. When adversity comes, the hope is they won’t false start on a fourth-and-1 or be caught offside during a third-down stop.
“Coach Odums trusts us,” right tackle Jodeci Harris said. “He’s still got control of the team. He can get fiery when he has to, but he knows he doesn’t have to do that as much this season. And that lets the seniors on this team know we have to be accountable ourselves.”
The beauty of the Jaguars' two-deep lineup is that nearly every position has a senior in it. The one that doesn’t, quarterback, has perhaps the team’s best natural leader in starter Ladarius Skelton. It’s no wonder Southern is ranked No. 3 in the preseason HBCU poll and is considered a threat to win its first SWAC title since 2013.
What makes Odums’ eyes really light up are his offensive and defensive lines. Having talent and depth in the trenches makes everything easier at the other positions. Led by Harris and center Jaylon Brinson, the offensive line returns all five starters. Three of them — Harris, Brinson and left guard Jeremiah Abby — are seniors.
Redshirt sophomore left tackle Ja’Tyre Carter at and junior right guard Jonathan Bishop give the front line at least two years of experience at every spot, and every backup has at least two years in the program.
“After (the lines), all the other pieces of the puzzle fall together,” Odums said.
On offense, start with Skelton. His prodigious talent will have room to work and lots of weapons around him. Skelton has become more patient in the pocket and a better passer during the spring and summer. Last year he was thrown into the mix at midseason and came out with 1,515 yards and accounted for 18 touchdowns.
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“Ladarius has taken the next step,” Odums said. “We already know he can beat you with his feet. It’s his development in the passing game where he’s made the most improvement.”
Odums said he’s not worried about Skelton going down to injury as he did in the SWAC title game, because junior John Lampley has upped his game.
The Jaguars lost their top two receivers from 2018 but may have one even better in 6-foot-5, 215-pound Hunter Register, who caught seven passes for 147 yards while battling a torn labrum. Behind him are holdovers Cameron Mackey and Jamar Washington, who combined for 30 catches for 302 yards last year. Transfer T.J. Bedford brings another big target into the mix, freshman speedster Corey Williams could win some playing time, and Tyler Brown has made a strong impression in camp.
The passing game also could get a boost from tight end Jeremias Houston, who at 6-6 and 254 gives Skelton a target that's hard to miss. Odums calls him “one of the best in the nation” at his position.
“He’s going to be a target we haven’t had or used a lot in the past,” Odums said. “He’s worked himself into the best shape of his life.”
Skelton can also count on help from the running game. Devon Benn had an outstanding second half of the season in rushing for a team best 707 yards. He's also one of Odums’ favorite players, the coach said, because of his extra-large heart. His ability to fit any need, including as a receiver, will keep Benn getting starter's snaps at running back.
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What Odums likes about the defensive line is the addition of LSU transfer Davin Cotton. When plugged in next to nose tackle Dakavion Champion, Cotton bolsters a run defense that was inconsistent in 2018. It allows Robert Square to come off the bench and provide fresh legs, along with Ceajae Bryant.
Jalen Ivy holds down one defensive end spot, while star freshman Jordan Lewis seems ready for full-time play after being named the team's Freshman of the Year as a pass-rush specialist. Tyran Nash, a starter at end last year, is sitting out fall camp with an injury but is expected to provide depth once the season starts.
Behind that line roam two of the team’s best leaders, linebacker Calvin Lunkins and safety Montavius Gaines. Lunkins is a tackling machine who led the Jaguars with 82 stops, 10½ for loss, and will be flanked by Caleb Carter and Jakoby Papillion.
Gaines is the safety who oversees the defense from the back end and is fearless when coming up to stop the run. Benjamin Harris will play rover next to Gaines. Sophomore cornerbacks Glenn Brown and Robert Rhem have improved after playing significant roles as freshman backups in 2018.
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“We’ve got a lot of guys back here who know what to do,” Gaines said. “We all do a good job of communicating. I know for a fact (Lunkins) is going to communicate. He’s going to be in the right spot. When you mess up, he’s going to get on to you.”
All the depth populates the special teams with hungry, experienced players for defending kick returns. Cesar Barajas returns as the punter but might have lost his job as field goal kicker to Martell Fontenot, who made four of eight kicks last year. Barajas will be back in his role on kickoffs.
The Jaguars know they are in position for a special season but, to a man, they are wary of the hype.
“Last year is in the back of our minds,” Benn said. “We’re looking forward and trying to get back to the championship and win it this year. We know how to get there. We have to get over that hump, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Said Odums: “We’ve got to block out the noise, the chatter about the players we have back and the experience. But it’s a new year for our team. It’s not going to be easy. We have to go to work, and our guys are willing to do that.”