Spring football has taken on a new meaning at Southern University in 2021, and so has preseason camp.
After an empty, quiet fall semester on campus, and 13 months after the Jaguars lost the 2019 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game at Alcorn State, Dawson Odums' team finally gets to start preparing full-scale for a season.
Players report Thursday and start practicing five days later for their seven-game belated season — delayed, of course, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As happy as ninth-year coach Dawson Odums is about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s realistic about the challenges he faces in steering his program through uncertain times.
“We’ll practice six days a week, like what we would do in a normal August,” Odums said. “But we won’t have the chance to bond as a team like we would in camp. This is the hand we’re dealt. We can’t throw it back. We’ll play it to the best of our ability and hope we stay safe, keep our guys healthy, get them ready to play because we know the mission in front of us.”
In a normal college football season, players report in early August, three weeks before school starts, and are able to focus solely on football. The format allows extra time for meetings and dealing with any number of variables.
Next week, the time will be limited by players attending classes and NCAA rules.
Dawson said the challenge beyond the day-to-day football preparation is keeping players healthy and safe from the virus. Based on how the 2020 fall season went across the country, player health and availability will be a daily concern — No. 1 in Odums’ book, he said.
“We have a lot of work to do just to make sure everyone is safe and healthy,” he said. “We don’t know how things will be when the players report. The coaching staff has stayed on the phone with players, and we’ve had some team meetings, including one (Friday).
“The structure of our practices will be the same. The biggest thing is the unknown. We’ll execute our plan and hope our discipline will carry us through and have minimal guys out because of injuries or testing positive. We think we can put a good product on the field. Our strength and conditioning was good. We don’t know how our guys are until we get them back.”
Odums is also breaking in five new coaches, including offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Zach Grossi. The staff spent the time since players left for the holidays working on offensive and defensive playbooks, more tweaking them than overhauling. Most of that work was done last fall while players were conditioning. The Jaguars had “seven or eight” practices in November and December, Odums said, before players departed.
“The passing game is where we’ll see the most changes,” Odums said. “Zach brings some NFL concepts, and we’ll attack from a quarterback perspective as opposed to an offensive line perspective. He should know the strengths of the quarterbacks and how it goes with the play-calling and what we’re trying to get done.
“Our fundamentals should be improved. He’s done a great job of coaching those guys on the small things. (Former quarterbacks coach) Matt Leone did a good job on those aspects, but Grossi will help take them further. We’re happy about where we are.”
Odums is also hoping competition at quarterback can light a fire under senior returning starter Ladarius Skelton, who accounted for 2,612 yards and 28 touchdowns last year but struggled with ball security. Skelton threw nine interceptions and had five total turnovers in the SWAC title game, a 39-24 loss to Alcorn State.
Skelton missed some time because of injuries, and junior backup Bubba McDaniel played well at times in his absence.
“With the amount of games he’s played, he has a good understanding of what we’re asking," Odums said of Skelton. “He knows what the conference is about. That room has a lot of talent. We have to get somebody ready that’s going to lead us to victories in games. Whether it's Ladarius or whoever is in that room, we have to be ready and trust whoever that guy is.
“He’s as talented as anybody. When he’s on, he’s as good as any body in the conference. But he has to be on all the time; he can’t be hot and cold. You have to play like a champion and practice like a champion. Whatever guy we put out there, that’s the guy we’ll believe in.”
Odums also has to find three new offensive line starters and on defense, leading tackler Calvin Lunkins, run-stuffing tackle Dakavion Champion and safety Montavious Gaines are gone. Even with the departures, Odums said he’s got plenty of reinforcements. Southern added only three recruits in the early signing period because the roster was so well stacked
“We got a lot of guys coming back that played on the offensive line,” Odums said. “Coach (Chennis) Berry was one of the best in the country. Coach (Brian) Lepak has a good understanding of how they play and is a great teacher. I don’t think we’ll miss a beat.”
Odums might be looking for another kicker because Cesar Barajas, last year’s punter and kicker, entered the NCAA transfer portal. Odums said he thinks Barajas is exploring options and will return to the Jaguars.