With the 1,000th game in the program’s 101-year history approaching Saturday, Southern wants to put its best foot forward when it visits Memphis.
Coach Dawson Odums and his staff are scrambling to do it with issues ranging from the quarterback to finding a punt returner. The Jaguars are trying to bounce back from a five-turnover effort in a 34-28 loss at McNeese State.
Odums is looking everywhere for answers.
“We’re having auditions (for punt returner); we had some guys come in from McDonald’s,” he joked at his Tuesday press conference.
The Jaguars really don’t have that many issues, just the usual handful coming out of the first game and going into the second. That’s the real urgency because Southern will be facing the strongest opponent on its schedule, a Tigers team coming off a 15-10 victory against Ole Miss.
If the Jaguars repeat their turnover quintet, they likely won’t get off as easily as last game. Memphis isn’t ranked but is an up-and-coming Group of Five conference team in the upper half of the American Athletic Conference.
“They can run the football, and are talented on offense,” Odums said. “The quarterback doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Three of the five offensive linemen are converted tight ends, and are very athletic.
“The strength of their team is defense, a talented group that plays with high energy. The front four is one of the best in the country with two guys (Bryce Huff and O’Bryan Goodson) you will see and hear about on Sundays. They are as advertised.”
Odums knows if his team doesn’t make some serious improvements, it could get embarrassed Saturday. Fortunately the Jaguars seem calm like a veteran team might. The coaching staff is emphasizing ball security and working on a punt return position that muffed three punts and lost two.
The concern over the play of quarterback Ladarius Skelton, who lost two fumbles and was benched one possession into the third quarter, is less worrisome. Odums reiterated Skelton’s starting job isn’t in jeopardy and his state of mind is positive.
“I think he’s going to respond,” Odums said. “He had a great practice this morning, a great attitude. He’s still our starting quarterback. You don’t lose your job over one game. We expect him to play well this week.”
Southern players concur.
“His demeanor was wonderful, part of being the leader that he is,” wide receiver Jamar Washington said. “He kept everybody else up and kept encouraging Bubba, gave him great tips. We expect him to bounce back.”
Odums is more concerned about a punt returner. Jordan Eastling muffed two and Devon Benn one, the first one could have been flagged for the halo rule when defenders appeared to get too close to Eastling. Washington, who returned two punts last season, was one of those trying out.
Odums also said his team needs more from the running game. The Jaguars rushed for 103 yards but lacked consistency and explosive plays. Skelton and McDaniel combined to pass for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
“We could have run the ball a lot better,” he said. “You have to be able to control the clock and put some running yards together. If you want to break team’s momentum and stay on the field, you have to run the football.”
There was plenty that showed up well on tape, too. The Southern defense played well despite being put on short fields. Four McNeese scoring drives started at the 36-, 32-, 29- and 13-yard lines. Southern allowed 303 total yards.
“These guys played well together,” he said. “It’s keeping these guys motivated and encouraged to play better every day. Accept that challenge and by the time we get to conference we’ll be playing lights out.”
Odums said the Jaguars will be without both starting cornerbacks Robert Rhem and Glenn Brown this week. Rhem had foot and shoulder injuries last week and Brown, who missed the McNeese game, is still dealing with an off-field issue.
Eastling and O.J. Tucker are the likely fill-ins at cornerback.
Get on the bus
The SU Unification Organization is sponsoring an overnight trip to Memphis, Tennessee, for Saturday's game. The cost is $220 for a single person and $320 for a couple; the cost includes a bus ride, game ticket and hotel room. For information, call (225) 355-6886, (225) 357-3833, (225) 386-3229 or (225) 229-9885.