Southern senior guard Jeremiah Abby has mixed it up with a lot of defensive tackles in the Southwest Athletic Conference in his four seasons.
There’s no doubt in his mind which is the best this year.
Abby’s teammate Dakavion Champion has helped the Jaguars become the dominant run defense in the conference. Anyone in blue and gold would argue it starts with Champion.
“Hands down he’s probably the best D-tackle in our conference — by far,” Abby said.
With Champion leading the way, Southern is allowing only 102.7 yards per game, which is 24.4 better than the next closest team, Alcorn State. With Champion plugging the middle along with fellow tackles Ceajae Bryant, Davin Cotton and Hunter Clay, the Jaguars defense has a strong foundation to build on.
That foundation will be important Saturday when Southern travels to Jackson State to face the run-oriented Tigers at 2 p.m. in Veterans Memorial Stadium.
A senior from Spring, Texas, Champion has put it all together in a strong final season. Coach Dawson Odums called out his team’s run defense in the offseason and Champion’s efforts have gone a long way in shoring it up.
“Champion is one of the reasons’ we’ve improved on run defense,” Odums said. “He’s become more consistent. He always had the talent but he’s playing at another level. That’s the growth. It takes time to grow a freshman into a senior. He’s put the work in. I’m proud of him and I’m glad he’s having a successful season.”
Individual stats aren’t the best determination of a defensive tackle’s value since their primary job is tying up linemen and plugging gaps so linebackers and safeties can make the tackle. But Champion is seventh on the team with 27 tackles, including six tackles for loss and a sack.
What Champion does is combine quickness with strength in his 6-feet-1, 285-pound frame to create chaos up front and funnel the ball to unblocked defenders. He’s the most likely Southern player to draw a double-team block on a running play.
“I focus on doing my job with maximum effort every play,” Champion said. “If I do that I know I can help my team out and win. I’m always looking to do better, just taking it day by day. I’m happy but never satisfied. I feel I can always do more.
“We know as a D-line stopping the run is our first emphasis. When they get past us it’s on the secondary, but we want them to worry about covering. Since camp started, we’ve emphasized it and its working for us.”
Champion’s relentlessness is the key, according to Abby. Who would know better? Abby, who is 6-4 and 310, and Champion are usually paired off in one-on-one drills.
“He’s an effort guy, one of those guys who doesn’t give up on a play,” Abby said. “He’s going to use his hands, get off the ball, come with a counter, everything, every move you can think of. He doesn’t stop moving his feet. He’s very physical and he doesn’t shy away from contact.”
Champion said he’s come a long way from his freshman year by watching upperclassmen and learning to listen to his position coach and defensive coordinator. He said his maturity has allowed him to excel at a higher level this season.
“As a freshman I had bad technique,” he said. “I had to take a lot of coaching. Sometimes I felt like I knew it all, but I started taking coaching and my play went up. (Former Southern lineman) Aaron Tiller was a big influence, just watching his work ethic. It had an effect on me to play better and make my name.”
Champion said the Southern defense has taken pride in its ability to stop the run especially with Jackson State averaging 194.1 yards rushing per game, fourth in the SWAC, and 4.6 yards per carry.
“We’re at the top where we wanted to be,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. We made some changes in the offseason. Everybody is understanding the defense. We all bought in and everybody is clicking on what they’re supposed to be doing on each particular play.”