On a massive auxiliary video board facing the dais at the Bayou Classic kickoff news conference Monday, titan-sized images of last year’s quarterbacks — Austin Howard of Southern and Grambling’s DeVante Kincade — towered above the proceedings in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It was a fitting scene as coaches from both teams did their best during their respective addresses, and in media interviews afterward, to emphasize the importance of quarterback play in the game, since both are breaking in new signal-callers.
The Bayou Classic produces giant-sized quarterback performances for the winner, and LaDarius Skelton might be Southern’s man for the moment.
With Grambling’s three-game winning streak in the Classic hanging in the air, Skelton is setting Jaguar Nation hearts aflutter. He’s spurred the current four-game winning streak since taking over as the starter with 378 yards rushing and five touchdowns while passing for 586 yards and six TDs. In the first five games, he threw two incomplete passes and ran three times for 8 yards.
He hasn’t taken a snap in the Classic, but there’s good reason to believe the sophomore from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, could be the guy to change Southern’s fortunes.
He led Pine Bluff High to two state football titles and one in basketball. At Fullerton Junior College in Fresno, California, he helped his team to a second consecutive national championship. In less than a calendar year, he’s made a big impact on his coaches, teammates and fans as he prepares for his biggest test yet.
“He’s a dadgum warrior; he was a warrior when he was 13 and he’s probably a warrior now,” said Skelton’s high school coach, Bobby Bolding. “He’s never done anything but win championships.”
Southern coaches are getting a similar impression.
“He’s a winner, guys will follow him,” offensive coordinator Chennis Berry said. “He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been and we like that about him. It’s only a small portion of what you’ve seen to how good he’s got a chance to be.”
Skelton was not made available for interviews for this story. Southern’s policy does not permit media access to quarterbacks, freshmen and first-year transfers.
Southern head coach Dawson Odums is cautious in his praise. The Southern offensive staff has brought him along slowly, opting for veteran John Lampley to start the season. After the Jaguars’ only SWAC loss to Alcorn, 20-3, they decided it was time to pull the trigger.
Skelton responded with 202 yards rushing and three TDs against Prairie View. Last time out, he threw for 283 yards and four scores. But getting to this point has taken time and patience. Odums obviously doesn’t want Skelton carrying too much weight in his first Bayou Classic.
“He’s got to be himself,” Odums said. “We don’t need any heroic performance. We've got a lot of talent around him. Command the game, play like you’ve been playing.”
Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs knows Skelton has the ability to torch his defense.
“He’s very, very dangerous,” Fobbs said. “He’s an exceptional runner, really good in space. He puts pressure on you because it forces you to put someone else in the box. We’re used to it, because we’ve played against it on numerous occasions, but he’s a very dynamic runner and we have to make sure we get to him early and get him uncomfortable.”
It’s not only what Skelton has done in his four-game stint as a starter. The consensus is, he’s got the “it” factor quarterbacks need. His competitiveness is palpable and his leadership sincere. It’s on display for anyone watching and listening.
As a transfer, it didn’t take him long to win over his teammates even while he was frustrated at having to wait his turn.
“People listen to him,” center Jaylon Brinson said. “Dre was the loudest guy on the sideline cheering John (Lampley) on, cheering us on, making sure guys knew what they were doing. People saw how genuine his love for the game of football is. It’s not about him being a starter. He loves to see the team have success.”