Nathaniel Denu’s message to his Southern volleyball team was quite simple after a second-round exit from last year’s Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament: Defensive prowess will determine the success of the 2011 season.

Passing and setting drills were pushed aside this summer as communication, footwork and technique became the focal point of the Lady Jaguars’ preseason preparation.

A barometer of the team’s progress arrives Friday when Southern opens the season in El Paso, Texas, at the El Paso Sports Commission Invitational. Southern will open the tournament with Friday matches against Texas-El Paso and Texas-Arlington before facing Nicholls State and Portland State on Saturday.

Denu hopes his team can reap early benefits from the extra attention to defensive details.

“Our blocking has been suspect, and our back-row play has been suspect, so we’ve made an extraordinary effort to sharpen our defense,” he said. “If we can perform like we’ve practiced, we’ll have positive results.”

Denu and assistant coach Venessa Jacobs have made it clear to their team the extra effort to hit the floor for digs and saves will determine if the Lady Jaguars can improve on their 2010 record of 14-17, which included a 4-4 record in the SWAC.

So far the players are buying what the coaching staff is selling.

“We really believe we’re going to do better than that,” Denu said of the SWAC preseason poll that picked Southern to finish third in the Western Division.

“Teams who underestimate us will have a big problem.”

Anchoring the Southern defense will be senior libero and defensive specialist Kirsten Buggage, who returns as the team’s leader in digs with just more than two per set. When it came time to replace Lourena Beathely in central defense, Jacobs said the decision to hand the duties to Buggage was an easy one.

“She’s a top-notch athlete, she’s fast, she reads the ball really well and she’s not afraid to get on the floor to help her team out,” Jacobs said. “She’s the best person for the job because she’s so defensively sound. We’re looking for her to take control in the backcourt.”

Buggage will set the table for the other two seniors on the roster, middle blocker Jaquincia Williams and 2010 All-SWAC outside hitter Beonka Savoy. Williams led the 2010 team in blocks (92), kills (357) and attacking percentage (.238), while Savoy ranked no worse than third in every major offensive category.

“We’re looking for them to terminate the ball, end of story,” Jacobs said.

The trio of seniors may experience some extra pressure in the early portion of the season carrying an inexperienced roster that features six sophomores and four freshmen. Denu singled out sophomore middle blocker Payton Mitchell and sophomore outside hitter Simone Beasley as underclassmen “who can come in right away and be a big help.”

But what the rest of the underclassmen will contribute to the team remains unknown.

“My main concern is with our sophomores,” Denu said. “If they can catch up with the seniors we will be fine. If not, then we will have a long way to go.”