It’s been three seasons since Lenard Tillery carried the rushing load at Southern, and the Jaguars haven’t had a player like him since.
In 2019, Southern could be just as effective running the ball by spreading the work around.
With a three-deep set of running backs, a true dual-threat quarterback, a veteran offensive line and a pair of freshman thumpers, defending Southern is going to be problematic for opponents.
They won’t be able to concentrate of one back like Tillery, who rushed for 4,856 yards and 45 touchdowns in his four-year career. The Jaguars feature a multitude of weapons in their arsenal.
“We averaged 200 yards per game last year, which is a winning effort,” offensive coordinator Chennis Berry said. “We spread it around now, and we have a quarterback we can add. We haven’t had that luxury in the past.”
For starters, returning tailback Devon Benn is coming off his best season when he ran for 707 yards and three touchdowns, coming on strong down the stretch. Chris Chaney, who moved from wide receiver last year, brings explosiveness and transfer Craig Nelson has been a star in camp with his north-south attitude and receiving ability.
“There’s no dropoff with any of our backs if I have to come out,” said Benn, a junior from New Orleans in his fourth season.
“I’m in great shape, and I have a better grasp of the offense. I can play a lot faster without thinking.”
Benn has also set a good example for the other runners with his leadership. Coach Dawson Odums calls Benn one of his favorite players because of heart and effort.
Chaney has added 15 pounds since the switch and is happier since returning to his high school position.
“I feel comfortable,” he said. “I can take the hits better now. I was a speed back in the spread, catching the ball out of the backfield. It clicked as soon as I came into the room. The hardest thing was learning the protection. Once I learned the offense I got comfortable.”
Running backs coach Ashton Warner said Benn is one of the most improved players on the team by doing the little things. He’s likely to get most of the snaps.
“Benn is playing with a championship effort, watching film every day on taking the right amount of steps or picking up blitzes in pass protection,” Warner said. “He’s doing the right things and using the right techniques which is allowing him to play a lot better.”
Benn burst out with 167 yards rushing and a touchdown in the Bayou Classic, and he’s beefed up to 190 pounds for his junior season. He’ll be able to play even harder knowing the depth behind him is solid when he needs a rest.
Nelson is an X-factor. A Miami native, he transferred from Indiana where he played one game. But he was a find in preseason camp with his receiving ability.
“He’s a very decisive runner,” Warner said. “He doesn’t mind getting downhill. He makes one move then he gets vertical. He’s a fairly decent pass receiver. That’s always necessary in our offense.
“Chaney has grown tremendously. We’re gaining more trust in him every day.”
Warner is also excited about freshmen Jarod Sims and Travien Benjamin, who are both near 190 pounds and look likely to grow into even bigger power backs. With three seniors on a veteran offensive line and the running skills of quarterback Ladarius Skelton, the Jaguars will be difficult to defend.
“We want the running game to be more consistent,” Berry said. “We have a line that has played a lot of snaps, and they’re working on details like hat placement, pad level, finishing blocks. For the backs, it’s knowing the pre-snap read based off the front, knowing where the linebackers are located.
“With the experience we have we want to develop it. I’ve seen that in camp. The guys have done a good job of knowing what we’re working to and communication what we’re working to.”