It’s the easiest question of the week. After 14 months of bottling up their enthusiasm yeah, the Southern football team is ready to play.
The Jaguars finally enter a week with a payoff at the end as the move closer to Friday’s spring season opener at Alabama State at 6 p.m. It’s the start of the delayed 2020 season and preceded by six weeks of practice.
“From an energy standpoint, they’re ready, eager to play,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said during Tuesday’s Zoom news conference. “They’re ready to go against a different color jersey. You can see guys locking in and starting to understand game preparation. It helps to have a lot of guys who have done it before.”
Three busloads carrying 70 players depart Thursday for Montgomery, Alabama, with fingers crossed the Jaguars can make the trip and avoid positive COVID tests and having to quarantine. Players will be tested twice before leaving and under strict guidelines once they arrive, before and after the game.
Players will stay masked when not playing. Road trip roommates are chosen from within position groups. There won’t be time for sitting around the team hotel because of the multitude of meetings which will be virtual. No meeting with friends and family after the game. It will be straight to the bus and then home.
Restrictions are the reality of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We talked to the parents about it, Odums said. “We know they want to come to the games and see their sons. We’re trying to do things as safe as we can.
“It’s a different kind of excitement. It’s a nervous excitement that you’re playing with in the spring. That ritual of excitement you get in the regular season, nervous excitement from the unknown. We’re trying to get a good product to represent the university.”
Adding to the unknown, Odums said he has not selected a starting quarterback. Ladarius Skelton, who has started the past 18 games for Southern is back but has been in heated competition with Bubba McDaniel, who threw 91 passes in 2019, and John Lampley, who started the first six games in 2018.
Skelton had 2,512 yards and 27 touchdowns combined rushing and passing in 2019, but struggled with turnovers. Under first year offensive coordinator Zach Grassi, all three candidates have made progress.
“We missed some time due to the weather,” Odums said. “There’s still time to let it play out. We have a good idea. We have three guys who have been very good at that position. As we get closer it will work itself out.”
Southern will be counting on a strong running game, which led the SWAC in rushing (228 yards per game) in 2019, led by senior Devon Benn and sophomore Jarod Sims. Transfer wide receivers Marquis McClain and Jorien Vallien will try to fill in for the Jaguars losing their top three receivers from 2019 all operating behind an offensive line with two starters back but much depth.
Defensively, Southern will have limited use of one of its top players, rover Jakoby Pappillion, who is coming off a torn labrum. End Jordan Lewis, linebacker Caleb Carter and cornerback Tamaurice Smith bolster the defense from front to back.
Southern is playing against a program it has not faced since 2016, one that finished 5-6 overall and 4-3 in SWAC play in 2019. Hornets senior running back Ezra Gray and wide receiver Michael Jefferson were preseason All-SWAC picks, as were defensive tackle Christian Clark and Natron Culpepper.
Odums said there are plenty of unknowns, especially who the Hornets quarterback will be. Alabama State was the No. 3 scoring defense in the SWAC in 2019.
“They’ve hung their hat on defense and are trying to get better on offense,” Odums said. “The challenge is there.”