The Southern coaching staff couldn’t look at much tape of McNeese State in preparation for Saturday’s 6 p.m. season opener at Cowboy Stadium.
Because McNeese underwent a coaching change and a radical departure from its past offense, Jaguars coach Dawson Odums had to piece together what coach Sterlin Gilbert did at South Florida and defensive coordinator Jim Gush did at his previous stops.
So Odums included a session with players about the Florida vs. Miami national opener last Saturday.
Odums said there was a lot to be gained from watching two different schools as his team prepares to start a 2019 season of high expectations. It served as a warning to what can happen to even the best programs.
The Gators and Hurricanes staggered through a less-than-stellar start that featured a combined 23 penalties, 11 sacks and five turnovers. It played right into Odums’ hands. Although Southern has a wealth of experience, talent and depth, Jaguars players saw that plenty can go wrong in season openers, which is why coaches say teams improve most from their first to second game.
“To see the ups and down in that game allowed us to talk to our players about the mishaps that can happen,” Odums said. “You saw a lot of sacks and turnovers. Turnovers are big. They can put you in a game or take you out of a game.
“We want them to understand the value of the football. We’ve been talking about it all camp. From offensive perspective, take care of the ball. On defense, find a way to create more possessions for the offense.”
Odums is playing it cautious. Even with an experienced team loaded with depth, high expectations mean nothing when the ball is snapped for the first time. He’s spent spring and summer camp preaching focus and blocking out the noise.
The Jaguars go on the road with 17 returning starters and 34 players with at least four years in the program, and some of the highest expectations in Odums’ six full seasons at the helm. They finished 2018 on a roll, and Odums wants his players to realize none of it will help them Saturday.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” he said. “We’ve got to just concentrate on getting better each week and starting 1-0 before we try to win anything else."
The excitement starts with the offense. Mirroring Southern’s late season run was the play of quarterback Ladarius Skelton, who ran and passed for 1,520 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He was the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place and the Jaguars have an improved version of him from the start of the season this time.
“He’s shown a lot of growth,” Southern offensive coordinator Chennis Berry said. “He’s a true dual-threat quarterback. His talent has always been there; it’s his maturity he’s shown that is different.
“When he first came in, he didn’t really grasp the offense. We had to structure things around what he did well. Now with two springs, two summers and a season, we feel like we can give him the keys to the Blue Machine and let him go. He’s a winner; he’s won everywhere he’s been.”
Skelton has the tools around him to succeed. The offensive line returns four starters, leading rusher Devon Benn is back after a breakout season, and Hunter Register leads a talented and deep group of receivers.
With nine starters back on defense, the Jaguars are looking to create more turnovers and give the ball back to Skelton and Company under new coordinator Lionel Washington.
“He has done a great job of putting the pieces together,” Odums said of Washington. “We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We did some good things last year, but things we need to improve on, run defense is one of those. We’ve focused on turnovers in fall camp. The demeanor he coaches with is big.”
The Jaguars know themselves well enough but have to prepare for the unknown, especially with the McNeese offense. The Cowboys are moving from a run-oriented unit to an up-tempo spread. Luckily, Southern sees similar attacks in the SWAC, most notably Alcorn State.
Triggerman for the Cowboy offense is junior quarterback Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who started three games in last year’s system. Orgeron threw for 406 yards and two touchdowns in 2018 but will be carrying much more of a load in the spread.
Wide receivers Cyron Sutton and Tyler Begue combined for 54 catches for 849 yards and six TDs to give Orgeron some familiar targets.
The Southern offense will have to account for end Chris Livings, who has 20½ career sacks, and cornerback Colby Burton, an All-Southland Conference pass defender.
But most of all, Southern players through their experience know they have to account for themselves first.
“Everybody is expecting a lot from us,” safety Montavius Gaines said. “We’ve just got to go out and execute and do our job. It’s not about the other team; it’s about doing our job well.”