If Southern coach Jason Rollins has learned anything in his 25 years as an assistant, it’s the importance of managing expectations.
The Jaguars’ 19th coach is blessed with 42 upperclassmen on a roster packed with experience. He’s new; the team is not.
Throughout fall camp, Rollins clung to an old coaching axiom.
“I’m going to expect the unexpected,” he said when asked what he imagines the Sept. 4 season opener at Troy will be like.
“You have to play it by ear and see what comes up. These practices are for me to prepare as well, a lot of the situations we’re in. They’re helping me prepare for those Saturday nights.”
Rollins is hoping to follow the success of the last interim coach Southern had. He takes over for Dawson Odums, who guided the Jaguars to their last SWAC title in his first full season, and he’s not feeling the pressure inheriting a team with a full cupboard.
“It’s great to have a team that has been there and done that,” he said. “You don’t have to prod them, they know how to go. You don’t have the growing pains.”
Southern lost one starter from its spring top 22. Finding a placekicker and a punter has been one of the few issues in fall camp.
The good news starts at quarterback where starter Ladarius Skelton returns for his fourth season, looking for a breakthrough as a passer. The Jaguars’ leading rusher the past two seasons has spent summer and fall refining his passing skills, namely his patience in the pocket.
Skelton has accounted for 6,388 yards and 52 touchdowns in his career. With his second season under offensive coordinator Zach Grossi, he’s primed for a breakthrough.
“He’s always been a good passer,” Rollins said. “He just runs so well, it overshadows his passing. He’s improving in all of his areas.”
If Skelton falters, the Jaguars have John Lampley, who was a starter in 2018, and Bubba McDaniel, who played significant snaps in 2019. Whoever is behind center has a strong supporting cast.
Devon Benn and Jerodd Sims are as good a 1-2 punch as any SWAC team has while wide receiver Jamar Washington’s return from injury gives Southern a perimeter threat on speed sweeps. Craig Nelson is an excellent receiver as a third down back, something the offense would like to exploit more.
The addition to Skelton’s skills running the option make Southern a favorite to lead the SWAC in rushing for the third consecutive season.
The top four wide receivers, led by Marquis McClain (12 catches, 167 yards, 1 TD), are back and bolstered by the addition of 6-6 transfer Calif Gossett.
Grossi will continue to expand the passing game with the use of multiple tight ends, led by freshman Ethan Howard (14-240-2). Travis Tucker and Gregory Perkins give the offense some versatility in running two tight end sets when Southern wants to go to a power running game.
That leads to the veteran offensive line, which Grossi calls the “engine that drives the offense.” Tackles Ja’Tyre Carter and Jeremiah Stafford, guards Jonathan Bishop and Brian Williams and center Dallas Black form a cohesive group that could be dominant if it stays healthy.
Having Grossi back allows Southern to fully implement his NFL-style playbook.
“It’s nice to be in the second year,” Grossi said. “I’m comfortable. The players are comfortable with the system that we brought in, the changes we made.”
The defense loses linebacker Caleb Carter but returns end Jordan Lewis, the FCS Defensive Player of the Year, who recorded 10½ sacks while attacking from both sides and the middle.
“If teams are giving me a lot of attention, other guys on the defense will be able to make plays,” said Lewis, who has bulked up to 220 pounds.”
Jalen Ivy had a strong spring season at the other end and a slimmed down Davin Cotton at tackle teams with Robert Square for an experienced front wall.
Transfer linebacker Ray Anderson has stepped in nicely for Carter alongside freshman Derrick Williams, both of whom played significant spring snaps. Depth is the issue at this position.
At cornerback, Glenn Brown has locked down one side with the other undecided, but Troy transfer Terence Dunlap could make a big impact. He had three interceptions and six break ups for the Trojans last fall.
Defensive coordinator Lionel Washington has tweaked the secondary. All-SWAC corner Tamaurice Smith moved to safety, where he teams with tackling machine Jakoby Pappillion, who missed the spring with an injury, and Chase Foster, another All-SWAC performer.
Junior Martell Fontenot is vying with freshmen Luke Jackson, Carson Wilt and Joshua Griffin for the three kicking jobs, a competition that may bleed into the season.