Ladarius Skelton nearly carried Southern to the Southwest Athletic Conference title last year, juicing up the offense for a 5-1 finish.
In the SWAC title game, his touchdown run gave Southern a 28-27 fourth-quarter lead in a game the Jaguars ultimately lost 37-28 after Skelton left the game with an ankle injury.
Skelton, according to his teammates and head coach, is in position for a stronger encore and is one of the reasons Southern is one of the league favorites.
A player who won two high school football titles, another in basketball and a junior-college national championship was frustrated at having to wait to assimilate with the Jaguars last year. Those concerns are gone after a full year, spring practice and summer workouts.
When asked what impresses him most about Skelton as the Jaguars begin preseason camp, Southern coach Dawson Odums said Skelton has grown into the job as a player and a leader.
“You can see the next step from learning; he’s more comfortable,” Odums said. “He took the bull by the horns last year and we simplified some things but he’s able to do more. His progression with the football was great in the spring and summer.
“He’s one of the more electrifying players in the conference. With the ball in his hands he gives us a chance to be successful.”
Skelton wants every bit of that success. He wants to lead the Jaguars one step further to finish the job from last season.
“I feel stronger and good behind my teammates,” he said in his first media interview since joining the program last year. “I’m settling down, taking the little things the defense is giving me and rocking with my teammates. They give me a lot of confidence.”
Teammates are getting the same in return. Skelton, whom his teammates call “Dre," has grabbed the leadership role since day one but only until he became the starter could he fully implement it. He’s continued to grow into his job.
“Dre is a real outgoing guy,” wide receiver Hunter Register said. “Even when he wasn’t playing, you knew where he was. He’s going to let you know how he feels, good or bad. He’s always positive to the guys trying to lift us but to be our best self.”
Being his better self is going to make Southern a threat to unseat Alcorn State, which has won three of the past five SWAC titles. In six starts he accounted for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing and passing. His passing abilities have been polished, and it will make him all the more dangerous for opponents.
Odums wants to see him throwing the ball better and will try to keep him healthy with fewer designed quarterback runs. But he’s also pledged not to make Skelton into a pocket passer.
“LaDarius is much more confident with the offense,” running back Devon Benn said. “He was thrown into the water at mid-season last year and feeling his way out. He’s be able to play faster and efficiently. He’s grown as a leader, very vocal.
“He’s a dual threat. You can’t play too much man or he’ll get out the gate on you. He’s got the arm to throw the ball. He’s going to be more efficient with the offense and control it better.”
No one knows better than Jaguar safety Montavius Gaines, who battles Skelton from across the line of scrimmage. He sees a more mature player to looks for plays to move the chains rather than trying to go for a touchdown on every play.
“It’s not all about the money ball,” Gaines said. “He’s going more to the check down. I like how he’s improved his game. It will give us better opportunities.”
Skelton relishes his role as a team leader even though he’s been on campus less than a calendar year. Friday was a big day for him. He wanted to be one of the players leading the way and setting an example the first time out.
“I wanted to set the tone so we know we’re not looking back anymore,” Skelton said. “It’s only straight forward from here on out. We need to make every play count. I love my teammates and they love me. We’re going to rock all the way.”
Said Odums: “If anybody is going to have a voice and a say-so, he’s not afraid to speak up. But he’s also one of the more competitive guys on the team. He’s going to be in the weight room, classroom, off the field, on the field. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t just speak; he backs it up with his play and practice every day.”