|(photo by Arthur Williams/Southern athletics web site)|
By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
For most teams, an 8-3 season with only one loss to an FCS team would be cause for celebration.
Not if you are the Southern Jaguars.
That one loss came in the Bayou Classic to their heated rival, Grambling, in a game that would determine the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s West Division champion and who would play in the SWAC championship game the next weekend.
The loss instead meant the end of an eight-game winning streak and the 2016 season.
But it’s 2017 and the Jaguars have been picked to again finish second in the West to Grambling. However, that’s not what Southern is thinking about this season.
“We’ve got an opportunity not only to be a good football team,” said head coach Dawson Odums during the SWAC Media Day in July. “We’ve got an opportunity to put ourselves in position to win a SWAC championship.”
They will do so without last year’s SWAC leading rusher, Lenard Tillery, who finished his career as the SWAC career-rushing leader. Tillery is a big reason why the Jaguars led the SWAC in scoring and were second in total offense. But now he’s gone.
Senior Herb Edwards will lead a group that will try to take over for Tillery.
“When young men depart your program, it’s a great opportunity for other men to step up,” Odums said. “If we can get the same production, whether it’s between two guys or three guys, I think we’ll be happy with that position. [Tillery is] and outstanding football player. We’ll never replace him, but him departing creates a window of opportunity for someone new to step up and now they can showcase what kind of talent they have for our program.”
The offense won’t be bare at all though. Quarterback Austin Howard returns. Howard threw 29 touchdowns and was second in SWAC passing last season, But his main target, and the team's big time kickoff return man, Willie Quinn is also gone. A number of players are looking to step up as the mantra "next man up," has been a popular refrain this fall.
On defense, the Jaguars’ defense, particularly their rushing defense, was in the bottom half of the SWAC last season. The spotty defense came to a head in that Grambling game last season as the Jaguars gave up 452 yards of offense – 262 of it on the ground – and six touchdowns in that 52-30 loss. Grambling also had a kickoff return for a TD.
But four members of last year’s defensive squad, led by defensive lineman Aaron Tiller (60 tackles and nine sacks in 2016), have been named to the preseason All-SWAC team. Defensive back Danny
Johnson led the SWAC with seven interceptions, one for a TD, last season, while Kentavious Preston also had 60 tackles and two sacks for Southern.
Odums said his team is focused on making another run at a SWAC title, but not looking ahead to a rematch in November with the team that denied them a shot at it last year.
“It’s not a game we really talk about as a team,” he said of the 2017 Bayou Classic. “When we sit down with our team the first time and we talk about the mission for our football team, of course you want to beat your in-state rivals. But at the end of the day, we talk about how do we get to that point. And in order to get to that point, we call it ‘chop wood and carry water.’ We’ve got to fall in love with the process. And the process right now is getting our minds set on coming to camp, having a healthy camp, getting through camp and focusing [season opening, Sept. 3 opponent] on South Carolina State. We don’t really worry about [the Grambling] game because we’re going to have to play that game. It’s enough to worry about it once you get to it.
“At the end of the day,” Odums added, “we try to focus on us and if we do that, everything else will take care of itself.”