As dusk fell on Monday’s practice, Southern’s football team must have thought its work was nearly done.
Rather than calling the players in for a huddle, coaches sent them down to the north end zone of the practice field and began organizing them into groups.
Strength and conditioning coach Corliss Fingers stood near midfield and barked out the instructions. One-hundred-yard sprints. Receivers and defensive backs had 15 seconds to make it, linemen had 18 and the rest 16. The number of sprints was left open-ended.
They took off, wave after wave and sprint after sprint. After a few, it was obvious this wasn’t just a conditioning drill.
Interim coach Dawson Odums’ voice boomed over the heavy breaths and flapping pads.
“Finish! That’s all we’re talking about! Finish!” he said.
Finishing was something the Jaguars had barely done a few days earlier in a 28-21 victory at Jackson State, when they nearly blew a four-touchdown lead.
It’s an especially appropriate topic heading into Saturday’s matchup against Florida A&M in the Atlanta Classic. A year ago, Southern gave up 21 straight points in the second half to lose 38-33. That was one of four games SU lost in the fourth quarter, a period where it was outscored 79-26.
And so as his players hustled to meet their times, Odums and his assistants offered reminders.
Running backs coach Elvis Joseph ran alongside the linemen to push them, and defensive assistant Lionel Mitchell did the same with the skill position players. When one player slowed up near the goal line, receivers coach Jorge Baez grabbed him, walked him out to the 5-yard line, and made him finish again.
Odums had deemed “finishing” his “word of the day,” and it resonated with the team.
Players have their own memories of and reasons for Southern’s late collapses, but one thing they agree on is that it has to be fixed.
Defensive tackle Casey Narcisse put it on conditioning.
“If you aren’t conditioned, your mind is going to break,” he said. “A lot of people just fell apart.”
That was a major area of focus this summer, when Fingers structured their workouts so that the most difficult exercises — like flipping a giant tire — came at the end in hopes of getting them used to finishing strong.
“I still think about those workouts during the game,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “We worked way too hard not to be able to win games. I think working out is about mental conditioning. … You remember those things, and it makes you stronger in your mind to be able to dominate anybody you’re blocking.”
Hopes are that the physical work will get the mind in shape too, because too often last season, mental lapses cost them games.
The loss to FAMU was especially troubling. An interception return for a touchdown gave SU a 33-17 lead with 6:36 left in the third quarter, but when the Rattlers subbed in quarterback Damien Fleming, the game turned.
Fleming led a touchdown drive, then another after quarterback Dray Joseph threw an interception.
“I remember guys having a ‘here we go again’ type of attitude,” Browne said. “That atmosphere totally changed.”
Finally, the Rattlers took advantage of a weak punt for a short, go-ahead touchdown drive, and Joseph’s interception on a last-gasp drive sealed the game.
Those interceptions — three in all — still bother Joseph, and he quickly names them when asked what he recalls from that game.
But missed throws were just one example of the kind of mistakes Southern’s opponents benefitted from last season.
“One play led to a momentum swing, and if you give a team hope when you have them down, that’s all they need,” cornerback Virgil Williams said.
That was the case Saturday, when the Jaguars allowed a 30-yard completion on fourth-and-3 that woke up the Tigers. They went on to score on that drive and on two others after SU punts.
But the difference between the Jackson State win and a loss one week earlier to Mississippi Valley State — when Southern squandered a host of late chances — was that the Jaguars made enough plays to secure the win.
Joseph’s was the biggest, when he scrambled away from a sack on third-and-2 and completed a 10-yard pass that brought a new set of downs and the ability to run out the clock.
With that confidence boost behind them, SU will go up against FAMU hoping to do more than just eke out a win.
If they do, it will be the product of a new mindset, one that was reinforced during those sprints on Monday night.
When the players completed their 10th sprint — 1,000 yards in all — they slouched over and tried to catch their breath.
“Stand with some pride,” Odums said. “That’s what happens in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to finish. We’ve got to finish. When we roll into Atlanta, we’ve got to finish.”
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