BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A stage light beamed down upon Dawson Odums as he waited in the glare for the moderator’s question.
Debuting at SWAC Media Day, the act is nothing new since the first-year Southern football coach’s tenure started as an ad hoc move nearly a year ago. Filling the breach after Stump Mitchell’s firing, Odums endured a long stretch before his interim tag was removed in December.
Eight months brought plenty of firsts, too. A first signing day, a first spring practice and Monday’s first trip to the Birmingham Marriott, where Odums sat on a barstool-style chair while his peers fielded questions and he mulled his own response.
So when asked whether Southern, which is coming off three losing seasons in a row, is poised for a revival, Odums calmly laid down his edict.
“It’s not about having a winning season,” Odums said. “It’s about building a winning program.”
Pegged to finish second in the Western Division behind experience-laden Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the consensus of those monitoring the conference is that the Jaguars have the pieces — hinted at by four preseason All-SWAC picks — to begin resurrecting themselves against a field where youth dots rosters at Prairie View and Grambling and Texas Southern tries to overcome NCAA penalties from a poor academic progress rating.
“What I do know is that we have a team that is tired of losing,” said Odums, who was promoted to head coach after two games last season. “We’ve got enough guys in this program (who) want to win, but we don’t talk about it as winning. We talk about what’s required to be a champion. We’ve got enough guys in this program (who) want to be a part of that.”
The chief asset is back under center in senior quarterback Dray Joseph, an Edgard native whose 2,511 yards and 25 touchdowns led the SWAC last season. It’s finding complementary components to bolster an anemic running attack, which at 79.5 yards per game ranked last in the conference, to alleviate the burden on Joseph.
Senior Darius Coleman boasts experience but only a 26.1 yards-per-game average last season backing up Sylvester Nzekwe. Redshirt freshman Lenard Tillery is short on game reps, but his 111 yards on 18 carries in the spring game — a stat line that had Joseph beaming and perfectly content to curb his production in Chad Germany’s West Coast scheme.
“I loved how we ran the ball, because those are the things that open up the passing game,” Joseph said. “Being able to do that will help us manage the game and the clock.”
Senior receiver Lee Doss will line up as a reliable set of hands, snaring 65 catches for 703 yards and eight touchdowns, but the St. Augustine alum needs some help. Only tight end Rashaun Allen, who had 18 catches for 141 yards, has much experience.
“We’ve identified our best options and identified our weaknesses,” Odums said. “We addressed it in recruiting or with transfers. We have some young men in our program (who) are going to help us. We’ve got young men (who) are hungry.”
But there are metrics and statistical facts underscoring Odums’ broader point: If Southern expects to compete for a trip to Houston for a shot at the SWAC title, it needs to show resiliency and mental tenacity, especially late in the game defensively.
SU lost six games by four points or fewer last season, including their final three contests — including back-to-back one-point defeats to Alabama A&M and Alabama State.
The Jaguars ranked sixth or worse in passing defense, pass-efficiency defense and interceptions. Odum’s defense allowed opponents to convert 39.1 percent of the time on third down — the second-highest rate in the SWAC. Once inside the red zone, opponents scored 79.5 percent of the time, which ranked Southern ninth in the SWAC.
So if it seems as if Odums avoids talking in specifics about how to fix a 4-7 campaign, it’s because the former defensive coordinator’s faith is resolute in his scheme and the staff teaching it. Instead, Odums is adamant the elixir is tweaking SU’s collective psyche.
“We talk about discipline and accountability,” Odums said. “We’re not dealing solely with the X’s and O’s and strength and conditioning. We’re trying to conquer a mindset because half the battle is believing.”
Still, Williams said, it hasn’t halted Odums from tweaking his 3-4 scheme.
“He really simplified the defense and took a lot of the thinking out of it,” Williams said. “The less you have to think and the more you can react, the faster you’re going to play. We’ve bought into that philosophy. We play way faster. We rally to the ball faster. We break on routes faster.”
Even if Southern’s wait for the season to arrive is down to 47 days, the interim nature of last season has been put aside with Odums entrenched in the job for at least the next two seasons with a contract paying the coach $140,000 annually. And if there’s one final certainty, it’s that Odums is comfortable now with the spotlight showing a blunt question: Can he produce victories?
“You can go to many camps and clinics and try to learn the job,” he said.
“But ultimately, you’ve got to do it on the field.”
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