Hotard: Jaguars have reason for optimism

Advocate file photo by ADAM LAUSouthern quarterback Dray Joseph evades a tackle from Grambling linebacker Vick Gilbert during the 2012 Bayou Classic.
Advocate file photo by ADAM LAUSouthern quarterback Dray Joseph evades a tackle from Grambling linebacker Vick Gilbert during the 2012 Bayou Classic.

No matter their win-loss record the previous season, coaches and players from all regions, all divisions and all kinds of programs hit the practice fields in August convinced this will be their year.

Such will be the vibe at Southern on Wednesday when the Jaguars report for their first preseason camp under coach Dawson Odums.

But this year, for the first time in a while, there is no reason to dismiss Southern’s optimism as foolish or misguided.

This year, the optimism on the Bluff will be realistic and genuine.

Southern returns three players, Lee Doss, Virgil Williams and Anthony Balancier, who were named to the preseason All-Southwestern Athletic Conference first team at SWAC media day earlier this month. It returns two more players, Dray Joseph and Arthur Miley, who were named to the second team.

Joseph led the SWAC in passing as a junior last season, but you have to think he will be even better given 2012 was his first year as a full-time starter.

Williams gives the Jaguars not only a star-caliber cover man, but also a dangerous weapon in the return game.

Corey White is likely to start at right guard after transferring from LSU, and he joins an offensive line that has a returning starter at three of the other four positions.

Most teams with a first-year coach need a season to break in their new system and adjust to a different style. But Odums spent the final nine games of 2012 running the show on an interim basis and, after having the interim tag removed, brought back several assistants from last year’s staff.

Southern won five SWAC championships during the Pete Richardson era, but the Jaguars have not been the preseason pick to win the Western Division since 2006.

The last three years, Southern was picked to finish fourth twice and fifth once.

The Jaguars got much more love — rightfully so — in the preseason poll this year, voted second in the West behind defending SWAC champion Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

The fact Southern must visit UAPB on Oct. 19 will no doubt make its path a more difficult one to navigate.

But even though the Golden Lions have a whopping 18 starters returning from last year, history says they may be due to take a step back.

No team has won back-to-back SWAC titles since 2002. No team has won the West in consecutive years since 2008.

Southern, to be sure, has its question marks.

If the Jaguars found themselves without Joseph for a stretch of games, they would have no player who has thrown a college pass to run the offense.

The team that ranked dead-last in the SWAC in rushing yards last season lost its top two running backs.

Between them, returning kickers Matthew Hill and Gregory Pittman last year connected on only 7 of 13 on field goals.

But with an experienced roster and proven playmakers at key positions, the Jaguars will report to camp with a team that looks the part of a SWAC title contender.

That’s not, for the first time in several years, your standard preseason hyperbole.

That’s real, genuine optimism.