One thing probably comes to mind when thinking of Southern and Houston on the same football field: really?
Yet players like senior linebacker Anthony Balancier believe the Jaguars of the Football Championship Subdivision have a fighting chance against the Cougars of the Football Bowl Subdivision in the season opener at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Head coach Dawson Odums holds that same belief. Odums acknowledged during the team’s first news conference that while Houston is the best team on the schedule, he is relying on Balancier and other veterans to perform against upper-echelon talent.
“I feel confident,” Balancier said. “Last year, we didn’t have too much confidence going up against New Mexico (a 66-21 loss). This year our confidence level is very high. We know we can go down there and beat them just by what they give us on film and how good our team is this year.”
After leading the team in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss last season, Balancier knows his role as a top player and leader, even though he admits he sometimes struggles with the leadership aspect of his game.
“My leadership skills are not the best, but I know I have to do it because everybody looks up to me,” Balancier said. “Every day I try to do my best to be a better leader, because I know if I do right, they will follow.”
And Balancier’s commitment to leadership is vital to the team.
“We’re going to depend a lot on his senior leadership,” linebackers coach Lorick Atkinson said. “He’s got a lot of game experience. You count a lot on your upperclassmen like Balancier, because he’s been there. And we’re going to count on him to get everybody lined up right, be a leader for our younger players and go play.”
But Atkinson and Balancier both realize the challenges of a game against a high-caliber team.
“The biggest challenge is going to be the first quarter, because we’ve got to get used to their tempo,” Balancier said. “The first quarter is going to be just like a heavyweight fight. You know how the boxers feel each other out the first three rounds? That’s how we’ll be the first quarter. But once we get used to that tempo, the sky is the limit.”
Balancier’s positive outlook stems from a principle driven home by Odums, who says he has zero tolerance for any negativity.
“If someone is being negative, coach Odums will put them off the field, and no one wants to be embarrassed in front of the whole team and go to the locker room early,” Balancier said. “He’s doing a good job of keeping this positivity thing going, and I appreciate him doing that.”
But the team hasn’t always fallen into a line of smiles and camaraderie.
Balancier said the team has often struggled with discipline over the past few years, but keeping a positive mind has helped keep them focused.
Balancier’s determination and work ethic are, however, a stretch from his beginning years at SU.
“I see a huge difference,” Balancier said. “My freshman and junior year, I used to get in a lot of trouble. And they had to put me off the team for a little bit to get my mind right. So after that, I just cooled down, my grades improved, my playing time improved and my game level rose. There’s been a lot of improvement.”
The New Orleans native has a made a full turnaround, has been selected as a team captain and is trusted by his coaches to deliver every second he’s on the field. And Balancier willingly accepts the challenge.
“It’s not too much pressure,” Balancier said. “I like to have it on my shoulders so I can keep my head on straight and just go out there and give it 100 percent every game.”
Balancier also finds inspiration from a special spot in his room every morning.
“At my house, on my mirror in my bathroom, I have my little goals. I’ve got my hundred-plus tackles, so I see it every morning,” Balancier said. “Once I see it every morning, I can go out on the field and do it.”
Balancier certainly has the confidence and the approval from his team to go with it. And the skills to back it up.
“I don’t know what the future holds for him,” Atkinson said. “But we take it one day at a time. He may have a chance at the next level. That’s totally on him, but he has the tools. He has grown as a player in the last six months I’ve been here, and I’m expecting great things from him.”