Defensive backs in the Southwestern Athletic Conference can sometimes feel like the proverbial finger in the dike, able to do little more than slow down an oncoming barrage.
Half of the teams in the SWAC averaged at least 221 passing yards per game last season. Southern alone had seven games in which opponents scored multiple passing touchdowns, including seven passing scores in the first two games of last season.
It might be reasonable to suspect things will only get worse this year for the Jaguars, who return one starter in the secondary, junior safety Dionte McDuffy. But Southern believes it is finding success with a group of fresh faces.
“All of us have had some playing time — not starting, but all of us have had playing time and know how the game goes,” senior cornerback De’Andre Woodland said. “We’ve all been in the system about two years now, and now everything is moving on good.”
The Southern secondary has dominated preseason camp for the past two weeks, barely letting the group of veteran wide receivers catch their breath — let a lone a pass.
The offense has frequently gone long stretches without completing a pass on the relatively young backfield. Monday and Tuesday, Woodland was seen sprinting to the end zone, ball in hand after another interception, more often than nearly any receiver.
“There’s a lot of talent on that side of the ball,” junior tight end Bradley Coleman said. “Going against them everyday is kind of hard because it’s so much talent. But you have to make the best of it.”
Woodland has consistently locked down the left sideline, while senior cornerback Kevin King has done his part on the right.
At safety, McDuffy is joined by Renaldo Thomas, who transferred from Tulane before last season in hopes of additional playing time.
A former three-star prospect from St. Augustine in New Orleans, Thomas registered just seven tackles in his sophomore season with the Green Wave after missing most of 2011 with an injury.
Secondary coach Marty Biagi praised his unit for its ability to keep a high tempo with the amount of depth at the position.
“I think especially the secondary unit, they’ve really bonded well,” Biagi said. “There’s no bad apples in the group, which is always a positive when you can get that coming into a group.”
One of the newest “good apples” at Southern is freshman cornerback Danny Johnson, who’s already making a name for himself with the rest of the secondary.
Whenever veterans are asked about young defensive backs making a splash at camp, Johnson is one of the first names out of their mouths.
“He isn’t playing like he’s a freshman,” King said of Johnson, an East Feliciana graduate. “He’s playing like he’s been here before. He’s making plays when he needs to make plays, doing what he needs to do and he’s not making any mental errors.”
As for any other issues in their secondary, the Jaguars have only a little more than two weeks to figure out a solution. They’ll open the season Aug. 30 against Louisiana-Lafayette and quarterback Terrance Broadway, who finished last season as the 18th-most efficient passer in the country.
It’ll be the second straight season in which Southern begins with a Football Bowl Subdivision program. The Jaguars opened last season at Houston, which rolled up eight touchdowns and more than 600 yards of total offense in a 62-13 loss.
“We don’t worry about who we’re going to face,” Biagi said. “We worry about what we’re going to do. If we can create over and over again that muscle memory to do the right thing, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
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