Jaguars come together to put losing in the past
All summer, the texts and calls have been zipping around.
Defensive tackle Casey Narcisse’s phone would ring at odd hours, with teammates saying they couldn’t wait to fly out to New Mexico for the season opener on Sept. 1.
“They’ll always call me up at 3 o’clock like, ‘I’m so ready to go get on this plane and shock the world,’ ” Narcisse said.
One day, players got a buzz and found a picture message from strong safety Levi Jackson.
The image? A photo of the Southwestern Athletic Conference trophy.
“I send them little messages, and I sent them a picture of what we’re going after so they can see it and keep their minds focused,” he said.
Check the phone records, and you’ll find the trail of a team in revolt.
Revolt against losing and embarrassment, against tarnishing the image of a once-proud program, against the idea that Southern’s days in the spotlight have passed.
“I’m excited just to prove it’s not going to be a repeat of last year,” receiver Michael Berry said. “We’re going to have a winning season this year.”
Predictions have come back to bite the Jaguars in the past. Like in 2010, when coach Stump Mitchell foretold an undefeated season that wound up at 2-9.
Last season wasn’t much better, with Southern finishing at 4-7 for a two-year total of 6-16 under Mitchell.
Jobs are on the line, and so is pride.
“These kids want to bring the pride back to Southern University,” said running backs coach Elvis Joseph, himself a former Jaguar.
“We know Southern, and Southern is about winning. We know that, and we know the rich tradition here. These fans, that’s all they want to know: ‘Can you win this game?’ Nothing else, no excuses, and we aren’t going to make any.
“These guys are looking forward to returning Southern to the dominant way it used to be. They know about the tradition. It was pretty upsetting losing a lot of close games last year. We were a pretty good team, but we lost some close games.”
True, there were close losses. Four by a total of 13 points, in all of which Southern either led or was tied in the fourth quarter.
But that was no accident, no merciless strike of bad luck.
Those losses were the product of poor finishing, subpar conditioning, sloppy execution and just-plain-bad kicking.
But in those areas, and many others, the Jaguars feel they’ve taken the strides to turn Ls into Ws, and a down period in Southern history into a rebirth.
Looking for a higher gear
The Southern offense is a bit of a wait-and-see unit, but there’s one group that doesn’t have many question marks.
At receiver, the Jaguars bring back possible pro prospects Berry and Charles Hawkins, and junior Lee Doss adds another steady pair of hands. Behind them, there’s a plethora of talented players, including third-year sophomore Jordan Bilbo, 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Bradley Coleman, strong redshirt junior Thomas Jackson and speedy redshirt freshman Mike Jones.
Then there’s freshman Willie Quinn, a diminutive but shifty wideout from Miami whom coaches think will cause headaches throughout the SWAC. Southern will also return Rashaun Allen, a 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end that Mitchell expects to attract NFL attention.
All of that gives Dray Joseph or J.P. Douglas — whichever wins the quarterback battle — a wealth of targets to hit, but the question will be whether the starter can manage the kind of efficiency that’s expected in Southern’s pro-style passing attack.
“It’s going to come down to accuracy, for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Neither one of the quarterbacks were as accurate as they should have been. Drops had a lot to do with that as well, but decision-making was one thing that hurt us last year.”
After a year of experience, Mitchell is hoping both will be better.
The same goes for the offensive line, which will start five players who were regular contributors in 2011, making it the most experienced and solid group of Mitchell’s tenure, and one that’s poised to improve on the SWAC’s worst rushing offense along with running backs Sylvester Nzekwe and Jerry Joseph.
In theory, that makes for a better unit than the one that ranked sixth in the conference for total offense, but until one of the quarterbacks takes control and the group avoids the injury plague, there’s no reason to book a hotel in Birmingham, Ala., for the SWAC title game just yet.
On defense, first-year defensive coordinator Dawson Odums has untangled a once-confusing scheme that will allow his players to react faster rather than get bogged down in thought.
That was the same task Odums’ predecessor, O’Neill Gilbert, took on, though apparently without enough success.
Results were mixed for the group in 2011, with a good pass defense, so-so scoring defense and pushover run defense.
The Jaguars lost a lot at linebacker, but a more experienced and high-potential line, coupled with a talented secondary, should make life easier for a corps of backers that will have to solidify as the season goes on.
Ends Kadeem Lewis, Jaylen Jordan and Arthur Miley have the physical tools to be threats off the edge, while tackles Narcisse, Delwin Williams and Benay Pryer — a 6-foot-4, 310-pound transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette — will offer a solid core.
Behind them, Detrane Lindsey, Javon Allen and Corry Roy figure as the linebackers, with cornerback Virgil Williams and strong safety Levi Jackson the veterans in the secondary. They’ll oversee likely starters Johnathan Mack (corner) and Jamaal Martin or Johnathon Wilson (free safety).
“I’m excited, and I just want for these guys to have a great year,” Odums said. “We’ve been through a lot here, but I think the third year is a pivotal year, and we thing we have good enough players on defense to turn things around.”
Just the thought of the Jaguars’ 2011 kicking game should be enough to make Southern fans tremor, but upgrades abound for this group.
At the top, there’s freshly minted special teams coordinator Marty Biagi, who punted at Marshall before serving as a graduate assistant at Arkansas (under special teams guru and current Razorbacks head coach John L. Smith) and an assistant coach at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Perhaps the worst display of Southern kicking game against Biagi and UAPB last year, when the Jaguars missed two extra points, including a low-flying effort that was blocked as time expired in a 22-21 loss.
But with Biagi and two freshman kickers — place-kicker Gregory Pittman and punter Chase Tuten, son of former NFL punter Rick Tuten — Southern expects to be much more sound, and returning kicker Matthew Hill should be improved in his second year of playing football.
In the return game, Hawkins and cornerback Virgil Williams offer a potent one-two punch, and Williams was named on preseason watch lists for both kick and punt returns.
Factor in speedy freshman Willie Quinn, and there’s a chance that Southern’s special teams become a strength in 2011.
Bigger, faster, stronger
It’s hard to spend 10 minutes around the Jaguars without hearing the name Corliss Fingers.
Believed to be the only female serving as a strength and conditioning for a Division I football program, Fingers’ arrival in February sparked complaints that reached as high as the university’s chancellor.
But in no time, Fingers had dispatched any concerns over gender and began whipping Southern into shape, using expertise gleaned from a long career working at Maryland.
The results have been heralded across the board.
The Jags are bigger, faster, stronger, healthier and more disciplined.
As a bonus, she structured her workouts so the hardest parts would come at the end, a ploy designed to get players used to finishing strong.
“I think it’s going to make a big difference,” Williams said. “We gave away a lot of games off of being undisciplined and getting tired in the fourth quarter feeling sorry for ourselves. She worked on that a lot when she got here. We’re way more disciplined, with way more leadership and more accountability.”
Tally all that up, and there’s little doubt Southern improved this offseason.
The question is, how much?
And will it be enough?