Southern training camp preview: Everything you need to know

Top storylines, key dates, newcomers to watch and a slew of other items as the reigning Southwestern Athletic Conference champions report for preseason camp:

TOP FIVE STORYLINES

1. Crowded under center

The quarterback competition was the most talked-about story in the spring and it will continue to be during preseason camp until coach Dawson Odums names a starter. Redshirt freshmen Deonte Shorts and Francis Kanneh are still in a close battle that has been joined by true freshmen Austin Howard of West St. John and Jarrad Hayes of Central. Whoever wins the job will be inexperienced and won’t be counted on to throw as much as Dray Joseph was. They will lean on an experienced offensive line and deep and talented groups of running backs and wide receivers while they grow into the position.

2. The go-to receiver

Joseph’s graduation coincided with that of Lee Doss, the other half of one of the most prolific passing combinations in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. It wouldn’t be surprising if no one player matches Doss’ productivity (78 catches, 1,172 yards, 11 touchdowns) and that’s OK with Odums. Receiver is one of the most talented and deepest positions on the team, featuring a half-dozen or so candidates to be regular targets. Odums would be content to spread the ball around equally if defenses play the receivers straight up.

3. The depth on the offensive line

The line is the most experienced unit on the team with four returning starters and an experienced player in Brandon Thibodeaux stepping in as the fifth starter at center. The backups, though, are primarily inexperienced, so it will be important for those on the second unit to distinguish themselves in preseason camp so the coaching staff will know who to turn to if the need arises. The Jaguars will be cautious with senior Zach Brown at left guard, though he’s almost fully recovered from shoulder surgery. With three seniors starting, it will also be important to groom successors.

4. The rebuilt secondary

The starting defensive backfield is expected to be comprised of four juniors and a senior, but the experienced unit still has to replace former starters Johnathan Mack and Virgil Williams. Dionte McDuffy and D’Andre Woodland are returning starters, but the three new starters feature two newcomers. Kevin King is joined by transfers Rhaheim Ledbetter (Florida) and Renaldo Thomas (Tulane) as new starters. The preseason will be important for building continuity within a very talented group.

5. New sidekicks for Miley and Brown

The front six features senior leaders in Arthur Miley at left end and Daniel Brown at Sam linebacker, but the others up front are first-year starters. Junior Donald Phillips is penciled in at right end, and senior Jaylen Jordan is the nose tackle. Junior Javon Allen is expected to start at Mike linebacker, and sophomore Demetrius Carter at Buck, though freshmen Aaron Tiller and Kentavious Preston and junior Tim Patterson all seem destined for significant playing time on a unit the must replace Anthony Balancier and Franchot West, who combined for 167 tackles last season.

NEWCOMERS TO WATCH

RB Malcolm Crockett

The transfer from Pittsburgh figures to get a fair share of snaps among a deep group of running backs. He enters preseason camp as the No. 2 running back behind incumbent starter Lenard Tillery.

DB Rhaheim Ledbetter

The transfer from Florida is a standout athlete who begins preseason practice as the No. 1 nickel back.

DB Renaldo Thomas

The transfer from Tulane is unusually big for a defensive back (6-foot-4, 204 pounds) and thus brings versatility to the secondary.

FOUR THINGS SOUTHERN IS LOOKING FORWARD TO

1. An improved running game

The Jaguars plan to lean on the running game more now that QB Dray Joseph has graduated and his replacement will be undergoing on-the-job training. The change in philosophy isn’t so much out of need because an experienced offensive line and talented and deep group of running backs should provide a top-notch run game.

2. The return of Brian McCain

The fifth-year senior will provide leadership and versatility in the backfield after missing all of last season with a foot injury. He likely won’t be among the yardage leaders, but his blocking and pass-catching ability will be a complement to the running game.

3. More solid special teams

The Jaguars made big plays in the return game and prevented them on the coverage units a year ago. Coupled with adequate punting and kicking, the special teams were consistent. With both specialists (K Greg Pittman and P Paul Randle Soden) returning and talented newcomers pushing Willie Quinn and Jaleel Richardson in the return game, the talent is there for more solid play on special teams.

4. A travel-friendly schedule

SWAC opponents will be gunning for the champs, and trips to Jackson State and Alcorn State will be especially challenging. But the Jaguars have six games in A.W. Mumford Stadium, including a three-game homestand in November. With the opener at UL-Lafayette and the traditional regular-season finale against Grambling in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Southern plays just four games outside of Louisiana.

POSITION BATTLES

Quarterback

Odums said it’s a four-man competition that doesn’t feature a specific timetable for naming a starter, whether it’s Deonte Shorts (below), Francis Kanneh or one of the two true freshmen. Odums wouldn’t rule out playing more than one quarterback, at least early on. In other words, it’s wide open.

Right end

Donald Phillips, who returns after being academically ineligible last season, is poised to start opposite Arthur Miley, but Christian Allen (below), who tied for second on the team with three sacks last season, will figure prominently as well.

Running back

Incumbent Lenard Tillery (below) is the starter, but the loss of Kylum Favorite to academic ineligibility creates a battle behind Tillery. Transfers Malcolm Crockett (Pittsburgh) and Jamarcus Jarvis (North Texas) both figure to get chances after having strong springs.

Wide receiver

Randall Menard and Willie Quinn are the top returning players, but the Jaguars like to spread the ball among numerous receivers. Nico Talbert, Reggie Travis, Nyle Johnson, Samuel Altman, Jordan Bracy, Justin Morgan, Mike Jones and Chuck Baker are all competing.

KEY DATES

Friday: First practice

Aug. 5: First day in pads

Aug. 9: First scrimmage

Aug. 16: Fall Fan Fest

Aug. 30: Season opener at UL-Lafayette

SCHEDULE

Date: Opponent, time (TV)

Aug. 30: at UL-Lafayette, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)

Sept. 6: Central Methodist, 6 p.m. (TBA)

Sept. 13: Northwestern State, 6 p.m. (CST)

Sept. 20: at Prairie View, 6 p.m. (TBA)

Sept. 27: at Alcorn State, 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

Oct. 4: Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 5:30 p.m. (TBA)

Oct. 11: at Alabama A&M, 1 p.m. (TBA)

Oct. 25: at Jackson State, 6 p.m. (TBA)

Nov. 1: Alabama State, 6 p.m. (TBA)

Nov. 8: Texas Southern, 6 p.m. (TBA)

Nov. 15: Mississippi Valley State, 6 p.m. (CST)

Nov. 29: vs. Grambling, 1:30 p.m. (NBC)

Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.