After rigorous weightlifting and a slew of sprints and other conditioning exercises, the Southern football team’s June 15 voluntary summer workout was over.
Well, it should have been.
Instead of a stroll back to the locker room, a refreshing shower and some grub to recover from their 5:30 a.m. session, the 30 or so players had to drop to the ground, do a push-up and hop back to their feat, over and over.
More up-downs, and this time, it was by choice.
“Somebody was late,” offensive lineman Chris Browne said.
That kind of self-meted punishment is one example of a team that’s gearing up for 2012 intent on having more leadership and better discipline than in the first two years under coach Stump Mitchell.
Mitchell said those two areas are among the main culprits that led to subpar records. Of course, there’s no shortage of problems to point to on a team that went 4-7 last season and 2-9 the year before, but discipline and leadership are basic components of a winning team, and Mitchell feels the Jaguars are further along in those departments.
To get there, Mitchell and his staff are letting the players take charge.
One morning, the team arrived to a workout and found fill-in-the-blank sheets waiting for them. Rather than having captains named by coaches, they’d vote on them.
“All the coaches thought we were ready to make that step,” Mitchell said. “Some of the coaches knew who they would select as captains before they even did it. For us to think some of those guys deserve to be captains and also have it echoed by the votes of the players, that was pretty good.”
Five names came back: Browne, receiver Charles Hawkins, safety Levi Jackson, defensive lineman Casey Narcisse and cornerback Virgil Williams.
Browne called it the biggest honor of his career, a sentiment echoed by his co-captains.
“It was a great feeling because I didn’t know guys look up to me like that,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t think they looked at me as a leader, but they do, so I have to be strong and be the leader they see me as.”
That means leading by example, and the coaches threw in a twist. If a player slips up, his fate doesn’t rest in Mitchell’s hands, it falls to the team captains.
When a situation arises, Mitchell meets with the captains, gives them the facts and waits for their decision.
“I just deliver the verdict,” Mitchell said.
That can range from team punishments to the individual, including discussions about whether a player should remain part of the program. But so far, the captains are more focused on constructive penalties that reinforce the idea that one person’s actions affect the entire team.
Like skipping or being late to a workout, which drew those extra up-downs.
“If it’s just, ‘I don’t feel like going,’ that shows they really don’t want to be a part of the team, because everybody else has to get up at the same time in the morning,” Williams said. “If one does it, we all do it.”
Williams is one of the few who were already familiar with having discipline handled by the players, experiencing a similar system while at Shreveport’s Evangel Christian Academy.
For the rest, it has been more of an adjustment.
“We have to be responsible and accountable for each other,” Browne said. “I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m perfect, because I missed a day. But when one person messes up, everybody messes up, and the goal is to not make it a consistent thing.”
That’s music to Mitchell’s ears.
In his first year at Southern, the Jaguars averaged a whopping 104.1 penalty yards per game, worst in the SWAC and the Football Championship Subdivision. And players struggled off the field as well.
“They thought they could still do what they used to do, and still play, and that it didn’t matter. Well it mattered to me,” Mitchell said. “To let a guy get away with doing wrong and still play on the field, that’s not me.”
Things calmed a bit last season, as SU’s penalties dropped to 77.8 yards per game, which ranked in the middle of the conference pack, and Mitchell has fewer disciplinary issues to deal with.
But Southern was still among the worst in FCS for penalty yardage (No. 106 out of 120) and struggled mightily in the fourth quarter of games, a period where the Jaguars were outscored 79-26.
Mitchell and his staff are hoping that two seasons of emphasizing discipline, along with more rigid spring and summer workout programs under strength and conditioning coach Corliss Fingers, will turn the tide in the crucial third year.
And they’ll be armed with something they haven’t had until now: a group of experienced players who can lead and act as an extension of the coaches.
“There has been a huge change for the better,” offensive line coach Paul Lounsberry said. “This is the next step into getting the leadership we need to have. We didn’t have good leadership the first two years here, and I think this is a step that needed to be taken to get that leadership in place.”