Wednesday will mark the first full-contact practice for Southern, but don’t tell that to the offensive line.
In helmets, shoulder pads and shorts, the big guys in the trenches have already done plenty of hitting.
“When you’re a lineman and you have on shoulder pads, that’s full contact,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “I don’t see a difference with putting on some pants.”
The difference will come for the rest of the team, and once the Jaguars engage in all-out physical battle, the line hopes to be the group that sets the tone.
That was an issue last season, when the offensive front was part of a rushing unit that ranked last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and among the nation’s worst.
But before they could focus on opening holes for the running backs, the unit had to deal with gaps of its own, struggling with a rash of injuries and a lack of experience.
“This is the first year since I’ve been here that we haven’t had to start at least one true freshman on the offensive line, and that’s a good thing,” offensive line coach Paul Lounsberry said. “The guys we have starting right now have been here at least one year, and that makes a big difference. They’ve all played.
“In the past, we were just trying to patch the holes and find somebody who could step in and give us a chance. This year, I think we have a chance to be a lot better because of that.”
That experience comes in the form of Browne (a redshirt senior), sophomore left guard Zach Brown, junior center Aaron Hall, sophomore right guard Dwayne Houston and junior right tackle Taylon Jones — all of whom saw playing time last year.
There are no major question marks in that group, even if it will be Hall’s first season as the starting center.
But since he served as a backup center in the past while starting at guard, then handled snapping duties in the spring, there isn’t much of an adjustment period.
“Actually I think he’s communicating better than what we had in the past,” Lounsberry said of Hall. “Last year with Lee (Almanza) at center, that was his first year at center, and Aaron has been around it now as a guard and a center, and he communicates better.”
That improved communication extends to the entire line, which will come back more buff and with better chemistry than in the past few years.
This summer, four of the likely starters and a handful of backups stayed in Baton Rouge and worked with strength and conditioning coach Corliss Fingers. Besides adding more muscle to their big frames — Fingers said she noticed linemen walking around shirtless more often — they’re also feeling healthier, and they worked together on extra drills beyond the weight room.
“Coach Corliss Fingers. I tell her all the time, you really made me a better player,” Browne said. “We were able to get better, get our explosion and power together. Us four were all here doing extra drills, so we’re a lot more explosive off the ball.”
Good thing too, because as of now, there isn’t much in the way of relief.
Three linemen — freshman Devante Lawrence and redshirt freshmen Allan Spry and Brandon Thibodeaux — have yet to pass the conditioning test and are not cleared to practice.
Of the others, no one has made a strong push to earn playing time or prove they can be reliable backups.
Between redshirt junior Clinton Boyd, former track athlete Reginald Redding, redshirt freshman Eric Janeau and freshmen Terrell Lee, Jamal Boulden and Neako Jones, a few need to emerge as game ready over the next few weeks.
“Somebody has got to step up, and it’s real important,” Lounsberry said. “I need several of them to step up, because it really drops off after the first group right now.”
The best way to step up is to step right through defenders and match the tougher, more physical attitude adopted by the starters, a change Jones said was evident from the beginning of camp.
“We’ve fought a lot more than we used to,” the right tackle said. “During the first day, we’re usually the ones who get hit first, but this year we were the ones hitting first. They were asking us to slow down instead of telling us to hit more, so I believe we’ve gotten more aggressive.”