Nestled between an experienced defensive line and a deep secondary, Southern’s linebackers are the big, glaring question mark.
Will the mix of newcomers and semi-regulars jell before the season opener, which stands just a little more than two weeks away?
Can they develop into a strength of the defense, or is their ceiling simply not to be a weakness?
And first of all, who are they?
That last one is a mystery that linebackers coach Thaddeus Washington is still hoping to solve. Before fall training camp began, he said his group was in search of an identity.
“It’s a slow process,” Washington said. “Guys are starting to understand what we want, but we’re still not there. We’re still trying to close the gap.”
But if that identity has yet to emerge, the players who will form it have.
Detrane Lindsey, Javon Allen and Corry Roy are the likely starters, with Allen trying to hold off Franchot West for the spot in the middle.
West also comes on when the team switches to a 3-4 defense, and Anthony Balancier and Jeremy Coleman are the top backups.
Of that group, Lindsey and Allen didn’t play at all last season, and Coleman played sparingly. West was the only one to notch a start (three), while Balancier and Roy were regular contributors as substitutes.
Put simply: They’re a long way from the kind of steady, veteran presence you’d want to see in the middle of a defense.
To make up for the inexperience, camp has been a time for Washington, defensive coordinator Dawson Odums and outside linebackers coach Marty Biagi to hammer home as much knowledge as possible.
“When you have guys who haven’t really played much — we say Balancier played a little bit but not enough to really get mentally focused every day and come out consistent and disciplined — it’s a tough task at times, but you just have to keep on drilling,” Washington said.
That’s where the group’s raw nature might come in handy.
Rather than having to break old habits first, the Jaguars linebackers are by and large a blank slate.
“Even though some of us haven’t played, the people who have are teaching us and taking their time with us,” Lindsey said.
“I feel comfortable, like I’ve been playing even though I haven’t. … So I feel like that’s not even a weakness. It’s good that we haven’t played, because we open our minds to new things.”
That makes it easy to soak up what Washington lists as the core objectives for the linebackers — goals so important that he can’t say them without extra emphasis.
“Run to the ball, tackle, and get some turnovers,” he said. “Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, pursuing to the ball, and making tackles.”
The Jaguars ranked fifth in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with 27 turnovers forced last season, though the 30 they surrendered put them in a negative margin overall to finish sixth in the league.
To do their part to move that into positive range, the linebackers will aim to provide a fast and smart presence.
Their potential could be seen in Southern’s first preseason scrimmage on Saturday, when West laid a big hit on tight end Rashaun Allen during the opening drive to break up a pass, and Balancier was all over the field with the second and third teams.
Odums also singled out Roy and Javon Allen for their efforts, and though there were areas for improvement — such as staying disciplined against the rushing game — it was a flash of the type of high-energy unit Lindsey expects fans to see on the field this fall.
“They’re just going to see a bunch of guys who have nothing to lose,” Lindsey said. “You’re going to see guys who just want to play.”