BY MIKE McCALL
September 30, 2012
Standing on the edge of the Southern University practice field Thursday afternoon, receiver Charles Hawkins demonstrated just how quickly and surprisingly the Jaguars’ season has changed.
The moment came in the first few seconds of a television interview, when Hawkins was discussing the atmosphere around the program in what has been a wild week.
“Coach Mitchell — I mean, coach Odums,” he said, pausing for a second and offering a sheepish smile at the slip-up.
Before last Thursday’s loss to Mississippi Valley State, it would have been hard for Hawkins or any other SU player to imagine they’d be calling someone other than Stump Mitchell their head coach.
But with a huge clash at Jackson State looming, it’s Dawson Odums charged with saving the Jaguars’ season. After being promoted from first-year defensive coordinator to interim head coach following Mitchell’s firing, Odums and his assistants have had just five practices to take a team coming off a historically bad performance and prepare it for a Southwestern Athletic Conference title run that’s still very much within reach.
Last Friday, the day after that 6-0 loss to the Delta Devils, was a tense afternoon around the SU football program.
The Jaguars knew there was a chance it would be Mitchell’s last day, and they knew whose fault it was that his job was on the line.
“I don’t even look at coach Mitchell as being accountable,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “He didn’t miss blocks, he didn’t drop balls, he put us in a position to make plays several times and we didn’t execute. So we definitely feel responsible, and I think that’s why a lot of people feel a lot of guilt. We feel bad for him that we let him down.”
Now, they’re determined not to let the same thing happen to Odums, who’s in his second tour as an interim head coach and — right now — the man with the best chance at leading the team next year.
Odums succeeded in this role last time, taking over at Division II Clark Atlanta as an interim coach and locking up the full-time job for the next season. He left after a contract dispute and worked as an assistant at Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina A&T before joining Southern last season.
In replacing Mitchell, Odums’ top task was raising his team’s spirits, which he set about doing in his first meeting as interim coach.
“Of course, they were down. Coach Mitchell recruited a lot of the young men,” Odums said. “But what I addressed was that no matter what happens in life, Southern is still going to play football. They’re still going to move forward. The sun is still going to come up the next day. So what can we do about that?
“We can’t control what has happened, but we can control our tomorrow. That’s what we’re focusing on. Right now, we’re in full control of how we’re preparing for Jackson State, and that’s what this team’s mindset is right now.”
To get the Jaguars ready, Odums focused on two areas that had been sorely lacking in the first two games: discipline and ball security. Southern ranks among the SWAC’s worst in penalties per game and is tied for last in average turnover margin.
To right SU’s wrongs, Odums and his staff started from the ground up — or from upright to the ground, depending on how you look at it.
Coaches demanded hustle and discipline in practices this week. Make a mistake, and it’s best to go ahead and start doing your up-downs before Odums can dish them out to you.
There’s constant yelling to hurry up to the line of scrimmage or sprint on and off the field.
Helmets must be on with chin straps buckled, and each practice ends with the team running to Odums, re-buckling those straps, standing at attention, pulling off their helmets and kneeling in unison.
“A military atmosphere,” Hawkins said.
Defensive tackle Casey Narcisse added: “Pretty straightforward guy. He’s a very strict disciplinarian. He gives you three chances, and if you mess your three chances up, you have to go. No ifs, ands or buts about it. He doesn’t take any excuses.”
But there has been another change in atmosphere. Whether it’s the coaching shake-up or the post-loss wake-up, the Jaguars have a little extra spring in their step.
There’s more heated competition between the offense and defense, and players took notice that their places on the depth chart are being re-evaluated. Things have also been opened up with more trick plays, and running backs coach Elvis Joseph even joined in on team sprints to race the SU linemen (he came in third).
There’s good reason for high spirits.
Despite the slow start, Southern is only 0-1 in the conference and very much in the running for a division title, especially since favorites Grambling and Prairie View are 0-2.
In addition, Mitchell’s absence meant more room — and more necessity — for the assistants to step up. The result has been more voices and more instruction at practices, which carry big benefits in terms of individual instruction and attention to detail.
“With coach Mitchell being so busy with a lot of things, he had a lot of other things on his mind,” Browne said. “Now, we have coaches that have one job at a time, so they’re able to focus and be tedious about the little things.”
Getting the little things straight could go a long way for Southern, and that has been the message from co-offensive coordinators Chad Germany and Joseph. They’ve preached improved execution and say the Jaguars won’t “reinvent the wheel” on offense, just try to spin it better.
It’s not that a new-look team will take the field Saturday at Jackson State (1-2, 1-0 SWAC). But while Mitchell’s players and playbook remain behind, it’s up to Odums & Co. to move them forward and salvage a season that went from promising to disastrous in just two games.
“I really believe this is a good football team, but it has to show that it’s a good football team,” Odums said. “We have enough talent. We have to get that talent playing together. We have to get that talent going forward, and we have nine games remaining. We’re 0-0; that’s how we’re looking at it.”