It is the biggest contradiction of the past few years of Southern football.
Despite — until very recently — having two coaches who played running back in the NFL, the Jaguars just can’t seem to run the ball.
Under former coach Stump Mitchell, a former 1,000-yard rusher with the Cardinals franchise, and Elvis Joseph, who played three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars after his SU career, Southern figured to have a monster ground game.
After arriving from an 11-year stint as an NFL running backs coach, Mitchell even predicted one of his backs could lead the nation and that a few Jaguars backs would show up in the pros.
Instead, when Southern (2-2, 1-1 Southwestern Athletic Conference) travels to Alcorn State (1-4, 1-2 SWAC) on Saturday for a 4 p.m. kickoff, the Jaguars will just be hoping to take the first steps to breaking out of the conference’s cellar for rushing.
The Jaguars have held that spot for each of the past two seasons, averaging 90 rushing yards per game in 2010 and 63 last season. This year, Southern is once again last in the SWAC with an average of 61.2 and only 2.1 yards per carry and one touchdown in 115 attempts.
The next-worst rushing team in the conference is Texas Southern at 104.6 yards per game.
The thrills of a revived passing offense and two-game win streak aside, it’s hard to imagine SU making a run toward a conference title without actually running.
“I’m a defensive guy, so, of course, I’m going to have concerns about running the football,” interim coach Dawson Odums said. “We know that helps control the clock. It helps keep our defense off the field, and it also allows our offense to continue to move the football. “People are going to start doubling our receivers. They’re going to start taking them out of the game if we can’t run the football, so it’s always a challenge.”
The Search for 100
Thus far, SU has yet to crack the century mark as a team. The Jaguars ran for 78 yards on 30 carries at New Mexico, 83 on 34 against Mississippi Valley State, 52 on 31 at Jackson State and 32 yards on 20 carries against Florida A&M.
But if there’s good news, it’s that the next two weeks bring opportunity.
Alcorn State ranks ninth in the conference in rushing defense (266.4 yards per game), and next week’s opponent, Texas Southern, is last (267.2). Those contests afford a great chance to find a running rhythm before Southern hits the meat of its schedule.
“We’re emphasizing running the ball,” left tackle Chris Browne said. “We understand we can pass the ball, but our next big goal is to be able to get that 100-yard rusher that coach talks about all the time when we meet. So that’s our next big goal.”
Having a 100-yard rusher — something Southern did only twice last year — has been among the team’s goals for the past two weeks. But who would it be?
Four running backs are in the mix, with Darrius Coleman (133 yards on 44 carries) and Sylvester Nzekwe (24 yards on 18 carries) leading the way.
But the most successful usage for running backs has been in the passing game — where screen passes have worked consistently. Nzekwe has nearly five times as many yards receiving (116) as rushing, and Coleman also has 50 yards through the air.
Working as blockers and screen targets — though gratifying in the past two victories — isn’t what the backs had in mind when the season began.
“As a core, we’re kind of mad at ourselves that we haven’t broken out for 100 yards or anything like that,” Coleman said. “That will definitely be our goal this week.”
‘It comes down to blocking’
But no matter how badly the running backs want it or how much experience their coach has, the ball-carriers won’t get very far without some help.
As offensive line coach Paul Lounsberry said, “It comes down to blocking anyway.”
The line has been praised for improved pass-blocking performances in recent weeks, but the same can’t be said of the run game.
Lounsberry said his group has to do a better job of making the right steps, hitting the right blocks and holding them, and Browne agrees.
“Our technique has not been as perfect as it should be and as good as coach Lounsberry teaches us to be,” Browne said. “We just have to keep staying low, getting our hands inside and things like that. It doesn’t have anything to do with the running backs. It’s the five guys up front, and we have to step up and do our job.”
But last week brought an example of how, even when the line does its job, things can go haywire.
On SU’s first play from scrimmage, Nzekwe took a handoff and the linemen hit their assigned blocks, but a blitzing Florida A&M safety came in and forced a fumble.
Lounsberry said that was an instance of Southern needing to pick the right times to run, and those times should come around more often as the Jaguars face weak run defenses and gain a reputation as a passing team.
From there, it’s all about execution and willpower.
“Attitude. Nothing but attitude. That’s all it is,” Lee Mitchell said. “It’s a mindset. Once we get that mindset, we’re going to be unstoppable. We have the backs to do it, and we have the fullbacks to do it. We have the size up front to do it, and the receivers want to block for us.
“We want to run the ball, but we haven’t gotten the mentality yet.”