Southern LB coach Atkinson adds new thinking

Nearly 11 years ago, former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards spouted what is still one of the most iconic phrases in the sports world — “You play to win the game.”

Upon his arrival at Southern University in January, Lorick Atkinson brought with him a similar mentality with a bit of a different twist.

“We have a saying here called ‘win to play,’ ” Atkinson said. “If you win to play, the rest of it will take care of itself.”

The first-year Jaguars linebacker coach has carried that outlook with him during his coaching stops and is hoping to continue the same success he’s had at his previous positions.

Atkinson began his coaching career on the high school level in 1996 before moving to Furman, North Greenville College and an eight-year stint at Gardner-Webb, where he worked as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

He also helped in one crucial hire while at Garnder-Webb, vouching for Dawson Odums’ spot on the coaching staff where he would get his first taste of the collegiate game.

Atkinson moved on to being the head coach at Chowan University from 2005-2007, taking nearly a five-year hiatus from coaching to tend to his sickly father.

Years down the line, Odums got the chance to return the favor, adding Atkinson to his staff just months after being promoted from interim to full-time head coach at Southern.

“When coach Odums called me back in January, I got back in (football),” said Atkinson, who worked as a scout for the Montreal Alouettes during his time away from coaching. “It’s been a real treat to be back in it. Coach Odums said he needed some improvement on defense, and that’s why we’re here — keep getting better and keep digging away.”

Atkinson’s resumé speaks for itself, having won two conference championships at Gardner-Webb, and he now has the task of turning around a Jaguars defense that ranked in the bottom half of the Southwest Athletic Conference in several statistical categories.

How does he plan to do this?

“The No. 1 thing is you’ve got to stop the run,” said Atkinson, who is switching Southern to a base 3-4 defense. “Teams that run the football have the most success. Offenses are spreading you out now. You have to be able to spread the field with them. That’s what the 3-4 helps with. Now we can spread the field when they spread the field.”

With just 11 practices under his belt in 2013, Atkinson said the Jaguars defensive transition is “a work in progress.”

The 46-year-old coach had to leave his wife and three kids behind in Greenville, S.C., to take the job in Baton Rouge — something Atkinson said was a sacrifice his family knew was unavoidable eventually.

“When I got out of coaching, my wife knew I would eventually get back into it when the time was right in the college game,” said Atkinson, who is trying to get his children down to campus this spring. “We made this decision because it’s easier for one person to move than all five right now. They’re kind of stable where they are, and it’s important to me to keep that stability. They’ve handled it. I hope they miss their daddy because their daddy misses them.”

Southern swipes clean its 4-7 record from 2012 as it officially begins its inaugural season under Odums this fall. There have been talks Atkinson might make the move to defensive coordinator by fall camp, but Atkinson dismissed the notion, saying he and Odums “haven’t discussed it at length” just yet.

Regardless of the title Atkinson holds by opening day, Odums said he is confident he has found the right man for the job.

“I know his work ethic, I know what kind of recruiter he is, I know what kind of knowledge he has of the game,” Odums said. “Those are the kinds of people you want to surround yourself with. He has knowledge of the game, he’s a student of the game, and he’s been around the game a long time. He understands what we’re trying to get done.”