Southern’s first preseason scrimmage is in the books.
On a hot, muggy Saturday afternoon, a few dozen fans turned out to watch the Jaguars muscle their way through 110 plays.
What did we learn? Here’s a random sampling.
—On this day, at least, the quarterbacks were much more accurate. By The Advocate’s unofficial count, they combined to complete 25 of 33 passes. If you do the math, that’s a completion rate of 76 percent — leaps and bounds better than their rate of 47 percent last season.
Dray Joseph was 13 of 20 (again, unofficially). Barring a disaster over the next two weeks, Joseph will be the starting quarterback when Southern plays at Tennessee State on Sept. 3.
—Running backs broke free for several long runs — a rare sight in 2010, when Southern failed to gain 1,000 rushing yards as an entire team. The Jaguars’ longest run from scrimmage last season was 62 yards. It came on a busted play at Alabama A&M, when Gary Hollimon was nearly buried in the backfield, then slipped a few tackles and broke free for a touchdown.
Yes, on Saturday, reserve running back Terrell Alex fumbled once, and one of Jerry Joseph’s long runs was wiped out by a penalty.
More importantly, Southern showed the potential for big plays from its ground game.
—The fade pattern is there. On consecutive plays, LaQuinton Evans scored on the left sideline on throws from Joseph — both on fade routes. He might have been out-of-bounds on the second TD, but with sure hands and balance — not to mention nice throws — Evans showed he can take advantage of smaller cornerbacks (the 6-2 Evans was working against the 5-9 Virgil Williams).
—These guys are in pretty good shape. Think about it this way: Southern’s players went through 110 plays Saturday in brutal heat. We’re talking about a heat index into the triple digits—and no, it probably wasn’t much fun. But no one suffered cramps or major injury, and no one staggered to the sidelines in exhaustion.
If nothing else, the Jaguars are well-conditioned.
—You may not remember this, but Southern’s defense didn’t always tackle very well last season. Saturday, the defense had a smattering of missed tackles, but for the most part, the team’s tackling looked much better. Coordinator O’Neill Gilbert said he thought his linebackers would be the strongest part of the defense. For one day, at least, they looked the part.
—Turnovers. Alex fumbled once, and Stump Mitchell said that’s his main concern with the senior transfer, who’s been holding the ball too far away from his body. Also, Joseph and Lee Almanza botched two exchanges, and the defense recovered one.
The defense also dropped three potential interceptions.
—Penalties. There came a point during Saturday’s scrimmage that players got overheated — not with the conditions, but with the officials, who kept throwing flag after flag. Let’s be clear: On most occasions, the officials were right. But the sheer number of penalties (we lost count) brought to light a problem that plagued Southern all last season.
—Inside the 20-yard line, the offense bogged down. That often happened with Mitchell’s first team: It moved the ball well enough at times, but had to settle for field goals. The Jaguars first-team offense didn’t score until late in the scrimmage, when coaches moved them to the 20 to work on red-zone situations.
—The kicking game. Matthew Hill was 1-for-2 on field goals (he was wide right from 24 yards, then connected from 38 yards), and Manuel Cantu was 0-for-1 (his attempt, from 30 yards, hit the left upright).
It’s a shame to have to harp on the kicking game, because it might improve between now and the season opener. But you get the feeling that the kicking game will bite the Jaguars in a game if they can’t get it fixed.
—OK, so maybe this isn’t really odd. But you got the feeling, after Saturday’s scrimmage, that Southern might wind up starting two freshman guards for the second straight year.
Last season, it was Taylon Jones and Aaron Hall. They’re back, but by week’s end, they had (apparently) been relegated to the second-team offense.
This preseason, it’s been Zach Brown at left guard and Isaiah Webster at right guard. They worked almost exclusively with the first-team offense during Saturday’s scrimmage, both players having benefited from extra time with the first team during practice (Jones was injured last week, and right tackle Clinton Boyd’s minor shoulder injury prompted a mix-and-match experiment).
This is not a sure thing. Dwayne Houston worked at right tackle Saturday, but he could move back to guard, opening a spot for Boyd at right tackle (and forcing Webster back to the second team).
But the two freshmen have been practicing — and as Saturday’s rushing performance showed, they’ve helped the offensive line produce.
—After the officials started throwing flag after flag, SU assistant coaches started giving them an earful. Before long, the players chimed in. By the end of the scrimmage, Mitchell told them all to cool it.
“Talking back to the officials — we have to eliminate that stuff,” he said.
Mitchell didn’t say so himself, but his implication to players was unmistakable: When the games begin, you’re going to have calls go against you. In football, that’s a given. The fact is, complaining isn’t going to do any good. Just move on to the next play.
As for Southern, it’s time to move on to the next week of preseason.
The team hits the field again Monday.