By Mike McCall
This post would have been a recap of Southern’s second scrimmage, but lightning on Saturday morning put a big dent in that plan, as the Jaguars’ were run off the field twice and had to call it quits after four-and-a-half drives.
To sum it up: receiver Charles Hawkins caught a five-yard hitch on the first play and torched everyone for a 65-yard touchdown, and then things slowed down. Sack, short run, incomplete pass, punt. Eleven-yard run, run for a loss, short pass, incomplete pass, punt. Eight-yard pass, false start, lightning. False start, incompletion, sack, screen pass, punt.
What can we learn? Well, Hawkins is fast, and that’s about it (plus, we already knew that). The other items of note were D’Andre Woodland splitting time with Johnathan Mack at No. 2 corner (although Woodland was at fault on Hawkins’ TD), Chase Tuten punting well, and seeing a remade linebacker corps of Anthony Balancier, Franchot West and Demetrius Carter after injuries derailed likely starters Detrane Lindsey, Javon Allen and Corry Roy this week.
The scrimmage spelled the end of the Jaguars’ fall training camp, as classes begin on Monday, so with less than two weeks until the season opener at New Mexico, what does Southern need to address the most?
Here are five items:
1. Pick a quarterback
You knew this would be No. 1, right? Dray Joseph and J.P. Douglas are still locked in a dead heat, and neither got a chance to show much in the scrimmage. Joseph threw the pass that Hawkins took to the house, and while it was a good pass, Hawkins gets the credit for that one. Both guys were sacked and had short completions before Mother Nature decided she had seen enough of them.
Afterward, Joseph and Douglas said they feel that leadership and high energy will be the deciding factors for who wins the job. For what it’s worth, Joseph showed plenty of that while celebrating with his teammates after the touchdown, and coach Stump Mitchell said he felt Douglas came out with the most energy he’s had all camp. That’s something they especially want to see from Joseph, who drew rave reviews in the spring when he opened up and played like he was having fun.
My pick here is Joseph. Not for anything on the field (neither has stepped up enough accuracy-wise to take it decisively), but because he’s the older one and the more natural leader. I liked what Dray had to say Saturday on that subject:
“I think our team, we all look for a leader, and as a quarterback, that’s what I have to be. But I feel that sometimes when I don’t come out with the right attitude, the whole offense takes that type of attitude, and we’re all just sluggish. I think if I come out with some fire and just have fun, the guys feed off of my energy. Even if I’m not in the mood, I always try to just come out and act as if I’m in the mood, and those guys will get me going.”
2. Third downs
This was the area Mitchell called out as his biggest focus over the next few weeks, both for the offense and defense. The defense won that battle during the two scrimmages. Against the starters, the first-team offense went 1 for 9 on third downs, with the lone conversion coming last week when Joseph hit Hawkins for 16 yards on 3rd and 10. Other than that, nada.
That was not the case last season, when the Jaguars were last in the SWAC for third-down defense, allowing conversions 40.6 percent of the time. The offense was a little better, ranking seventh at 31.8 percent.
For the offense, some of that can be solved by fixing the running game, because it helps to work your way into manageable third downs rather than getting stuffed on the ground and having to throw out of it.
3. Fix (well, improve) the running game
Speaking of that running game, it still needs some help. That was the glaring hole in Southern’s offense last year, when the Jags averaged a measly 63 yards, which was far and away the worst in the conference. I cite that statistic so much that I’m thisclose to getting a tattoo of it.
That was due to many factors — an injured line, talent at receiver, falling behind and having to throw — but there’s one sure-fire way to fix it: run better when the chance comes.
Southern hasn’t had much time to get that straightened out in camp, thanks to injuries to starters Sylvester Nzekwe and Jerry Joseph, coupled with Darrius Coleman, Lenard Tillery and Terrance Clayton not showing enough consistency to take over.
Now that Nzekwe is back (he had an 11-yard run Saturday), it’s time to get to work, and Joseph could be back for Week 1 or 2.
4. Find another lineman
The offensive line of Chris Browne, Zach Brown, Aaron Hall, Dwayne Houston and Taylon Jones is pretty solid, but there’s one big problem: it won’t stay that way.
Injuries are a fact of life, especially on the line, and when one or more of them go down this season, the Jaguars don’t have much in the way of reliable replacements just yet. And guess what? Jones went out this week. He’s battling a nagging hand injury and concussion, which actually comes with a silver lining.
In his absence, Eric Janeau and Brandon Thibodeaux have gotten more reps at right tackle, and Southern desperately needs both of them to come along and contribute this season. Southern has a good thing going on that line, but it can all fall apart without good backups.
5. Pick a kicker
Mitchell is really happy with what he has seen from his kickers and punter in camp, especially after they got through the early fatigue and settled in. Chase Tuten punted well in the scrimmage, and because I’m foreseeing a fair number of punts this season, he’s going to have a chance to make a big impact.
At kicker, Matt Hill is still holding off Greg Pittman. Both have the talent, so it will come down to consistency and confidence. If one of them can stand out and take control, he’ll be a hero. If not, they might get stuck in a two-man rotation, and just like with quarterbacks, that’s no good for anybody.
I realize the majority of this deals with the offense, and that’s normal this time of year. The defense isn’t perfect, but the unit (the starters, anyway) have been ahead of the offense, which is pretty typical for training camp. I’ve never seen a team where the offense dominated the defense in preseason, because it usually takes a while for the offense to come together and progress (hopefully) during the year.
All in all, I’d feel optimistic about the defense and cautiously so about the offense, depending on the quarterbacks, line and running backs. Yes, I realize that’s basically everyone, so there’s plenty of work left to do.
Stump said it best on Saturday: “We’re happy with where we’re at, and we’re also happy that we still have two weeks to go.”