About 4,137 fans may have come out to see first-year coach Willie Fritz’s multiple spread offense, which averaged more than 40 points a game last season at Sam Houston State, but probably left impressed with a defense that allowed just three touchdowns and 393 yards during the 102-play scrimmage.
Fritz didn’t split his roster into two teams, opting for an offense-versus-defense type scrimmage.
There weren’t any numbers on the scoreboard, but it wasn’t difficult to decipher a winner.
“I’ve got to give it to my defense,” said senior linebacker Edwin Jackson.
Fritz was a little more diplomatic. Southern is transitioning from an option offense and Saturday marked just the team’s 13th workout.
“They’ve done a good job embracing the staff and the philosophies,” he said.
There was an abundance of enthusiasm surrounding the trial run. The marching band was on hand to play from the stands and the rapid progress being made on Paulson Stadium’s second deck on the visitors’ side framed the action on the field.
Even Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson was in attendance. The Eagles begin play in the Sun Belt this season and Benson was impressed with the amenities.
“What was already a great stadium has now become a top-class tremendous stadium,” he said.
Now Southern is working to put a great product in the stadium. The defense, aligned in a 4-3 base, differing from the five defensive backs defenses in the past, registered six sacks. Defensive lineman Jonathan Battle had a fumble recovery.
Sophomore safety William Bussey had a team-high seven tackles, and sophomore linebacker Deshawntee Gallon had six tackles and two sacks.
“The biggest thing we’ve wanted to do was run to the ball and make plays,” said junior linebacker Antwione Williams, who missed the 2013 season with an elbow injury.
Fritz acknowledged the disruptive play of Williams (6-3, 239) and Jackson (5-11, 226) kept the first-team offense out of the end zone.
“Both those guys have good size and can really run,” Fritz said. “It’s a rare combination of size and speed.”
First-team quarterback Kevin Ellison didn’t have much time and completed only 2 of 12 passes for 17 yards.
The offense looked better later in the scrimmage.
About half way into the 1½-hour scrimmage, sophomore quarterback Favian Upshaw, who transferred in from Florida International and sat out last season, threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end James Dean, who is moving over from running back.
Senior running back Kenny Foster, a transfer from Shorter, added a 2-yard touchdown run.
“We started out a little shaky, but I think we executed what we’ve got in (the playbook) right now,” said Upshaw, who directed two touchdown drives.
Another touchdown led by Upshaw — a 9-yarder to tight end Cody Rediger — was negated by an illegal man downfield penalty.
Upshaw was the second quarterback of the four in camp to see action, but wasn’t reading anything into it as far as positioning on the depth chart.
“We don’t know who’s where right now,” Upshaw said. “We’re all just trying to get reps in.”
Later in the scrimmage, wideout Zach Walker out-jumped a defender for a 50-50 ball delivered by Vegas Harley for the Eagles’ final score.
Upshaw was the team’s leading passer on the day with 4-of-10 passing for 59 yards and a touchdown.
Harley was 2 for 3 for 34 yards.
Dennis Pritchard led the running backs with 34 yards on five carries. Antonio Williams had six carries for 31 yards.
Southern still has two practices left before finishing the spring with a practice on Thursday. The Eagles open the season Aug. 30 against North Carolina State.
“We have to make a lot of tough decisions over the next week – who’s going to start, who’s going to be second team, who’s going to be on the travel list,” Fritz said.