With Old Dominion facing a second-and-10 two weekends ago, Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle, shed a blocker and raced toward the home sideline in pursuit of Monarchs quarterback Blake LaRussa.
Before reaching the sideline, LaRussa turned up field. At that point Jefferson, motoring like a linebacker, completely engulfed the much nimbler LaRussa, driving him to the turf with a ground-shaking thud.
It’s the kind of play a big man isn’t supposed to be able to make and, being his first tackle as an Owl, it served as Jefferson’s official welcoming to FAU.
“It was great,” Jefferson said of his first game action. “I just enjoyed the atmosphere, enjoyed being with my teammates.”
With his combination of size, speed and strength, Jefferson boasts a skill set that’s rare at programs the size of FAU. He began his career at USC, recording 23 tackles as a true freshman, before transferring to Arizona Western junior college; then signing with Ole Miss in February.
When Mississippi decided that Jefferson didn’t meet its admission requirements, he enrolled at FAU (3-3, 1-1) – the 2018 season already two weeks old. That tackle of LaRussa proved to be Jefferson’s lone statbook tally of the evening and the season for that matter. Coaches hope it foreshadows a productive second half, which begins on Saturday at Marshall (4-2, 2-1).
“It would be good if he could pick the stuff up,” coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s hard. He got here after the season already started.”
As the Owls broke fall camp, FAU’s defensive line didn’t look like it would need any help. That storyline changed once the season kicked off. Productivity, simply put, dropped.
No defensive linemen has more tackles than defensive end Leighton McCathy’s 19. Starting defensive tackles Steven Leggett and Kevin McCrary only have 10 tackles apiece. Reserve Will Davis leads the way among FAU defensive tackles with 13 stops. His five-yard sack against MTSU is the lone tackle for loss by an FAU defensive tackle.
FAU’s inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks – defensive tackles and ends combined for 4.5 sacks through the season’s first half – created a negative effect that rippled through the defense. Without quarterback pressure, FAU’s defensive backs needed to stick with receivers longer. Opposing quarterbacks enjoyed extra time to find those receivers when they came open. It’s a major reason why the Owls allowed an average of 277.7 passing yards per game through the season’s first half. Only 14 teams nationally allow more.
“That’s probably the biggest surprise of our team,” Kiffin said, referring to the defensive line play. “We struggled to block them all the time in spring and fall, and for whatever reason it hasn’t clicked the way we thought in games.”
As he rounds into game day shape and becomes more familiar with the playbook, Jefferson could be part of the solution. So could Marcel Southall. A junior college transfer who began his career at Texas, Southall didn’t join the Owls until shortly before the start of fall camp. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound redshirt sophomore wasn’t much of a factor during camp, but has seen his playing time increase during recent weeks even though he might not be completely ready.
“He was a real late summer guy,” Kiffin said, “There’s a lot to the conditioning program that we do here. Guys that come in usually are a ways behind guys that are here. You have to force the guys to play some because you eventually think they will catch up in that area and be the player you recruited.”
Southall moved up a step on what looked to be a deep defensive tackle depth chart when fellow JUCO transfer Charles Cameron announced his intentions to leave FAU during fall camp. Prior to that announcement, Cameron worked his way into a firm spot on the two-deep. Though he reconsidered and ultimately elected to stay at FAU, Cameron hasn’t been able to pass Southall in the Owls’ hierarchy.
Initially the Owls employed Southall mostly in short yardage situations, but his role is expanding.
“I want to be an all-around guy, but at the same time we have to stop the run first before you can go to the pass,” Southall said. “So I take more pride in stopping the run.”
Southall is credited with playing in all six games thus far, only recording three tackles. Two of them came against MTSU two games ago.
“He’s making some strides,” Kiffin said. “Still has a ways to go.”
By the season’s end it’s possible that Southall and Jefferson could provide an intimidating first line of defense for the Owls. The duo will certainly be in the mix to start in 2019.
“That’s what coaches are intending on, but at this time I’m just trying to play my part, just fit in with the guys,” Southall said.