ADJUST AND ADAPT: FOOTBALL AND LIFE DRAWS PARALELLS FOR SOUTH’S MERCHANT

Life, like the game of football, is all about adjusting and adapting to situations. For University of South Alabama offensive lineman Hadon Merchant, the ability to do so isn’t something new.

One thing that Merchant has had to adjust to during his time in Mobile is changes in both who his head coach, as well as his position coach are, playing under three while at South. Despite not having consistency in his guidance, he has still found benefits from the situation.

“Here at South, I’ve played for three completely different coaches in Coach [Joey] Jones, Coach [Steve] Campbell and now Coach [Kane] Wommack, and I’ve been able to take away something from each of them,” Merchant said. “Football has taught me a lot of life lessons in the sense that not every day is going to be fun or easy like it is in life. You just have to keep attacking and going to work every day. You just put your best foot forward and try to get better at something in life.

“I can’t thank all the coaches I’ve had enough for what they’ve taught me: hard work and dedication. It’s been invaluable to me.”

While he has learned life lessons and technical aspects of the game from each staff, playing for three different coaches over the last four-plus seasons has been a challenge and adjustment.

“It’s been tough. I had Coach [Richard] Owens my first year and then Coach [Mike] Bangston and Coach Campbell the last three and Coach [Gordon] Steele this season,” Merchant said. “You have to adapt. When Coach Jones left after my freshman year, there were 20 of us in our position group at the start of spring ball and by the end that number was down to seven or eight.” 

After redshirting the 2017 season, Merchant played in 23 games over the next two seasons and either led the team or ranked second in knockdown blocks, accumulating 107 during that timeframe. His 68 knockdowns led the club in 2019, and expectations were high heading into 2020. 

However, Merchant and the rest of college football — as well as the world — was hit with a major change with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The normal routine of a spring practice season and preparation was completely altered. 

“Last year was different. We left campus in March and weren’t able to come back until June,” Merchant stated. “We had to work out on our own back home and really hold ourselves accountable. Camp was going well and then I got a little banged up during the last scrimmage and had to the miss the first several games. When I did return, I’d probably say that I had one of my worst years here due to stuff I could control and stuff I couldn’t. That was probably the toughest season for me, but it was also probably one of the ones in which I learned the most. It was difficult mentally and physically on me, it wasn’t easy.”

While he saw action in seven of South’s 11 games, his numbers and production didn’t meet his expectations. So following the conclusion of the season, Merchant did some self-reflection. 

“After the season, I had to look myself in the mirror and figure out what I could have done better and how I could have taken better care of my body and tried to prevent certain injuries from happening,” Merchant said. “I had to turn the page and was fortunate enough to get my body back right with the help of the new staff.”

While the change wasn’t immediate, the seed had been planted and a talk with Assistant Head Coach/Director of Football Athletic Performance Matt Shadeed following the spring game served as an igniter. 

“In January, Coach Shadeed came here with Coach Wommack, and we were having a great lift heading into spring training. I felt like I was doing a lot better, and I’ll never forget Coach Shadeed pulling me to the side after the spring game and having a really tough talk with me about myself and areas I could improve on,” Merchant said reflecting on the conversation. “I really took that conversation to heart. I was very fortunate to have him say those things to me. When we went home in May, I was really attacking things and working my tail off and eating right. I continued to do the same thing when I came back to campus and was dropping weight and getting in better shape. It’s paid dividends for myself and the team. I feel like I’m playing better. It’s given me a little bit more explosiveness and a little more pop coming off the ball. I’m very fortunate that Coach Shadeed called me out and told me what I needed to do to take that next step. I truly embraced it.” 

The context of that conversation?

“We were warming up during our spring game and getting loose. He just had some of that ‘old-Merchant’ where he was just going through the motions, trying to do the bare minimum,” Shadeed said. “He’s a great kid, but sometimes situations and environments can get the best of him. After the game, I told him ‘I want to challenge you and know that I think you’re in for a lot of growth. You ceiling is high as you want it to be, but it’s going to take something different out of you moving forward’. With us moving out of the spring and into the summer, it was a nice opportunity to sit down and see where we were at and what I thought he had done to that point.

“I told him his ceiling was infinite and if he really wanted to be special, it was going to take X, Y and Z to get him there. I feel that meeting really sparked him. Credit to him, because he said I hear what you’re saying and I want to change and get better. He dropped 25 pounds and was probably the most productive player we had in the weight room all summer and one of the most improved. It’s showing on game day right now.”

Merchant returned this summer having dropped 25 pounds since the end of spring practice. The 6-foot-3 lineman ended the spring playing around 320 pounds, but entered fall camp at 295, which has yielded better production for Merchant.

“I think it’s a direct reflection,” Shadeed said in reference to the work put in by Merchant and his performance on the field this fall. “We want to get guys to train, eat and take care of their bodies so that they’re ready to perform at a high level. I feel that you’re seeing Hadon playing at a different gear right now, and that’s a testament to what he’s done with his body with the discipline and consistency he’s had with us in the offseason and continues to have in season. As many of us know, you can’t just train all summer and then cut it off until January. He’s doing a really nice job and continuing to improve.”

The change in Merchant’s performance on the field was also noted by Wommack and his position coach.

“The game is about footwork,” said Wommack. “You’ve got to have power and size, and he has those things, but being able to operate from a protection standpoint such as a pulling guard, or just quickness off the line of scrimmage and being able to go from point A to point B and be able to maximize your power all requires foot quickness. Lean body mass is what we’re looking for. We want big guys, but we want big guys who can carry their weight well. I think Hadon has done a tremendous job of adjusting his diet and work out structure to maximize his abilities.”

“Hadon’s a strong guy,” offensive line coach Gordon Steele said of Merchant. “He was just carrying around a little too much weight. He’s powerful so dropping some of that weight has just helped him move better.”

Not only has Merchant changed physically, but also in his maturity. 

“Hadon’s older brother, Brandon, was a student assistant for me when I was here before, and I got to know Hadon at an early age as he was going into his junior year of high school,” Wommack said. “To watch his maturity and the urgency he carries day in and day out has been great. Here’s a guy who has played a lot of years in this program and probably walked into the spring hungry and knew that because of his time here he was probably the starting left guard. When we started to establish the standard of how we do things and elevate our game from just wanting to earn a starting job to being able to execute at a high level regardless of who we’re playing, he took his game to another level. It’s been really encouraging to watch him set an example from a work-ethic standpoint day in and day out.”

Steele also knew Merchant early on in his career and notes an old-school mentality for the junior that has benefited the offensive line this season.

“I knew Hadon from when I was here at South before, so we already had a relationship coming in,” Steele said. “He’s grown and matured as a man, and handles his business differently. He’s been serious and attacked the weight room and attacked the playbook all summer getting ready for fall camp. 

“Hadon just comes in every day, puts his head down and goes to work. He doesn’t complain or say much. Sometimes some of your best leaders are the ones who don’t say anything. He goes out on the field and works his tail off. Other guys follow suit when they see what he does and how he works out on the field.”

That tough, hard-nosed mindset has been with Merchant for as long as he’s played the game.

“I’ve always had a passion to put whoever is in front of me on the ground when I’m out on the field,” Merchant noted. “I even had that same mindset when I was playing on the defensive line when I was younger. I just feel that’s the way the game should be played. It’s a nasty, physical game and you have to be like that. It gives you a little bit of an edge, especially for someone like me who might not be the strongest or fastest guy. A little thing like that can really separate you and give you an edge. It’s just about trying to beat the guy in front of you.”

One of the things that was going to need to change in order for the Jaguars to be successful in Wommack’s first season at the helm was along the offensive front. So far, the changes by Merchant and others have helped as the program has its first 2-0 start since the 2011 season. 

Not only has Merchant changed and adapted to the new coaching, but the rest of the offensive line has benefited as well, which has played into the early success of the Jaguars.

“The football IQ of everyone has risen tremendously,” Merchant said. “We know things that we didn’t necessarily know before, such as what the running back is doing or where he is going on a certain play, or what the quarterback is thinking in this instance. It’s given us a little bit of an edge to know what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not there yet, but we’re making strides toward getting where we want to be. We want to be the best unit on this team that we can be.”

As the unit continues to evolve over the remainder of the 2021 campaign, where does Merchant see the groups potential?

“The sky’s the limit,” Merchant said. “That’s a cliché saying, but we have all the ability in the world to get to where we want to go as a unit. We can continue to develop chemistry and learn how to make calls with what we’re seeing. We’re just trying to get a little bit better each day, and I truly think that by the end of the year we’ll be our best.”

So what have all the changes, challenges and adjustments taught Merchant?

“Being at South Alabama and the experience I’ve had playing football here has been great,” he explained. “What I’ve truly learned through it is that in life stuff happens to you. Some things you can control and some things you can’t. It’s easy to quit, but for me its all about pride. Whatever gets thrown at you, you have to deal with it and just push through. When stuff’s hard, that’s even better for me. It’s really a test to who you are as a person. You just have to find a way to get it done.”

As Merchant and the rest of his teammates have seen through the first two games this fall, football is a game of constant adjustment. If the group continues to adjust and adapt, 2021 could prove to be a very productive fall for the Jaguars. The next test for South comes on Saturday when it welcomes Alcon State to Hancock Whitney Stadium in search of the program’s first 3-0 start in over a decade.

For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with www.usajaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at www.twitter.com/WeAreSouth_JAGS. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).

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