SWAC Preview: Alabama State, Grambling Look For Title Game Rematch

Grambling LB Cliff Exama

By Roscoe Nance
Special to College Sports Journal

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on the website Boxtorow.com. The teams are placed in order of predicted finish.

In the SWAC, Alabama State is picked to win the Eastern division, while Grambling State is picked to win the West for the second year running.

 

EAST DIVISION

Alabama State
2011 Record:(8-3, 7-2)
Key returning players: QB Greg Jenkins (1,475 passing yards, 11 TDs; 330 rushing yards 7 TDs; 2012 preseason All-SWAC); FS Kejuan Riley (9 INTs, 2011 Boxtorow All-American).

Outlook: The Hornets are out for redemption after letting the 2011 East title slip through their fingers down the stretch. The Hornets were arguably the best team in the division most of the season, but their three-point loss to Southern in their final SWAC game of the season cost them a return trip to the conference championship game.

The Hornets won more games overall and in the conference than they did in 2010, and they won seven SWAC games for the first time since joining the conference. Expect them to be just as formidable this season. Jenkins gives them solid quarterback play. He will operate behind an experienced line that will be anchored by All-American LT Terren Jones. Jenkins will have proven pass catchers on hand in WRs T.J. McWilliams, Landon Jones and Nehemiah Henry. That trio combined for 80 catches and 983 yards while playing in the shadow of departed Boxtorow All-American Nick Andrews.

The running game will get a boost from RB Isaiah Crowell, who rushed for 850 as freshman for the University of Georgia last season and transferred to Alabama State.  The Hornets were among the best teams in the FCS when it came to defending the pass and creating turnovers. With Riley and fellow All-American CB Saeed Lee patrolling the secondary, they should maintain their ranking. The return of linemen Derrick Billups and Brandon Roberts should dramatically improve the Hornets’ run defense and keep Alabama State in the hunt in the East.

What they’re saying:  “He has been embraced by our team. From I’ve seen he’s a good humble guy who’s excited about his chance for a second opportunity. He’s an explosive running back with great size and power. When you have a guy like Isaiah, you want to give the ball to him. I imagine there will some things put in to get the ball in his hands.’’ – Coach Reggie Barlow

 

Jackson State
2011 Record: (9-2, 7-2)
Key returning players: RB Tommy Gooden (597 yards, 3 TDs), 6.7 yards per carry); DE Joseph LeBeau (16 sacks, 2011 Boxtorow All-American, 2012 preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, 2012 Buck Buchanan Award FCS Defensive Player of the Year Watch List).

Outlook: Inquiring minds want to know how the Tigers will replace Casey Therriaualt, their record-setting All-American quarterback, who is in camp with the Atlanta Falcons. Coach Rick Comegy goes into training camp undecided about Therriault’s successor. Redshirt senior Dedric McDonald and junior Tevin Chapman are the leading candidates. Both played sparingly behind Therriault, but McDonald is the more experienced of the pair. Neither is likely to make anyone forget.  

Therriault isn’t the only weapon missing from Jackson State’s Air Raid offense. Gone too is All-SWAC Boxtorow All-American Renty Rollins and All-SWAC receiver Marcellus Wilder. In addition, Derrick McCall has taken over as offensive coordinator, replacing Earnest Wilson, who moved on to Hampton. Jackson State should be strong defensively. LeBeau, preseason All-SWAC LB Todd Wilcher – the leading tackler last season – and an experienced secondary led by CB Qua Cox, another preseason all-conference pick, form the core of what should be one of the conference’s top units. The Tigers are likely to have a drop off in their offensive production, but they should have enough on both sides of the ball to be a contender in the East.
 

What they’re saying: “Casey (Therriault) was a fine quarterback for us and did a lot for us. He made blue skies at Jackson State when it was rainy days. Casey was a hero for us, but I think we have a football team that will play together, and that will help us have the same kind of success that we had in the past.’’ – Coach Rick Comegy

 

Alabama A&M
2011 Record: (8-4, 7-2)
Key returning players: RB Kaderius Lacey (1,143 yards rushing, preseason All-SWAC); QB Deaunte Mason (1,996 yards passing, preseason All-SWAC).

Outlook: In a word, the defending East champion Bulldogs are loaded, especially on offense where they return all 11 starters. Mason and Lacey are the big guns, but the offensive line – which allowed just 22 sacks a year ago, is the key.

WR G’Alonzo Milton is a preseason All-SWAC pick with big-play capability. Defense is traditionally the Bulldogs’ calling card. However, that unit will likely play second fiddle to the offense this season after losing sack master Corey Hart to graduation. The front four will be the strength of the defense with starters Phillip Harvey (6 sacks, 4 fumbles recovered), Tim Tillman and Melvin Payne returning. Montay Rover has made the transition from linebacker to the defensive line and will add depth after starting several games last season. Vernon Marshall is the lone returning starter among the linebackers, but Vandrick Jackson showed potential in a backup role.

The secondary looks to be the Bulldogs’ weakest link. Marcus Dozier, Chris Ervin and Joshua Udeh are returnees who started at one time or another last season. However, all of their starts came at strong safety. Udeh has moved to cornerback this season. Redshirt freshman A.J. Clark is being counted on to play big at one corner. The Bulldogs have one of the strongest kicking games in the conference thanks to Chance Wilson, who has rewritten the record book. He has 12 punts of 50 yards or more during his three-year career, and he holds the school record with a 49-yard field.

On paper there is no reason to believe that the Bulldogs won’t repeat as East champions even though they were picked third in the preseason behind Alabama State and Jackson State. That snub my will give them the extra motivation that gets them over the hump.

What they’re saying: “We’ve got a lot of guys in their senior year. It’s their last opportunity to play college ball. We hope they will raise their game and that they will also raise their teammates’ games. We’ll see how far that takes us.” Coach Anthony Jones

 

Mississippi Valley State
2011 Record: (1-10, 1-8)
Key returning players: QB Garrick Jones (811 yards passing 7 TDs); DL Leployer Franklin (65 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 3 sacks).

Outlook:  Optimism abounds for the Delta Devils. They registered their first victory in more than two years and four of their 10 losses were by 10 points or less.  Equally as important is the fact that 48 lettermen return, including 14 starters – nine on offense and five on defense. Defense has been the Delta Devils’ strength in the two seasons that Karl Morgan has been head coach, and it figures to be again in 2012. Franklin and Javaris Fritz anchor the line.

The linebacker corps of Marcus Thompson, Rico Mazique and Keven Woods is solid. Carlos Hollis and Marquez Floyd have experience in the secondary, but Michael Boykins will be missed. Jeremy Langston and Jeremy Johnson figure to play more prominent roles this season after seeing spot duty in 2012. The Delta Devils’ offense will be heavy on the run with RBs Brandon Stansell (396 yards) and  preseason All-SWAC pick Trey Bateaste (543 rushing yards) returning for their senior seasons.

MVSU also has experience on the offensive line. Wesley Steele, Martin Davis and Kevin James all are 290 pounds or better. Antonio Griggs weighs in at 280. JUCO transfer Paul Holliday (320) is expected to work his way into the rotation. The Delta Devils won’t contend for the division crown, but they will be a tough out and could play a major role in deciding who wins the East.

What they’re saying:  “We made some progress last year and we actually won a game. This will be our best season.’’ – Coach Karl Morgan

 

WEST DIVISION

Grambling State

2011 record (9-2, 8-1)

Key returning players: LB Cliff Exama (2010 Boxtorow All-American, 106 tackles three INTs; DL Jomarcus Savage (five sacks, 12 tackles for loss, All-SWAC).

Outlook: The G-Men enter the 2011 season in a familiar position – picked to capture the SWAC championship by the conference’s coaches and Sports Information Directors. Never mind that they lost the most prolific rushing tandem in the FCS with the graduation of RBs Frank Warren and Cornelius Walker (1,958 combined yards); they don’t have an experienced quarterback and they lack proven receivers.

The G-Men should however have a strong defensive unit and solid offensive line. But that’s unlikely to be enough to get them over the hump. Exama leads the defensive unit that was No. 3 in the SWAC in points allowed (19.3) and No. 2 against the run (113.8 yards a game). Antonio Leonard, Anotine Rogers and Savage give Grambling a formidable defensive line. The weak link is the secondary, which was riddled for 230.4 yards a game. Bruna Foster, Jabari Powell and Dominic Bell return for their senior seasons with a chip on their shoulders after a lackluster showing last year.

The strength of the offense is along the line with center Julian Wyndon and first team All-SWAC performers Sanford Banks and Bennie Peoples returning. D.J. Williams, the son of Coach Doug Williams, and Frank Rivers will vie for the starting quarterback job. The running back spots are still open.

Fast Fact: Coach Doug Williams returns for his second stint as coach of the G-Men The former Grambling All-American quarterback, who was MVP of Super Bowl XXII for the Washington Redskins and is a member of College Football Hall of Fame, guided the G-Men to three consecutive SWAC titles in the final threes seasons of a six-year tenure that ended following the 2003 season when he became a personnel executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Prairie View
2011 Record: (6-5, 5-4)
Key returning players: WR Spencer Nelson (53 receptions, 659 yards 5 TDs; 2012 preseason All-SWAC); LB Raheem Cardwell (66 tackles, 7.0 TFL; 2012 preseason All-SWAC).

Outlook: The Panthers will have experience going for them as they attempt to rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. A pair of late-season home losses cost them a shot at the West title. The defensive line is expected to be the Panthers’ strength. DE Jarvis Wilson (59 tackles, 7 sacks) and DTs Ryan Love and Dwayne Chappell (77 tackles and 9 sacks combined) continue the Panthers’ recent tradition of stellar defensive linemen.

The linebacking corps looked to be solid with veterans Cardwell, Elton Holmes (52 tackles) and Marcus White returning. However, White is scheduled to attend the Prairie View School of Nursing in Houston and his status with the team is unclear. If White isn’t available, that will open the door for Danny Browning to play an expanded role. Coach Heishma Northern, a former safety for Southern University was utterly displeased with the performance of the Panthers’ defensive secondary and is looking for vast improvement in that area.

A major challenge is replacing All-American cornerback Moses Ellis and JohnMark Henderson, his running mate on the opposite side. Brian Medlock, Adrien Grant, Chris King and Terrence Mitchell are veteran safeties who should be wiser after last season. The Panthers return nine starters from an offensive unit that led the SWAC in rushing (174.4 yards a game). RB Fred Anderson led the Panthers with 540 yards as a true freshman and La’Darryae Groover chipped in with 519. Courtney Brown, a 6-0, 200-pound sophomore, gives the Panthers size in the backfield and is likely to have an expanded role. 

Coach Northern played musical chairs at quarterback in 2011 with freshmen Jerry Lovelocke and Deauntre Smiley and senior Jonathan Troast all seeing action. Lovelocke (1,020 yards passing and 10 TDs) and Smiley are battling for the starting position. The Panthers have a good idea of how they stack up in the conference after the first weekend in October. They will have played Texas Southern, Alabama A&M, Jackson State and Grambling at that point.

What they’re saying: “We have to play better on defense than we did last year, and we have to protect our young quarterback.… Those are going to be the keys to our season.’’ – Coach Heishma Northern

 

Southern
2011 Record: (4-7, 4-5)
Key returning players: OL Chris Browne (2012 preseason All-SWAC); RB Sylvester Nzekwe (545 yards rushing, 3 TDs).

Outlook:  There just might be some light at the end of the tunnel for the Jaguars. Even though they suffered their second consecutive losing season under Coach Stump Mitchell, they their win total for Mitchell’s disastrous inaugural season it was avast improvement over Mitchell’s inaugural 2-9 season, the worst in school history. Four of their losses were by a total of 13 points, and they knocked off Alabama State in a game the Hornets needed to win to clinch the East Division title. Mitchell hopes a revamped coaching staff will help to continue the Jaguars’ improvement. He brought in Myron Jackson (defensive line), Thaddeus Washington (linebackers) and Marty Biagi (special teams) and promoted Dawson Adams defensive line coach to defensive coordinator.

The Jaguars will need to have better balance on offense. They struggled running the ball early in the season and finished the year averaging 63.0 yards a game, worst in the conference. A more effective running game should make QB Dray Joseph (1,544 yards passing, 13 TDs) more effective. Joseph and J.P. Douglas alternated in 2011, but Joseph will go into this season No.1.

His top targets are TEs Michael Berry (508 yards receiving, 7 TDs) and Rashuan Allen, who returns after sitting out 2011 due to academics. The Jaguars’ No. 1 priority is shoring up their defense, which allowed 375.6 yards a game which was ninth in the conference. DT Casey Narcisse anchors the line. FS Levi Jackson (68 tackles) is the leader in the secondary.

The NCAA has lifted the postseason ban that it imposed on the Jaguars for failing to meet Academic Progress Rate (APR) requirements, so they are eligible to play in the SWAC Championship. That could be the carrot on the end of the stick that propels them to their first winning record in years.

What they’re saying: “Guys didn’t buy in the first couple of years. They wanted to do their own thing. They were good football players but they wanted to do their own thing. You had to pull teeth to get them to go to class. You had to pull teeth to get them to go to study hall. You had to pull teeth to get them to go to the weight room. It’s not that way anymore.’’ – Coach Stump Mitchell

 

Arkansas-Pine Bluff
2011 Record: (6-5, 5-4)
Key returning players: QB Ben Anderson (1,876 yards passing, 10 TDs; 2011 SWAC Freshman of the Year); LB Bill Ross (3 INTS; 2012 preseason All-SWAC).

Outlook:  With a break here and there, the 2011 season could have looked a whole lot different for the Golden Lions. Four of their losses were by seven points or less, including a pair of one-point defeats. The experience of playing close should benefit the Golden Lions, especially Anderson, who showed great maturation, running first-year offensive coordinator Eric Dooley’s system.

The Golden Lions are a team that seemingly is always overlooked but can never be discounted. The Golden Lions’ defense boasts a solid nucleus of playmakers in Ross, DBs Jer-Ryan Harris (the 2010 SWAC Freshman of the Year), Jarvis Webb (2012 preseason All-SWAC) and Ryan Shaw (49 tackles, 4 INTs. Injuries to key players held the Golden Lions back. If they can stay healthy, they could be a surprise team.

What they’re saying: “We’re a much improved offensive team. We’re playing at a higher speed. (On defense) We wanted to recruit guys who can run to the ball. We want to be able to run to the football. We recruited guys who can run and have the tenacity to get to the football.” – Coach Monte Coleman

 

Texas Southern
2011 Record: (4-7, 2-7)
Key returning players: QB Riko Smalls (2,172 passing yards, 12 TDs); LB William Parker (61 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries).

Outlook:  The Tigers reign at the top of the SWAC didn’t last long. The 2010 SWAC champions were unceremoniously knocked off the throne after Coach Johnnie Cole was fired in the wake of an NCAA investigation. Darrell Asberry has replaced interim coach Kevin Ramsey, and he brings a championship pedigree with him from Shaw where he won three CIAA titles from 2007-10. Asberry won’t be able to get Texas Southern back to its championship status this season since the Tigers are not eligible for the SWAC title because they failed to meet the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) requirements.

However, you can look for the former Jackson State quarterback, to add a few wrinkles to the Tigers’ offense, which was second in the SWAC in total yards (379.1) and fourth in passing yards (214.6). Smalls, who took over at quarterback when Dantavious Parker was injured, returns. Parker is back also. They give Asberry the luxury of having a pair of experienced signal-callers, a rarity in the college game. The same can’t be said of the receiving and running back corps.

Senior WR Donnie Davis (20 receptions, 211 yards) is the Tigers most experienced pass catcher. James Davis and Harry Brown are counted on to step up; JUCO transfer Fred Plummer has played in a system similar to what Asberry employs and is expected to contribute. The running game is a question mark with the departure of RBs Marcus Wright and Martin Gilbert, who combined to rush for more than 1,600 yards in 2011. Tony Peoples returns after sitting out last season. Kendall Denson was impressive in spring practice;

JUCO transfer Edward Perkins Loving gives the Tigers speed in the backfield. Asberry retained Ramsey as defensive coordinator, which virtually assures that opponents will have a difficult time moving the ball. The Tigers have led the FCS in total defense each of the past two seasons. With eight starters returning, a decline isn’t likely.

What they’re saying:  “We’ll try to get the ball down the field. We won’t be trying to sit on the clock. That’s for sure.’’ – Coach Darrell Asberry

 

2012 SWAC Conference Schedule

 

SWAC Preseason Poll: Grambling, Alabama State Picked As Preseason SWAC Divisional Champs

 

SWAC Preseason All-Conference Team

 

Week 1 TV Games

 

Week 2 TV Games

 

Week 3 TV Games

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