MEAC Preview: Norfolk State Looks To Repeat

Norfolk State OT Blake Mathews

By Roscoe Nance
Special to College Sports Journal

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

Norfolk State is predicted to finish first in the MEAC this year, followed by South Carolina State, Bethune Cookman, and North Carolina A&T.

Norfolk State 
2011 Record: (9-3, 7-1)
Key Returning Players: OT Blake Matthews (2011 Boxtorow All-American); LB Jamal Giddens (70 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8 sacks).

Outlook: The Spartans appear to have the makings to successfully defend their first MEAC championship. They return 13 starters and are loaded with experience on both sides of the ball. Matthews anchors a veteran offensive line, and 2011 Boxtorow All-American wide receiver Xavier Boyce (68 catches, 750 yards) and running back Takeem Hedgeman give the Spartans legitimate playmakers. Quarterback is a question mark however. Junior Nico Flores, the backup to 2011 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year Chris Walley, is competing with junior college transfers Jake Basmagian and Dylan Shaddix, sophomore Pierre Narcisse, and freshman Zach Deutel for the starting spot. The only other opening on offense is at left tackle, where Julius Wormley is the frontrunner to replace Boxtorow All-American Kendall Noble. Four starters return on defense in linebackers Giddens and Terrence Pugh and cornerbacks Marcus Cooperwood and Marcus Center. But several backups on the unit that was No. 1 in the MEAC in total defense and scoring defense and in the top 10 nationally in both categories got valuable playing time last season and are ready to take over. Linebackers Lynden Trail, a transfer from the University of Florida, and freshman Justin Grant are expected to contribute. Matt Grant and George Riddick, part-time starters a year ago, anchor the defensive line.

What they’re saying: “Guys have been riding the wave the whole year (after winning the MEAC title).They’re excited about going into the season. It will translate into some wins. Whether it will translate into another championship, who knows,?’’ – Coach Pete Adrian

South Carolina State
2011 Record: (7-4, 6-2)
Key Returning Players: RB Asheton Jordan (774 yards rushing, 5 TDs); LB Joe Thomas (99. tackles, 2.5 sacks).

Outlook: The Bulldogs are looking to bounce back after failing to at least share the conference crown for the first time in three seasons and missing the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Bulldogs chances of turning things around hinge on their quarterback and how quickly development of a bevy of young inexperienced linemen on both sides of the ball. Senior Derrick Wiley and junior Richard Cue are vying for the starting job at quarterback. Junior C Tristan Bellamy anchors an offensive line that also includes T Dominac Wilson and G Sam Hammond, a pair of sophomores, on the left side. 

Devin Flowers, another sophomore, will start at right guard.
Nose guard  James Fulwood and defensive tackle Leon Smith are the only defensive linemen with starting experience. Cortney Ingram, who plays the Dog position, and cornerbacks Darius Drummond and Mason Harris are seasoned pass defenders and will solidify a secondary that lost Christian Thompson and Dominique Ellis to the NFL.

What they’re saying: “You can expect us to continue to be a good football team. Whether or not we can get the same results, who knows?  We have a little bit different approach as coaches. We tried to do some things that we’ve found a little bit better way to do or gone back to doing some things the way we did in the past.’’ – Coach Buddy Pough

2011 Record: (8-3, 6-2)
Key Returning Players: RB Isidore Jackson (866 yards rushing, 7 TDs; 2012 preseason All-MEAC); S D.J. Howard (45 tackles, 3 INTs).

Outlook: Finishing second in 2011 after winning the MEAC title in 2010 has Brian Jenkins in a snit going into his third season as coach of the Wildcats. Jenkins will call on 21 returnees with previous starting experience in the Wildcats’ quest to reclaim the championship. The challenge on offense is to sort out the quarterback situation. Junior Jackie Wilson has seen action in 17 games the previous two seasons, including a start in the 2010 FCS playoffs. Redshirt freshman Quentin Williams, a former Mr. Florida Football, was impressive in spring practice and is pushing Wilson. They could end up sharing time. On defense the Wildcats are looking for replacements for Boxtorow All-American defensive end Ryan Davis, defensive back Jean Fanor and linebackers Reggie Sandilands and Ryan Lewis. Tavarus Dantzler and Dawud Lane are penciled in to take over for Lewis and Sandilands, who played a combined 81 games and made 394 tackles during their careers. Anthony Woodard is being counted on to anchor the defensive line after he registered 3.5 sacks a year ago.

What They’re Saying: “We need to get back to business. All the shenanigans and extracurricular activities are out the window. Let’s get back to business; let’s get back to playing Wildcat football, playing in an attacking manner, in a detailed manner.’’ – Coach Brian Jenkins

North Carolina A&T
2011 Record: (5-6, 4-4)
Key Returning Players: RB Mike Mayhew (1,120 yards rushing, 9 TDs; 2011 Boxtorow All-American, 2012 preseason MEAC Offensive Player of the Year); LB D’Vonte Grant (87tackles, 10.5 TFL; 2012 preseason All-MEAC).

Outlook: The Aggies aren’t eligible for the championship or the FCS playoffs because they failed to meet Academic Progress Rate (APR) requirements, but they are an improving team. They improved their 2010 victory total by four games and were in the thick of the MEAC race at midseason, but a four-game losing streak to end the season knocked them out of contention. All four games were on the road and essentially came down to the last play of the game where the Aggies could have tied or won the game.  The Aggies return 42 lettermen and 19 starters. However depth is a problem. The Aggies possess a balanced offense. Mayhew was the top rusher in the MEAC, and quarterback Lewis Kindle threw for 2,020 yards and 16 touchdowns to become the first Aggie with 2,000 passing yards in a season since Maceo Bolin in 1995. Despite the loss of wide receiver Wallace Miles, former three-star recruit Larry Raper, and versatile Ricky Lewis will look to shoulder the load. The Aggies should be strong defensively again after leading the MEAC in rushing defense and ranking seventh in the FCS. Tyree Hearn joins Tony Mashburn as solid bookends on the line. Redshirt sophomore linebacker D’Vonte Graham, had a very good rookie campaign and is joined on the all-conference preseason team by safety Travis Crosby.

What They’re Saying: “We expect to be better than last year. I thought our guys have really bought into how we’re trying to do things. If you look at our team you’ll see a complete attitude change. I think we’re on the right track.’’ – Coach Road Broadway


Florida A&M
2011 Record: (7-4, 5-3)
Key Returning Players: QB Damien Fleming (1,622 yards passing, 11 TDs; 2012 preseason All-MEAC); S John Ojo (42 tackles 4 INTs; 2012 preseason All-MEAC).

Outlook: The Rattlers traditionally have high expectations, and this season is no exception. With 76 lettermen returning, including Fleming, the Rattlers have reason to have lofty expectations. Fleming became the starter in the fifth game last season after rallying the Rattlers to a 38-33 come-from-behind victory over Southern in the Atlanta Football Classic and was 5-2. Fleming should benefit from a solid running game that will be led by running backs Eddie Rocker (524 yards), Lavante Page (13 TDs), and speedster Al-Tarek McBurse, who was hobbled with injuries in 2011. The defense has a passel of playmakers, led by nose guard Padric Scott and defensive end Branden Davis. Brandon Hepburn and Bobby Jackson anchor a solid corps of linebackers.

What they’re saying: “Fleming is a special guy. I’ve been in this business a long time. He’s up there with some of the best I’ve ever had. He has good range on his throws. He can make all the throws. For the first time in a long time we’ll be able to audible at the line of scrimmage because of his intellectual level.’’ – Coach Joe Taylor

2011 Record: (5-6, 4-4)
Key Returning Players: QB Greg McGhee (1,784 yards passing, 13 TDs; 2012 preseason All-MEAC); LB Keith Pough (120 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 3 sacks; 2011 Boxtorow All-American, 2012 preseason MEAC Defensive Player of the Year; 2012 FCS preseason All-American; 2011 Buck Buchanan Award FCS Defensive Player of the Year finalist.).

Outlook: The Bison restored some of the luster to a tarnished legacy in Coach Gary “Flea’’ Harrell’s first season. Their five victories exceeded their total of three for the previous three seasons combined. McGhee’s emergence played a major role in the Bison’s resurgence, and he gives them reason to believe better days are ahead. Pough anchors a unit that made impressive strides under coordinator Ray Petty, ranking in the top 10 in the FCS in sacks and total defense. In order for the Bison to continue on their upward track, they need to cut down on their mistakes. They were in the bottom half of the conference in turnovers and penalties.

What They’re Saying: “I expect the team to move the needle from point A to point B.  We had an opportunity to be .500, but we failed in that category. So we still have a lot to improve on and to prove.’’ – Coach Gary 'Flea' Harrell

Delaware State
2011 Record: (3-8, 1-7)
Key Returning Players: QB Nick Elko (2,064 yards passing, 15 TDs); WR Travis Tarpley (66 receptions, 735 yards, four touchdowns).

Outlook: The Hornets continue to try and close the gap between themselves and the MEAC’s upper echelon. Ten returning offensive starters should help, beginning Elko who became the starter last season. He is No. 4 on the Hornets’ all-time list for pass completions (281) and pass attempts (499), tied for No. 5 in touchdown passes (22), No. 6 in passing yards (2,930) and No. 11 in total offense (2,856 yards). He will have two topflight receivers as his primary targets, preseason all-conference wide receiver Tarpley and Justin Wilson (54 catches, 536 yards, 6 TDs), who was beset by injuries last year. The Hornets defense is a work in progress with only two starters returning.

What They’re Saying: “I think our kids understand our system a whole lot better than they understood it last year. “At key positions we’re a year older. We’re looking forward to having a real good program. We’re still building a program. We want to build it from the ground up. It’s going to take a minute for us to get where we want to be.’’ – Coach Kermit Blount

Morgan State
2011 Record: (5-6, 4-4)
Key Returning Players: QB Seth Higgins (1,116 yards passing, 9 TDs); LB Tierney Yates (64. tackles, 4.5 sacks).

Outlook: Coach Donald Hill-Eley has gone back to his roots and assumed the role as offensive coordinator after relinquishing those duties several years ago. He made the switch toward the end of last season in hopes of revving up the Bears’ attack that finished last in the conference in passing. Hill is optimistic that QB Higgins has the tools to be an elite signal caller. The presence of junior RB Travis Davis, who rushed for 732 yards and 7 TDs with a healthy 5.1 yard per carry average, will help Higgins’ effectiveness. So too will a veteran offensive line that features three starters, Joshua Duren, Jerry Evans and Nicholas Harris. Yates is part of strong group of linebackers, which includes Allen Stephens and Michael Dallas. Defensive back Joe Rankin and Paul Eatman bring experience to the secondary. The Bears’ roster boasts 24 seniors, the most ever for Hill since he took the helm in 2002.  

What They’re Saying: “You can definitely look for some offensive fireworks. This is the first time in a long time that we can say we have quarterback we can hang our hats on.’’ – Coach Donald Hill-Eley

2011 Record: (7-4, 5-3)
Key Returning Players: RB Antwon Chisolm (796 yards rushing, 8 TDs; 2012 preseason All-MEAC); LB Delbert Tyler (110 tackles, 2.5 sacks).

Outlook: The Pirates aren’t eligible for the conference championship or the FCS playoffs because they failed to meet the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) requirement.
Still they are eying a breakout season after putting together back-to-back winning records. They have 47 lettermen, 17 returning as Donovan Rose enters his fourth season as coach. The Pirates’ most pressing need on offense is to find a quarterback to replace David Legree and run the system that first-year coordinator Earnest Wilson has installed. Wilson, Hampton’s fourth offensive coordinator under Rose, was the architect of Jackson State’s Air Raid attack that was No. 1 in the FCS last season. Sophomore Travis Champion enters preseason practice as the starter at quarterback. Bradford Hudson is another sophomore who saw action last season.  Najee Tyler, a 6-5, 235-pound transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College will also challenge for playing time. The linebacking corps that features Tyler, Lyndell Gibson, DeVonte’ Hawkins and Matthew Davis is the strength of the defense. The secondary lost its top performer, cornerback Micah Pellerin, who is in camp with the Green Bay Packers. But the Pirates have capable pass defenders in cornerbacks Courtney Bridget (6-3) and Justin Blake (6-0), free safety Scott Williams (6-4) and strong safety Carvin Johnson (6-2) with size and experience.

What They’re Saying: “Successful, championship teams all have the same ingredients. Everybody has to be a part of this thing. Everybody is buying into this thing. When I first started, we had guys who didn’t do this, guys who didn’t do that. We don’t have that anymore. There’s unity.’’ – Coach Donovan Rose

North Carolina Central
2011 Record: (1-7, 2-9)

Key Returning Players: WR Giovonie Irvine (47 receptions, 580 yards five touchdowns); DE Stephen Young (44 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks).

Outlook: The Eagles, charter members of the MEAC before departing in 1979, didn’t make the triumphant return to the conference that they envisioned.  However, with 54 returning lettermen, including 14 starters, they have to reason expect better results in the future. Young, Chase Tripp, Xavier Proctor and John Drew, all seniors, form an experienced defensive line. They will need to play at high level to keep pressure off a young corps of linebackers, whose most experienced member is senior Chris Drew. The Eagles’ offense is stacked at the skill positions. The top four running backs and top five receivers from a year ago are still on hand . The returning group of receivers, led by Irvine, combined for 148 receptions, 1,692 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, the quarterback spot is unsettled. Jordan Reid is the only experienced signal caller on the roster. Red-shirt freshman Quenton Rucker, junior college transfer Matt Goggans and true freshman Malcolm Bell are competing with Reid to replace Michael Johnson as the starter.

What They’re Saying: “We believe we laid a very good foundation in building our program. We’re building a program, not a team.’’ – Assistant Head Coach Dwayne Foster

Savannah State
2011 Record: (1-10, 1-7)
Key Returning Players: QB Antonio Bostick (755 yards passing, 3 TDs); DE James Briscoe (40 tackles, 6 TFL).

Outlook: The Tigers got an unceremonious welcome to the MEAC 2011. They won their first conference game and then lost eight in a row. The Tigers’ debacle taught first-year coach Steve Davenport a hard lesson. After focusing his recruiting efforts on high school seniors a year ago, Davenport concentrated heavily on JUCO and FBS transfers for this season. The most notable transfer is DT Chris Jones, who played at the University of Illinois. On offense, QB Bostick, a red-shirt junior, takes for A.J. DeFilippis, and junior RB Sheldon Barnes is penciled in to replace Justin Babb, who led the Tigers with 525 rushing yards. Cincinnati transfer Isaiah Nearor figures to get his share of carries as well. The Tigers have just four seniors among the 50 lettermen on the 2012 roster and are likely to take a few lumps again this season.  

What They’re Saying: “The future looks good,’’ he says. “We’ve got to be patient and let the future get here.’’ – Coach Steve Davenport