The 2001 Tennessee State University Tigers football team may be ready to growl again after a tough 3-8 campaign last year.
Head coach James Reese is making no predictions, but he likes what he sees from the mixture of newcomers and veterans preparing for a Sept. 1, 7 p.m. season opener against Alabama A&M at Adelphia Coliseum.
"Things are looking good. We've definitely revamped the way our team will attack things this season," the second-year skipper said. "Our players are working harder in preparation for the season, and we expect to play much better on both sides of the ball."
TSU was picked fifth out of seven teams in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll by the league's head coaches and sports information directors. Its squad yielded six preseason All-OVC picks however, the most along with Murray State University and one more than preseason league favorite Eastern Illinois University. That may be a indication of the quality that Reese is working with as he aims to return Tennessee State to the level of play that produced back-to-back conference titles in 1998 and 1999.
"Offensively, our strength is our line and our receiving crew," Reese said. "Right now, we don't have the depth we usually do at running back, so that's one of our concerns. We've signed some new running backs, and now it's a matter of seeing who'll fill the void in the backup roles."
Seniors Marvin Jones and KaRon Key will be the veteran runners Reese calls on, while newcomers Charles Anthony (Orlando, Fl.), DeWayne Spearman (Newark, N.J.), Adam Lindsay (Smyrna), Julius Lee (Orlando, Fl.) and Ricki Gibbs (Miami, Fl.) will be contending for those backup slots.
At quarterback, junior college product Shannon Harris (69 of 140 passes for 650 yards and three touchdowns in 2000) returns to TSU as a senior and will start following the graduation of Kenton Evans. Kenny Kirby, a freshman transfer from Marshall University, and fellow first-year players Riley Walker (a redshirt from Chattanooga), Bryson Rosser (Hackensack, N.J.) and Henry Fant (Itta Bena, Miss.), will back Harris up at the signal caller's slot.
Sophomore wide receiver and Glencliff High alum C.J. Johnson (42 receptions for 853 yards and seven touchdowns) is an All-OVC preseason pick who's expected to lead the way at that position again this year.
"C.J. is a young man who stepped in last year as a freshman as the result of injuries to our receiving corps. He proved he could do the job. A key to him is not only that he catches the ball, but that he can make the tough catch," Reese said.
Punt return specialist Carlos Wright (who earned preseason all-conference status this year after league honors in 2000 for a 16 attempt, 220 yards and one TD season) will also line up as a receiver more often in 2001. "He might be our best-kept secret," Reese said. "He fit his role for TSU last year as a returner. This year we hope to expand his role into the receiving corps, and look to him to make big plays. He's a person who has big-play capability, and we're going to look to him for that." Junior Patrick Jenkins will return from injury, and sophomores Ron Jackson and Ande Durojaye will add further depth to the receiving group.
The line is once again led by All-OVC selection Benedict Ibisi, a senior and three-year starter. "Benedict as center is pretty much the anchor of our offensive line, and has been the guy who gets things rolling as a starter for two years in that position," the coach said. "He leads that unit and has also been selected as one our team captains (along with right cornerback Eric Joyce and left outside linebacker Walter Reese, who are also seniors)."
Another preseason pick is senior left tackle Lawrence Smith. "He is probably about the most experienced offensive lineman a team could have.
He's started since his redshirt freshman year, and we rely heavily on him. We often expect him to hold back the opposing team's best rusher, and he does a good job for us," Reese said.
Sophomore guards Rashad Shaw and Juandale Cooper return, as does senior right tackle David Clark. Junior Steve Farmer transferred to TSU prior to spring practice and is expected to play in the top tight end spot with sophomore Anthony Brown behind him on the depth chart.
What's the word for TSU's defense? Well, the word 'experience' might fit well at present.
"On the defensive side, our front seven returns, which is always a plus since you have guys with experience there," Reese noted. "The strength lies in our linebackers, where we can go two-deep. In our secondary, we return two of our four starters (sophomore left cornerback Dion Giddens and senior free safety Marquis Stephens), and when you add (senior right cornerback) Eric Joyce to that mix, you basically make up what we lost in Ligarius Jennings, because Eric is a talented player who's a pro prospect as well."
Curley Grayson is a senior defensive end given preseason honors by OVC voters who may be seeing much more time at another position. "Curley has been a starter for three years. He runs very well, he's strong and he likes to hit people. We may also use him quite a bit at middle linebacker," Reese said.
Also returning to the line are senior right defensive tackle Danny Roberson, junior nose guard Manny Robles and senior end Orlando Dotson. Juniors Desmond Scantling, Marcell Goodloe and Robert Davis will also see plenty of action in the trenches.
Walter Reese (no relation to the coach) is a go-to guy when linebackers have to make their presence felt in the opposition's offensive backfield. "He's the guy that we like to use when we call the blitz. He runs very well, and is pretty much the catalyst of the defense," said Reese, who will also call on Grayson, sophomores Carnell Myers and B.J. Fletcher, junior Jermaine Beale and senior Brice Smith for plays from the linebacking corps this season.
Sophomore Cory Greene and junior Isa Rahman will see action at strong safety, joining Joyce, Giddens, Greene and Stephens in the defensive backfield along with sophomore reserves Scott Cunningham, Chris Mays and Mardae Weaver.
Freshmen Chris Richardson from Mt. Juliet and Joey Hudak from Miami, Fl., are the two players Reese will choose from to handle punting and kicking duties. "We'll have to see how that unfolds as the season progresses," Reese said.
Are there any breathers on TSU's 2001 schedule? There's one, according to Reese. "We do have open week," he said with a grin about the Sept. 8 off-day in this year's slate. "When you look at our schedule, you see that we start off with an Alabama A&M team (in the John Merritt Classic) that played for the (Southwestern Athletic Conference) championship last year, so I guess you could say we start off in the fire.
"We always play Jackson State and Florida A&M, and when you look at those games, you know they'll be tough. We open our conference season with Southeast Missouri, we play Howard for the first time and then get into the rest of our OVC schedule, so we'd better bring our A-game every week."
And what does Reese do to bring the team back to their recent glory?
He's been around the game long enough to truly know that players play and coaches coach. "We're fortunate enough to have guys who are now seniors and juniors who experienced those two championships. We just turned up the off-season program and made sure they made a commitment to the goals we all have in mind.
"We want to make sure that we put our student-athletes in the best position to win games. We want to make sure they're properly prepared so that when they go out on the field we can get our team goals accomplished."
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