Look for quarterbacks to be front and center in black college football during the 2012 season.
A number of experts in HBCU sports say they are hard-pressed to recall a season with the number of proven signal-callers that will lead their teams into action this season. While none of the field generals are on par with the Steve McNairs, Doug Williamses, Eldridge Dickeys, Jacary Atkinses and Bruce Eugenes of previous seasons, the Class of 2012 boasts an inordinate number of quarterbacks with solid credentials.
“I don’t think we’ve seen this talent level at quarterback for a long time,’’ says Donal Ware, host of the syndicated radio show "From the Press Box to Press Row." “So many teams have good quarterbacks who played well than don’t.’’
Winston-Salem State senior Kameron Smith is at the head of the class. Smith, 21-3 in two years as the Rams’ starter, threw for a school record 2,706 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading Winston-Salem State to the semifinals of the Division II playoffs and the Black College National Championship with a 13-1 record.
Ironically, four other returning quarterbacks in the CIAA threw for more yards per game than did Smith, who averaged 193.3 a contest. Junior Cameron Stover averaged 235.1 yards in eight games, and he had 19 touchdown passes; Doug Cook threw for 228.2 yards as a freshman at Lincoln (Pa.), matching Saint Augustine’s Teddy Bacotte, who also had 22 touchdown passes. Cook threw for 12 touchdowns, and Keahn Wallace averaged 200.5 yards in his freshman campaign while leading Johnson C. Smith to a victory in the Pioneer Bowl.
The list of topflight quarterbacks includes sophomore Greg McGhee of Howard, the 2011 MEAC Rookie of the Year, who threw for 1,780 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman. The MEAC also boasts other top notch quarterbacks in Nick Elko, a senior at Delaware State, one of the top in the conference with 2,060 yards and 15 touchdowns last season; North Carolina A&T junior Lewis Kindle, 2,020 yards, 16 touchdowns, and Florida A&M sophomore Damien Fleming, 1,622 yards, 11 touchdowns.
Jackson State All-American Casey Therriault overshadowed the other quarterbacks in the SWAC the past two seasons while setting records hand over fist. Now that Therriault has moved on, the others will have an opportunity for the spotlight, and the Tigers are the only team in the conference with a proven quarterback. Grambling sophomore D.J. Williams, the son of G-Men’s coach Doug Williams, has the most name recognition of SWAC quarterbacks – and he has a championship ring as well. The younger Williams grew as a quarterback as the season progressed. He threw for 1,102 yards and 11 after an uneven start in 2011, and he is expected to continue to grow this season.
Texas Southern senior Riko Smalls was the most productive SWAC quarterback not named Therriault last season. Smalls threw for 2,122 yards and 15 touchdowns. Those numbers should increase dramatically with offensive-minded Darrell Asberry as Texas Southern’s head coach. Senior Deaunte Mason of Alabama A&M, a 2012 first team preseason All-SWAC pick, is the most seasoned quarterback in the conference, having been the Bulldogs’ starter since the eighth game of the 2009 season. He has led the Bulldogs to the conference championship twice, losing each time. Senior Greg Jenkins had Alabama State on the cusp of playing in the championship game in his first season as the Hornets’ starter after transferring from Troy despite being plagued by injuries most of the year.
Jerry Lovelocke of Prairie View A&M and J.P. Douglas of Southern are two more sophomore quarterbacks looking to build on solid freshman seasons. Douglas split time with junior Dray Joseph. The two of them combined to throw for 2,826 yards and 23 touchdowns, putting Southern in the unique position of having two dependable quarterbacks. Ben Anderson, a senior, showed promise in leading Arkansas-Pine Bluff to its first winning season since the Golden Lions reach the SWAC Championship
Game in 2006.
“It’s hard to win without having a consistent guy at quarterback,’’ says EPSN College Football Analyst Eddie Robinson Jr., an All-American linebacker at Alabama State before playing 13 seasons in the NFL. “You don’t need to have a great quarterback. You have to have someone to make plays when they need make them. When you have good play at quarterback, it improves the overall flow of the game. You won’t have silly turnovers. You’ll still have turnovers, but you won’t have simple turnovers like on the center-quarterback exchange. When you have quarterbacks who are poised and experienced, they can make changes to counteract defensive changes. That makes the game exciting and entertaining for fans.’’
That said, the championship races in all four HBCU conferences are likely to be determined by quarterback play.
In the MEAC, defending champion Norfolk State is the pre-season pick to repeat. However, the Spartans enter the season without a tested signal caller to replace Chris Walley, the 2011 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year. Junior Niko Flores, Walley’s backup last season, is competing with junior college transfers Jake Basmagian and Dylan Shaddix, sophomore Pierre Narcisse and freshman Zach Deutel for the starting spot. Whoever wins the job will have to settle in quickly to keep South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman, both of whom have veterans to call on, in sight. Junior Richard Cue and senior Derrick Wiley are vying to start for South Carolina State, which won or shared the MEAC titles from 2008-10. Bethune-Cookman, a tri-champion in 2010, will call on Jackie Wilson, who has made 17 career starts, including the Wildcats’ 2010 playoff loss.
Still, Norfolk State coach Pete Adrian is supremely confident that the Spartans will have enough defensively and in areas other than quarterback to repeat as champions.
“All the quarterback has to do is run the show, not be the show,’’ he says.
Jackson State is the odd man out among the top contenders in the SWAC after losing Therriault. That could dim the Tigers’ chances of winning the East Division, considering that preseason favorite Alabama State and reigning division champ Alabama A&M have battle-tested field generals in Jenkins and Mason, respectively.
Grambling is far and away the top team in the West and the team to beat for the SWAC championship. The G-Men enter the season ahead of where they were this time a year ago when D.J. Williams was an untested quarterback trying to find his way and Doug Williams was trying to get a handle on the squad after returning to his alma mater in the spring.
“We had a great offseason and spring,’’ Doug Williams says. “Last year this time we were learning each other. We go into this season with a little more knowledge of who have to depend on.’’
Miles, the defending champion, has a leg up on the rest of the field in the SIAC with quarterback Damon Thomas returning for his senior season. Tuskegee, the Golden Bears’ most likely challenger in the West, still has to resolve its issues at quarterback, which have existed since Jacary Atkinson departed after the 2008 season. With that being the case, complacency seems to be Miles’ most formidable opponent. Coach Reginald Ruffin has gone to great lengths to ensure that his team isn’t seduced into developing an over-inflated opinion of itself based on last year’s success by not allowing team members to wear their championship rings.
“The rings say 2011,’’ he says. “This is 2012. That’s something we harp on. You have to learn how to deal with success and put it behind you. The only way to do that is to keep working.’’
Morehouse and Albany State, the top teams in the East, are both searching for quarterbacks. The edge in the division race goes to Morehouse because of the presence of All-American running back David Carter. If the Maroon Tigers get any semblance of solid play at quarterback, they will have a decided edge on Albany State, which lost All-SIAC signal-caller Stanley Jennings.
A year ago, Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor predicted that the Rams would go undefeated, win the CIAA title, earn a first-round bye in the Division II playoffs and win the Division II championship. This year he is predicting the Rams will be just as good, if not better, than they were in 2011. With Smith and 14 other starters returning, there is no reason that they shouldn’t be.
“We need to take care of the ball on offense and don’t give the other team a short field,’’ Maynor says, adding that complacency is an element that is lurking in the shadows.
However, he points to the 2011 season as a harbinger of how the Rams will handle their success. They were 1-10 in 2009, the season before he took over, and 8-2 in 2010. They followed that up with a school record for victories in a single season.
“We got to do the same thing this year,’’ he says, “keep getting better, shooting for goals. We got to keep our foot on them and don’t let them slack up.’’
Elizabeth City is the team most likely to challenge Winston-Salem for supremacy in the CIAA. Two of the Vikings’ four losses in 2011 came against the Rams, including a 38-18 defeat in the CIAA Championship Game.
Tennessee State celebrates the centennial anniversary of its football program this season, and the Tigers hope to mark the occasion with their first winning season since 2008. The prospects aren’t good, however. They are picked to finish fifth in the OVC, and they have a murderous non-conference schedule with games against Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman, Jackson State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.