It’s not quite the good old days at TENNESSEE STATE, days when Coach “Big John’’ Merritt and his lieutenants, Alvin Coleman Joe Gilliam Sr., could shake any tree on campus and a dozen or so pros would fall out. But times are pretty good for Big Blue, the defending Black College National champion.
The Tigers, who had seven team members drafted or signed by NFL teams this spring, enter the 2014 season ranked No. 1 among HBCUs and No. 17 in the preseason FCS Top 25 rankings. Defending MEAC champion Bethune-Cookman is the only other HBCU ranked in the Top 25. The Wildcats are No. 23. Tennessee State has increased its victory total each of Coach Rod Reed’s five seasons.
The Tigers were 10-3 last season, advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1986, by defeating Butler 31-0. They return 60 lettermen and 12 starters, giving Reed plenty of reason for optimism for the 2014 season. “Anytime you got a lot of guys who played a lot of college football games, the experience factor plays in a bunch,” Reed says. “No matter how great your talent is, having that game experience, being in the game atmosphere, means a lot. We’ve got some really good players coming back on both sides of the ball. Our biggest challenge is staying focused week to week. Our motto is win one.’’
Defense was Tennessee State’s forte in 2013. The Tigers ranked sixth nationally in total defense (296.9 yards a game) and scoring defense (18.1 points a game) and ninth in turnovers gained (31). Defensive end Anthony Bass (14.5 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, 34 tackles and two fumble recoveries), the reigning OVC Defensive Player of the Year who was also the conference’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, returns to lead the Big Blue defense. Also back is senior defensive back Daniel Fitzpatrick, who was named National Defensive Back of the Year by the FCS ADA last year.
Fitzpatrick led all Division I players (FBS or FCS) with eight interceptions as a junior and is on the Preseason Buck Buchanan Award Watch List for National Defensive Player of the Year. De’Ante Saunders is a good complement for Fitzpatrick in the secondary, and Nick Thrasher and Tra’Darius Goff are an imposing linebacker tandem. Quarterback Michael German is poised to have big year. German missed the beginning of last season but worked his way back in the lineup, and in seven games he completed 60 % of his passes for 1,168 yards and 13 touchdowns without throwing an interception.