Southwestern Athletic Conference 2013 Football Season Preview
By Roscoe Nance (contributing opinion writer)
SWAC Football begins its 15th season of division play with a series of questions.
Which teams will compete for the title on December 7 at the 2013 Toyota SWAC Football Championship?
Can Arkansas-Pine Bluff successfully defend its first-ever outright conference title?
Will Southern, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State continue to build after showing signs of improvement last year?
Will Jackson State be able to bounce back from its gut-wrenching overtime loss in the 2012 Toyota SWAC Championship?
How will Grambling State rebound from a 1-10 record showing in 2012 that saw the Tigers go winless in the SWAC for the first time?
Will revamped defenses help Prairie View A&M and Alabama State climb their respective division?
These and other questions surrounding the 2013 season will be answered when the East and West Division winners meet in the championship game at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Each week, starting Labor Day weekend, inquiring minds will gain some insight.
2012 RECORD: 10-2 (8-1 SWAC) / West Division and SWAC Champions
Arkansas-Pine Bluff can be the favorite to emerge from the West. The Golden Lions return 20 starters – 10 on offense and nine on defense – from last year’s 10-2 squad that set a school record for most victories in a season.
At the completion of 2012, the monumental season pushed head coach Monte Coleman as a nominee for The Sports Network Eddie Robinson Award.
All-SWAC redshirt junior quarterback Ben Anderson, MVP of the SWAC Championship, leads the Golden Lions’ offense. Anderson threw for 2, 346 yards and 16 touchdowns.
He will have plenty of help on offense with a trio of All-SWAC skill position players returning. Running back Justin Billings was the second-leading rusher in the conference with 852 yards. He averaged a conference-best 5.8 yards per carry. Wide receiver Ladarius Eckwood had 52 catches for 752 yards and six touchdowns, and tight end Dez Beverly posted 46 catches for 434 yards and six touchdowns.
The offensive line is an experienced unit. Their only loss, left tackle Terron Armstead, who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. That leaves guards Kenny Eagle (All-SWAC) and Keathric Brown with tackles Me’Kale Carter and LaFarious Hoskins as the anchors.
Despite losing FCS sack leader and Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Brandon Thurmond, and the 2012 SWAC leader in tackles, Bill Ross, the Golden Lions should be solid on defense as well.
Linebackers Jer-Ryan Harris, an All-SWAC performer, Xavier Lofton and Kyle Walker played well in spring drills. Damian Lee and DeMarcus Berry will be counted on to provide a strong pass rush. Gyovanni Harvey and All-SWAC free safety Ryan Shaw anchor the secondary.
Harris, Eckwood and Beverly were named to the CFPA Watch List for the upcoming season.
2012 RECORD: 7-4 (6-3 SWAC) / 3rd - East Division
Anthony Jones, the dean of SWAC coaches, faces a mammoth rebuilding job as he enters his 12th season at Alabama A&M. The Bulldogs lost 23 seniors from a squad that won the first six games and was ranked No. 1 among HBCUs. Their toughest losses were on offense.
Jones must replace Deaunte Mason, a four-year starter at quarterback, and running back Kaderius Lacey, the league's leading rusher in 2012.
Brandon Wells, Chris Leachmen, Kyle Harmyk and Jaymason Lee are vying to replace Mason. Neither has taken a snap in a Division I game. Lacey's spot will be filled by committee with Brandon Eldemire and Brendon Johnson sharing the load. The receiving corps, led by Montaurius Smith (receptions leader last season), G’Alonzo Milton and Rashaad DeJarnett, is the strength of the offense.
If the quarterbacks are capable of getting the ball to receivers while operating behind a line that lost three all-conference performers, then AAMU could generate more offense than expected.
Defensive linemen Reginald Bailey, Corey Johnson and Phillip Harvey give the Bulldogs their front after playing as reserves. The secondary will be solid, providing Jeremy Isabelle is able to fill Vernon Marshall’s shoes at strong safety and A.J. Clark, a converted quarterback, continues to develop at free safety.
2012 RECORD: 7-4 (7-2 SWAC) / 2nd East Division
Alabama State generated impressive runs the past three seasons. They tied for the best record in the East Division each of those years. In lieu of their success in recent years is one appearance in the conference championship game, an 11-6 loss to Texas Southern in 2010.
Coach Reggie Barlow is optimistic that his team’s fortunes will change this season.
The Hornets fate will hinge in a large degree on how successful Barlow is in replacing quarterback Greg Jenkins, a two-year starter who signed a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders.
Redshirt sophomore Daniel Duhart and junior transfer Arsenio Favor, who played two seasons at Southern Mississippi, are the leading candidates for the quarterback position.
Duhart played in seven games last year and completed 29-of-42 passes for 288 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw a touchdown pass on his first collegiate drive and earned SWAC Newcomer of the Week honors after passing for 192 yards (22-of-31) with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a come-from-behind win at Prairie View A&M.
Favor played in 12 games over two seasons at Southern Mississippi. Last season he played in five games with three starts and completed 37-of-67 passes for 650 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Whomever the starter is under center, he will handoff to one of the conference’s top running backs, Isaiah Crowell.
After transferring from Georgia and carrying the 2011 title of SEC Freshman of the Year, Crowell rushed for 842 yards and closed out 2012 as the SWAC Newcomer of the Year. Crowell and tight end Justin Robinson were named to the CFPA Watch List to open 2013. Joining Crowell in the backfield is Malcolm Cyrus who registered 459 yards last season.
The Hornets defense will have a different look; complements of first-year coordinator Kevin Ramsey, who spent the previous four seasons at Texas Southern. Ramsey is known for his attack-style of defenses that puts heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Defensive ends Carlton Jones and Chris Terry with nose guard Derrick Billups give the Hornets pressure up front. ASU is deep at the linebacker spots with Brandon Slater, Leland Baker and DeMarques Taylor. However, safety Deandre Rashada is the only returning starter in the secondary.
The kicking game should not be a concern for the Hornets with Bobby Wenzig pulling double duty as the punter and kicker. He gathered more All-America honors at the end of 2012 in academics and his play on the field more than any other SWAC football player.
For the preseason, he was added to the CFPA Watch List as a punter and kicker while receiving the title of preseason FCS All-American by the Sports Network. He averaged a league best with 45.6 yards per punt and was named to the All-SWAC First Team as a punter after winning the SWAC Specialist of the Week award on six occasions. His postseason accolades in 2012 include: BoxtoRow, Academic, SBN Sports Black College and FCS All-America honors.
Last year, Wenzig finished second on the team in scoring with 62 points. He connected 38-of-42 PATs and finished 8-for-14 in field goal attempts. He averaged more than 61 yards per kickoff, resulting in 14 touchbacks, helping the Hornets limit opponents to only 19 yards per kick return.
2012 RECORD: 4-7 (4-5 SWAC) / 5th East Division
Alcorn State shocked teams in the SWAC last season while posting a 4-7 record under Coach Jay Hopson, who was hired in late May.
The Braves won’t sneak up on opponents this season after showing signs of improvement a year ago. ALCN pulled off upsets against Grambling State to open 2012 and clipped Alabama A&M's undefeated season hopes during the Bulldogs' homecoming.
Pass defense was Alcorn’s calling card in 2012. The Braves led the SWAC and were fourth in the FCS, allowing just 156 yards a game through the air. Junior Devon Francois leads the secondary finishing last year's campaign with 41 tackles.
Other returnees in the secondary include: Jamison Knox, Anthony Williams and Hendricks Taylor.
Newcomers to a defensive line may lack chemistry. The front four, only returns junior Carrington Aloese and sophomore Rickey Joseph, and it needs to develop an effective pass rush to complement the secondary.
The Braves will need to focus on offensive production. Running back Arnold Walker is a big back who can get tough yards. He was the Braves’ leading rusher with 392. Sophomore John Gibbs and Jordan Payne, two of the three quarterbacks who shared playing time last season, are back. Gibbs started eight games but never established himself as the top guy. Brandon Vessel could also see action.
Senior wide receiver Tavoris Doss gives the Braves a big-play threat in the passing game and on kickoff and punt returns.
2012 RECORD: 1-10 (0-9 SWAC) / 5th West Division
Grambling State is in an uncustomary situation after going winless in the conference for the first-time ever.
Coach Doug Williams focused the spring drills on the Tigers getting bigger, faster and more aggressive on both sides of the ball. GSU will also need to increase their offensive productivity after averaging just 18.2 points a game in 2012. Last year, GSU dropped five games by less than seven points, including three contests by less than three.
After winning the SWAC crown in 2011, the Tigers will again, rely on quarterback D.J. Williams, the coach’s son, to run the offense. Williams passed for 930 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that he needs to improve dramatically if GSU is to contend for the title.
Frank Rivers, whom split time with Williams the past two seasons, has transferred to Albany State.
The Tigers are deep at the running back slot with Cedric Skinner, Juwan Marin, Jeremy Runner and Justin Fortson. But again, productivity is an issue. Skinner was the Tigers’ leading rusher with 365 yards. Fortson was the most impressive ball carrier in spring drills.
At receiver, Anthony McGhee, who recorded 37 catches for 514 yards last year, and Robert Bailey, 11 catches for 143 yards, are the top returners at the slots.
Dennis “Dirt’’ Winston, a defensive assistant at GSU from 1992-97, returns as defensive coordinator and has installed a 4-3 scheme. Linebackers Aaron Breed, Steve Orisakwe and Rod Stevens were solid in spring drills, sparking a sense of optimism that the Tigers defense will be significantly better.
The addition of freshman kick specialist Jonathan Wallace will give the Tigers a boost on offense and defense. Coach Williams is counting on Wallace to handle the punting and place-kicking duties. Wallace is expected to help the Tigers with field position and has the ability to connect field goals beyond 40 yards.
2012 RECORD: 7-5 (7-2 SWAC) / East Division Champion
Jackson State, the reigning East Division champion, has experience on its side in its quest to return to the championship game. In 2012, The Tigers won five consecutive games down the stretch and contended for the SWAC title after winning the division as a result of a tiebreaker over Alabama State.
JSU return 51 lettermen, including eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
Senior quarterback Clayton Moore developed into the offensive leader and guided the Tigers to five consecutive wins down the stretch. He passed for 1,863 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he rushed for an additional 633 yards scoring 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Wide receiver Zachary Pendleton, tallied 33 receptions for 457 yards, and is expected to become Moore’s primary target. DeSuan McKenzie and Tobias Singleton, each recorded 15 catches. The duo will have to fill a void with the departure of SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Rico Richardson.
The secondary is the strength of Jackson State’s defense. All-SWAC cornerback Qua Cox had a conference best, five interceptions. Cox also received several honors in the preseason as he was named a Sports Network FCS Preseason All-American and was placed on the outlet's Buck Buchanan Award watch list. He also garnered CFPA Watch List honors.
Safety Cameron Loeffler is among the top tacklers in the conference. Loeffler led Jackson State with 84 tackles while amassing 4.5 sacks. Sophomore defensive end Teddrick Terrell is expected to be the leader on the line following the departure of All-Swac defensive end, Joseph LeBeau. Terrell had 37 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, in 2012. Senior Todd Wilcher and John McNabb anchor a solid linebacker corps.
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE
2012 RECORD: 5-6 (5-4 SWAC) / 4th East Division
Mississippi Valley State was the most improved team in the conference in 2012. The Delta Devils’ 5-6 record gave them the most victories since 2006, and defeated Grambling State and Southern in the same season.
A feat they accomplished for the first time since 1984 when Archie “Gunslinger’’ Cooley was head coach and the Satellite Express, featuring Willie Totten and Jerry Rice, was the scourge of the SWAC.
As a result of the improvement in the program, head coach Karl Morgan was a nominee for The Sports Network Eddie Robinson Award.
Unlike the golden days for MVSU Football, defense, not offense, was the Delta Devils’ hallmark in 2012. The same should be true this season despite losing seven seniors from a unit that led the SWAC and was fourth in the FCS in total defense allowing just 279 yards a game.
All-SWAC defensive lineman Robert Simpson returns to anchor the line. Simpson recorded 59 tackles, including 22.5 for losses, which led the nation, and seven sacks. His play from last season landed him on 2013 The Sports Network Preseason FCS All-America Team and its Buck Buchanan watch list.
Rico Shaw, D’Ondre Jackson, Cedric McField and converted tight end Jacob Avery will join Simpson in the trenches. Safety Kevin Eugene leads the secondary. Eugene was second in the SWAC with four interceptions last season and along with Simpson, has been added the 2013 CFPA Watch List.
The Delta Devils have gaping holes at quarterback and running back that must be filled. Juniors Carl Davis and Jeremy Collins are vying to replace Garrick Jones at quarterback. Junior Cortez Frizell is counted on to shoulder the load in the running game that saw All-SWAC performer Brandon Stansell and Tray Bateaste rush for 1,214 yards combined.
However, the Delta Devils offense will be generated behind Julian Stafford. Stafford serviced MVSU at the wide receiver and kick retuner positions. He powered the Delta Devils offense with a breakout season finishing in the top five in the SWAC in receptions (52) and receiving yards per game (73.8). He totaled 779 yards and four touchdowns from 50 receptions while averaging 15.3 yards per catch and nearly five receptions per game.
Last season, Stafford was named SWAC Player of the Week on two occasions receiving offensive player honors before being named specialist of the week to close the season.
MVSU will open the season on national television when it faces Florida A&M in the 9th Annual MEAC / SWAC Challenge presented by Disney. The game is scheduled for Sunday, September 1, at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. with live coverage on ESPN. Kick-off is slated for 11:45 a.m. ET.
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M
2012 RECORD: 3-8 (3-6 SWAC) / 3rd West
Prairie View A&M has 67 returning lettermen on hand – with nine offensive starters among them – as the Panthers look to improve from a 3-8 record in 2012. The Panthers are no longer under the practice restrictions they were slapped with last season for their APR shortcomings is just as significant as the number of veterans they return.
Look for the PVAMU to have a potent offense again after leading the conference in total yards (416.6 a game), ranking second in passing offense (393.8) and third in scoring (27.7). The quarterback tandem of De’Auntre Smiley and Jerry Lovelocke will run the offense. They combined to pass for 2,462 yards and 16 touchdowns. They will operate behind a veteran offensive line that features four returning starters.
Running backs Fred Anderson and Courtney Brown will split carries again after combining for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Johnta Hebert, the 2012 SWAC Freshman of the Year and a member of the CFPA Watch list as a returner, gives the Panthers depth at running back. He also provides speed and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well as the spotlight in the return game.
Highlighting the special teams and joining Hebert on the CFPA Watch List for the preseason is All-SWAC place kicker, Chris Barrick.
Barrick led PVAMU in scoring with 65 points and ranked second in the SWAC in field goal percentage (.820) connecting 9-of-11 last season. On kickoff, he averaged 56.1 yards per kick from 54 attempts.
Defense was the Panthers’ Achilles heel last year as they ranked in the bottom third in most major categories. Coach Heishma Northern hired Charles McMillan as defensive coordinator in hopes of returning the Panthers to their former defensive prominence.
He must replace six starters, including the entire defensive line.
Junior college transfer Darrien Patterson and sophomore Meshak Williams are expected to anchor the line. Junior Jerome Howard leads the linebacker corps. The secondary will be inexperienced as the four projected starters, safeties Korey Austin and Adrian Grant and cornerbacks Stephen Meighan and Chris Motley, registered limited playing time.
2012 RECORD: 4-7 (3-6 SWAC) 2nd West
Southern could give UAPB its biggest challenge in the West if the Jaguars can continue the improvements that they displyed after Dawson Odums replaced Stump Mitchell on an interim basis.
The Jaguars were 4-7 for the second consecutive season, beating their three biggest rivals – Florida A&M, Jackson State and Grambling State – in the process. Had it not been for a pair of botched extra point conversions in back-to-back one-point losses to Alabama A&M and Alabama State, they could have posted their first winning record since 2009.
As it turned out, their record was good enough for Odums, who began the season as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator, only to have the interim tag removed from his title and begin his head coach tenure in 2013.
All-SWAC junior quarterback Dray Joseph is the unquestioned leader of the Jaguars’ offense. Joseph threw for 2,511 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2012. He led the conference in passing yards per game (228) and total offense (2,640).
Redshirt freshman running back Lenard Tillery, who sat out the 2012 season, is expected to add the big-play element. Southern’s ground game, hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher since 2003 and was last in the conference in 2012 with 79.5 yards a game.
Senior Darris Clayton is also expected to play a prominent role in the rushing attack after gaining 183 yards in a backup role last year.
All-SWAC wide receiver Lee Doss will again be Joseph’s No. 1 target. Doss had 65 receptions for 703 yards in 2012. Junior college transfer Sam Altman, redshirt freshman Justin Morgan and freshman Chuck Baker, a Rivals three-star athlete who originally committed to LSU, are counted on to complement Doss.
The tandem of Joseph and Doss were added to the CFPA Watch List for the preseason.
Southern’s defensive unit has experience with eight starters returning. Senior Kadeem Lewis and junior Arthur Miley anchor the defensive line and are strong pass rushers. Last season, Anthony Balancier returned to his natural linebacker position after playing safety in 2011. He led the Jaguars in tackles with 69 (32 solo) earning him a spot on the 2013 CFPA Watch List.
The secondary is inexperienced, but has talent. The unit is led by Virgil Williams and South Alabama transfer Dionte McDuffy.
2012 RECORD: 2-9 (2-7 SWAC) / 5th West Division
The uphill climb continues for second-year Texas Southern head coach Darrell Asberry as he attempts to rebuild the program.
The Tigers finished 2-9 in 2011 and are on probation for NCAA rules violations and have also been penalized for APR issues.
Nine defensive starters return with experience as Asberry hired veteran defensive coordinator Michael Vite to revamp the unit that ranked near the bottom of the conference in some of the major statistical category in 2012.
Defensive back Tray Walker will look to guide the defense finishing second on the team in interceptions to go along with 45 tackles (33 solo).
The offense will look for continuity and consistency behind veterans Edward Loving-Perkins and Fred Plummer.
Loving-Perkins led TSU in rushing and all purpose yards. He rushed for 541 yards averaging 4.4 yards per carry while finishing with three touchdowns. He added 254 yards as a kick returner ammassing 822 total yards averaging 74.7 per game. He opened 2012 as the SWAC's offensive player of the week.
Plummer, another bright spot on TSU's offense, led the Tigers in receptions with 34. He finished the year with 534 yards, averaging 15.7 per catch, to go with two touchdowns.
Help could be on the way. The Tigers' recruiting class, includes highly touted Aaron Hush, a 6-4, 290-pound defensive end. Hush signed with Temple out of high school, but was injured and ended up playing at Dean College in Massachusetts.
Running back Daveonn Porter was ranked No. 20 among junior college running backs last season while playing at Coahoma (Miss.) Community College. Porter will be counted on to rev up a ground game that averaged 96.2 yards a game.