Veteran coach Alex Wood faces an uphill battle as he tries to return Florida A&M to its past glory. Wood has installed a no-huddle offense with junior Carson Royal taking over at quarterback for four-year starter Damien Fleming. The question facing the Rattlers is their offensive line’s ability to protect Royal and open holes for the running game.
Howard is also breaking in a new quarterback and 2014 MEAC co-Offensive Player of the Year Greg McGhee graduated. Jamie Cummings, DeVaughn Johnson and Kalen Johnson are vying to replace McGhee. The Bison were hit hard by injuries in 2014, forcing several young players into action. The experience they gained should pay off this season.
Savannah State is working on a streak of 16 consecutive losing seasons and enters 2015 with a 21-game losing streak. Third-year coach Earnest Wilson has focused on recruiting bigger, stronger athletes, but there is still work to be done – lots and lots of work.
Tennessee State, which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, could be in for a difficult season. Defensive end Gabe Terry (11.5) is one of only three returning defensive starters. The Tigers will also have several new faces on offense, most notably at quarterback where Coach Rod Reed will choose between Ronald Butler and O’Shay Ackerman-Carter to replace career passing leader Mike Garman.
This could be a season of change in the SIAC East Division. Coach Mike White, who kept Albany State atop the conference throughout his 18-year tenure, retired following last season and has resurfaced at Benedict. Albany State is still the top dog in the East, but the move has closed the gap between the Golden Rams and the rest of the division. Coach Dan Land will lean heavily on running back Jarvis Small (1,169 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns). But quarterback is question mark with the graduation loss of Frank Rivers. Caleb Edmonds, Ta’Keevian Harris and Rodricous Gates are vying to replace Rivers. Land has yet to name a starter.
Fort Valley State is Albany State’s most likely challenger. The Wildcats should have enough offense to make a run at the top spot with quarterback Malcolm Eady and running back Otis Brown returning. But their defense needs to pick up its performance from a year ago. If that happens, the division title will likely be decided when the Wildcats play Albany State in the Fountain City Classic in the season finale. White, 112-51 overall and 87-24 in the SIAC with Albany State, faces tough sledding at Benedict, which has only had two winning seasons in 19 years since reinstating football. The Tigers won’t contend for the division crown, but they should be good enough to finish ahead of Clark Atlanta and Morehouse.
It should be business as usual in the SIAC West Division. That means it will be a two-team battle for the top spot between Tuskegee and Miles that won’t be decided until those team meet Nov. 7 at Tuskegee. Give the edge to Tuskegee, the defending SIAC champion. Dual-threat quarterback Kevin Lacey and wide receiver Marquel Gardner will lead an explosive offensive unit that averaged a conference-best 34.8 points a game en route to its second straight Division II playoff appearance. Running back Dennis Norfleet, a transfer from the University of Michigan, gives the Golden Tigers a home run hitter in the backfield.
Miles hopes to overtake Tuskegee with a powerful running game that averaged 203.3 yards a game and is led by preseason All-SIAC running back Jonathan Clark (811 rushing yards, three touchdowns).
Stillman looked liked the darkhorse in the division race until All-SIAC quarterback Josh Straughan (2,223 passing yards, 26 touchdowns) went down for the season with a shoulder injury. With or without Straighan, defense is an issue for the Tigers. Coach Teddy Keaton recruited four junior college transfers and a number of freshmen to shore up that side of the ball.
Lane, Kentucky State and Central State will again play the role of division also-rans. Derrick Burroughs returns as head coach at Lane after spending 2014 as defensive coordinator at Jackson State. The Dragons showed steady progress under Burroughs’ first stint from 2010-13 and were 6-4 in his final season.
Winston-Salem State has reloaded and is ready to reclaim the CIAA championship under second-year coach Kienus Boulware. The Rams lost to Virginia State in the 2014 conference title game after winning the crown the previous two seasons. The Rams enter the season ranked 24th in the AFCA Division II poll despite losing all 11 defensive starters and their co-starting quarterback, Rudy Johnson and Phillip Sims. They entered fall practice with nine candidates at quarterback. The field has narrowed to four – Justin Johnson, Rod Tinsley, Kevin Sousa and Reggie Green. Boulware isn’t likely to name the starter until the day before the season opener. Johnson is the only experienced signal caller.
Fayetteville State has played bridesmaid to Winston-Salem in the Southern Division each of the last two seasons under Coach Lawrence Kershaw. The Broncos will look for increased production from All-CIAA running back Andre Montgomery (760 yards, five touchdowns).
Things are looking up for Livingstone, which had its first non-losing season since 1999 with a 5-5 record. Finishing third in the division would be big. Shaw has to fix its offense, which averaged 286.5 yards and 18 points a game, in order to have a shot at being competitive.
Veteran coach Kermit Blount has his hands full in his first season at Johnson C. Smith. The Golden Bulls were the lowest scoring team in the conference (13.2 points a game), and they only had one rushing touchdown.
There is a glimmer of hope at Saint Augustine’s following their 3-7 finish. Michael Morand took over as head coach following the Falcons’ 41-9 opening loss to Indiana (Pa.), after having been hired as offensive coordinator a week after the start of training camp. Quarterback Cyril Davis (1,686 passing yards, 11 touchdowns) and running back Rod Davenport (1,133 rushing yards, six touchdowns) provide offensive punch. But they are two of just six returning starters.
Don’t expect much of a drop off at Virginia State even though Byron Thweatt has taken over for Latrell Scott, who guided the Trojans to back-to-back Northern Division titles and the 2014 CIAA crown. The Trojans return 42 lettermen, including eight starters on offense. Junior quarterback Tarian Ayres (2,132 passing yards, 15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Javion Smallwood (59 catches, 979 yards, seven touchdowns) are the guns.
Virginia Union is on the rise. Mark James guided the Panthers to a 7-3 record in his first season after they were 3-7 2013. The Panthers return six offensive starters, but only two on the offensive line. They will also break in a new quarterback. This could be Bowie State’s year.
The Bulldogs return 11 defensive and nine offensive starters from last year’s 6-4 squad that missed the conference championship game by one game. Elizabeth City State will try to bounce back from back-to-back subpar seasons with a senior laden squad that includes 14 starters. The Vikings are inexperienced at quarterback and running back, which could pose a problem. Josh Joyner (135 rushing yards, one touchdown) is their top returning ball-carrier.
The good news for Chowan is eight defensive starters return; the bad news is that unit was the worst in the CIAA, allowing 473.1 yards and 42.6 points a game. Senior quarter Ryan Nolan is the Hawks’ offensive catalyst. He produced nearly 1,000 total yards last season. The running backs are inexperienced. Combine those factors, and it looks like another long season for Chowan.
Herb Pickens is Lincoln’s third coach in four years. The Lions are 10-60 since reinstating the football program in 2008. Junior running back Stephen Scott (956 rushing yards, three touchdowns) is one of their few bright spots.