Enemy lines: Spring agendas for the SWAC East

TheDerisoReport.com’s look at the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s East Division, as spring football returns.

ALABAMA A&M: Didn’t you used to be the annual preseason favorite to win it all in the East?

Alabama A&M slipped to 5-7 last season after one of the league’s most impressively consistent runs — four divisional titles since 2000, and a breakthrough win in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in ’06. The Bulldogs then battled to a near draw down the stretch in 2007, and seemed to poised to do it again in ’08 before falling apart.

A&M left the field tied for first in the East after an emotional October win over regional rival Alabama State — Jones’ fourth Magic City Classic victory in a row — then proceeded to drop consecutive games to divisional rivals Jackson State and Prairie View, ending their dreams of a return to Birmingham.

Much will be expected of quarterback Kevin Atkins — a touted recruit out of Southern Durham High who was No. 3 in the SWAC with 2,167 yards, along with 13 TDs and 6 INTs in 2008. The year was capped off by a bounce-back game in the regular-season finale against Mississippi Valley State, when he threw for a career-high 357 yards and five touchdowns.

Ulysses Grant (555 rushing yards last season), Tony Green (483 rushing yards) and top receiver Thomas Harris (72 catches for 1,208) are also slated to return.

A&M coach Anthony Jones added junior-college transfers Dash Buntjer at fullback and Ronald Young at running back, but as many as 15 players — including All-America free safety Al Donaldson (groin) — were unable to participate this spring, which concluded on Thursday with A&M’s spring game.

ALABAMA STATE: A three-win team couldn’t have ended its season on a higher note.

Alabama State pulled off perhaps the biggest upset of the black college football season when it defeated previously unbeaten Tuskegee 17-13 on Nov. 27 in the 85th annual Turkey Day Classic — and, in the process, gift-wrapping the mythical Sheridan title for Grambling.

Still, Alabama State had a miserable run through the SWAC East, falling to both Alabama A&M (17-16) and Jackson State (20-0). To be fair, Alabama State faced a brutal opening run in 2008 — playing on the road in seven of its first eight games, and played host to just three home games all together. This year, the Hornets will play six times at Cramton Bowl, including three in a row beginning on Sept. 26 against Valley.

(Grambling also bested ASU 27-7 during its undefeated trip through the SWAC schedule in 2008 — but needed help in the polling against a Tuskegee program then riding a 26-game winning streak. That was the longest on any level in the NCAA.)

Alabama State has a string of places to improve, notably on offense where it ranks last in scoring and yards. Rahmod Traylor’s 558 rushing yards, however, were No. 6 overall in the SWAC; his 4.4 yards per carry tied him for fourth overall. The Hornets were also respectable against the run, and they return top tackler Adrian Hardy as well as Travis Rayford — whose interception in the end zone on the final play helped preserve Alabama State’s win over Tuskegee.

Alabama State began spring practices on March 10, with sessions held on the football field of Bellingrath Junior High in Montgomery.

ALCORN STATE: The coaching carousel in Lorman appears to have ground to a halt with the promotion of Earnest E. Collins Jr. — who had been interim since the January firing of Ernest T. Jones after a 2-10 season that saw just one SWAC win.

Collins, you’ll remember, was one of seven assistants previously fired over the Thanksgiving break, only to be brought back the following week on a month-to-month basis. He had been serving as defensive coordinator before being promoted to interim.

Jones, meanwhile, has filed a suit against the school. Firing Jones, a 1995 Alcorn State graduate, “for cause” canceled a three-year, $140,000 contract just signed in December 2007 — after the departed Johnny Thomas went 2-7 in ’07. Thomas was 48-61 in 10 seasons as the Braves’ coach.

In other words, football season can’t get here fast enough. Alcorn wasn’t as bad as its record would indicate, having lost seven games by 10 points or less — and six of those were by a touchdown or less. Still, both the Braves’ offense and defense ranks at No. 8 in the league.

JACKSON STATE: Since Rick Comegy’s arrival in 2006, Jackson State has rumbled through the East — winning consecutive divisional titles in 2007-08 and the SWAC crown in ’07.

Not that 2008 started out like that: Quarterback Trae Rutland, a Mississippi State transfer, struggled in his first outings and JSU opened at 1-4 — managing 18 or fewer points in each of its first four contests. Through Jackson’s conference opener, a loss to Southern, Rutland had seven interceptions on a team ranked ninth in the conference for turnover margin.

JSU’s offense switched from a spread look to a run-first attack in late October, steadying Rutland while springing rusher Luther Edwards. Edwards instantly ran for more than 80 yards a game over the balance of that month.

But, just as importantly, Jackson State’s defense came to life. Jackson finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the league for total offense (233 yards ppg), No. 2 in rush defense (73 yards ppg), No. 1 in pass defense (161 yards ppg) and No. 2 in sacks – besting eventual SWAC title game-winner Grambling in each of those categories.

That surging attack was led, however, by the now-departed former Delta State transfer linebacker Marcellus Speaks, who became the league’s defensive player of the year with 115 tackles (54 solo; 20.5 for loss), along with 5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, and one blocked kick during the regular season.

Jackson State reconvenes for spring practices April 2, with all workouts open to the public at the school’s practice facilities on campus. Sessions will be held at 3:30 p.m. April 2-4, April 7-9, April 11, April 14-16, April 18, April 20, April 22 and April 24 with the spring game to follow on April 25.

MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE: Valley’s disappointing year (3-8 overall, identical to 2007, and with just one win in the SWAC) ended with a thud, as the Devils fell 58-23 to Alabama A&M on Nov. 22.

Coach Willie Totten jumped right into recruiting, signing 20 student athletes — including four juco transfers — last February. Twelve of those prospects played either offensive or defensive line, needed help for units that ranked dead last in both running the football and in total defense.

That rushing stat was particularly surprising, since Totten went into the season thinking this unit would be the strength of his offense. Instead, Valley’s leading rusher, Ronald Brewer, gained just 224 total yards in 2008, and none of its runners made the SWAC Top 10.

Bright spots in 2008: Quarterback Paul Roberts and defensive end Fred Poole. Roberts, who returns, became Valley’s first 2,000-yard passer since Aries Nelson in ’05 while the (unfortunately departing) senior Poole led the nation in forced fumbles, and boasted a team-leading 74 tackles and tackles for loss with 20.5.

CONTINUING SPRING COVERAGE:

Enemy lines: Spring agendas for the SWAC West

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