Rising sophomore quarterback Brandon Bridge was the best thing going for Alcorn State when first-year coach Melvin Spears walked in the door this offseason. After all, this was a program that once seemed lost after a sequence of utter turmoil before coach Earnest Collins took over. Then, after briefly leading the Braves to the top of the SWAC’s Eastern Division last season, Collins quit as well.
That’s a far cry from the stability and success of Alcorn legend Marino Casem, who coached there for 22 years from 1964-86 — going 139-70-8 over all and 86-48-7 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Spears remembers that period well, having played under Casem, who’s known affectionately now as the Godfather of the SWAC.
Spears says rekindling that fiery competitiveness starts with having a quarterback like Bridge: “It’s gets a whole lot easier,” Spears told me, “when that piece is in place.”
Given the nickname “Air Canada” by some fans — the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder is from the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario — Bridge ended up fourth in the league with a 190-yard passing average per game in 2010. Only two passers, both upperclassmen, threw for more than his 19 touchdowns. Bridge also finished No. 7 in the SWAC for rushing, with 600 yards and tied for third overall with eight scores on the ground.
“He’s a great player, as well as an Academic All American,” Spears enthuses. “So, we have great stability at the quarterback position. Our task was to go out and get some folks to go around him so we everything wouldn’t be so dependent on Brandon doing it all himself. If we can get a running game and some outstanding wide receivers to surround him, there’s no doubt in my mind that he will be on the best in the country. He’s just got to work on the little things.”
A standout moment for Bridge, playing as a true freshman against FBS competition last season, was his 78-yard touchdown run against Mississippi State. It was the longest rushing play MSU had allowed all year. And who could forget Bridge tossing three of his four touchdown passes in the second half against a then-resurgent Grambling? His team lost, but not because of “Air Canada” — who piled up 404 passing yards and ran for another 41.
Spears got an up-close-and-personal look at the young phenom when, as offensive coordinator at fellow SWAC foe Alabama State last year, the coach saw Alcorn come of age in a 41-21 win on Sept. 25 over the Hornets. The Braves hadn’t bested Alabama State since 2002, and the Hornets had just shocked the SWAC by knocking off defending champion Prairie View. A still-maturing Bridge threw two picks, but ultimately went 13-of-24 for 225 yards and a touchdown — then ripped off a scintillating a 57-yard touchdown run, as well.
“Oh,” Spears says, “he’s got all of the skill sets.”
The Clinton, Louisiana, native has much to overcome, even beyond the turmoil with successive coaching changes, lawsuits and such: Alcorn fans are still smarting, no doubt, after the team was outscored a staggering 100-0 by FBS members Southern Mississippi and Central Michigan to begin 2009. A fast start one year later crumbled for Alcorn, too. There are some emotional scars to heal.
Spears has already gotten going, weaving in Casem’s name and other historical figures from its legacy into his talks with everyone — the players, the coaches, the media: “I feel really blessed to be back home,” Spears says. “The one thing they know, just like in the days of old, we are going to play full speed for 60 straight minutes.”