MEAC spring football primer

(STATS) - The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference began sending its champion to the Celebration Bowl this past December.

In fact, North Carolina A&T won the inaugural bowl against Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference to claim the mythical national championship of historically black colleges.

Leading up to the selection of the FCS playoff field, MEAC commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas made it a point to remind the selection committee that the other MEAC programs not playing in the Celebration Bowl were eligible for at-large bids to the field.

It didn't happen, although Bethune-Cookman (9-2) and North Carolina Central (8-3) probably were in the mix after they ended the regular season sharing the MEAC title with North Carolina A&T (10-2).

But it figures to happen in the future. MEAC schools tend to have tough nonconference schedules - some might say too tough - to potentially draw national attention. With some upsets, the MEAC's stature will keep growing.

Three of last year's top four finishers are playing multiple FBS opponents this year, with perennial power South Carolina State taking on three. Among the 11 MEAC teams, only Norfolk State isn't playing an FBS game, and the Spartans are playing two of the CAA Football champs, Richmond and William & Mary. Hampton also is playing William & Mary, Delaware State is going upstate to Delaware and Florida A&M is visiting Coastal Carolina in other highlights.

Might this will be a season in which more than one MEAC team plays in the postseason?

"The secret is scheduling quality FCS opponents and beating those teams," Dr. Thomas said. "And when you do that, obviously that improves your strength of schedule. I think we need to continue to do that, but we have to have success during the regular season against FCS conferences in our region, particularly when you talk about the Southern Conference, when you talk about the CAA, you talk about the Missouri Valley, you talk about the Big South, we've got to have consistent success."

MEAC teams are well into their preparations for the 2016 season. Following is a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway:

---=

BETHUNE-COOKMAN

2015 Records: 9-2 overall, 7-1 MEAC (Tie/1st)

Spring Practices: March 28-April 30

Storyline: A superb first season under coach Terry Sims flows into a spring in which the Wildcats are replacing longtime quarterback Quentin Williams. Junior Larry Brihm has played a lot as well, but junior college transfer Anthony Cruz, a pocket passer, will push him. Akevious Williams, the other returning quarterback, is on the B-CU baseball team and not available for spring practices. The offense returns eight starters, so it figures to remain potent, with running back Michael Jones carrying a bigger load. With the loss of top tackler Robert Way, sophomore linebacker Trenton Bridges could take on the leading role. The Wildcats are reworking their defensive line after it lost several key players - a task made easier by the return of the team's veteran defensive backs.

---=

DELAWARE STATE

2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 1-7 MEAC (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 14-April 9

Storyline: The Hornets hope for an answer at the quarterback position, which has been unsettled the last two seasons. Kobie Lain started the final two games of his true freshman season and will try to keep the lead over JUCO transfer Daniel Epperson. The QBs will remain under fire if the offense doesn't solve its rushing woes. A year ago, the Hornets averaged 2.3 yards per carry and 79.2 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Brycen Alleyne is their top returning rusher. On defense, linebacker has continuity, but the Hornets are replacing three starters on the line and the team's top two defensive backs. Second-year coach Kenny Carter learned under a number of top college coaches and must draw upon his experience to lift the Hornets.

---=

FLORIDA A&M

2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 1-7 MEAC (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: None (NCAA APR Penalties)

Storyline: Among four teams who tied for last place in the MEAC, the Rattlers are sitting out the spring because of APR penalties. The players can still work out on their own, and their traditionally strong program - which has endured an almost unthinkable four straight losing seasons - will benefit from the return of 16 starters (nine on offense and seven on defense). With 30 signees, including nine JUCO transfers, coach Alex Wood is hoping for a quick fix. The new group includes former Santa Rosa Junior College quarterback Vincent Jeffries. The need for improvement is widespread, though, with the offensive line hoping to be healthier than a year ago (especially emerging guard Keonte Cash). The defense wore down and is looking to build better depth. Standout linebacker Akil Blount is among the losses.

---=

HAMPTON

2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-3 MEAC (5th)

Spring Practices: March 2-April 1

Storyline: The focus on quarterbacks is a familiar theme across the MEAC. The Pirates are replacing David Watford, who led the conference in touchdown passes and passing yards per game. But Jerrell Antoine, who finished out last season, and J.J. Williamson, the Pirates' leading passer in 2014, make it an experienced position for coach Connell Maynor, whose squad is coming off its first winning season since 2011. Plus, the Pirates boast the MEAC's top wide receiver in T.J. Mixson, who posted a 1,000-yard season as a junior. After making a big jump defensively last season, the Pirates have to overcome some losses, including end Miles Groom. Maynor is seeking improvement at both lines of scrimmage.

---=

HOWARD

2015 Records: 1-10 overall, 1-7 MEAC (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 21-April 16

Storyline: The Bison were outscored 408-169 last season, and those numbers would have been even worse if not for a 55-9 win over Savannah State. Coach Gary Harrell says his team is in a rebuilding process and getting back to the fundamentals, but the Bison averaged six wins from 2011-14, so they hope for a quick turnaround. They return 16 starters (seven on offense and nine on defense), although some key players will miss the spring. Quarterback Kalen Johnson was just a sophomore and leading rusher Ricquaz Brannon a freshman last season. They also return two players named to the All-MEAC second team in offensive lineman Toree Boyd and cornerback Travon Hunt, as well as linebacker Jalen Day, their leading tackler. The two lines need to make good use of the extra reps this spring. Last season, the Bison allowed 44 sacks for 290 yards and had only 11 sacks.

---=

MORGAN STATE

2015 Records: 4-6 overall, 4-4 MEAC (Tie/6th)

Spring Practices: March 29-April 30

Storyline: Interim coach Fred Farrier, the offensive coordinator the last two seasons, is expected to be named to the full-time post after Lee Hull left for a job with the Indianapolis Colts. The Bears have an experienced team with 15 returning starters (eight on offense and seven on defense), although they are replacing starting quarterback Moses Skillon as well as last year's backup Seth Higgins. After being ineligible last season, running back Herb Walker Jr. returns to work behind an offensive line that features senior center Dominique Woods and sophomore tackle Cooper Clarkin. The defense boasts good, young talent that is ready to emerge this spring, such as sophomores Greg Gibson (linebacker) and Dalonte Jenifer (tackle).

---=

NORFOLK STATE

2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 4-4 MEAC (Tie/6th)

Spring Practices: March 15-April 16

Storyline: Unlike a number of MEAC teams, the Spartans are settled at quarterback with Greg Hankerson, although he will want to improve on his 53 percent accuracy of last season. Coach Latrell Scott says he's seeking more consistency from a team that returns six offensive starters, nine defensive starters and the two kickers. Top running back Gerald Johnson and offensive lineman Daniel Oladimeji are working their way back from knee injuries. The Spartans used a number of different O-line combinations last season. The two big losses on defense are linebacker Deon King, who led the FCS in tackles, and defensive back D'Metrius Williams. Pass rusher Chris Lee should be a force in the MEAC this year.

---=

NORTH CAROLINA A&T

2015 Records: 10-2 overall, 7-1 MEAC (Tie/1st)

Spring Practices: March 14-April 16 (Yes)

Storyline: The Aggies are coming off a historically black college national championship with their win over Alcorn State in the inaugural Celebration Bowl. Likely to be favored to go back to Atlanta, they return nine starters on offense, led by running back and two-time MEAC offensive player of the year Tarik Cohen. While quarterback Kwashaun Quick departs, Lamar Raynard played a lot behind center and Kylil Carter came on strong, so the position is basically settled. With all the starters back up front, the offense should be excellent. The losses on defense are spread around, with six starters returning. On the D-line, returnees Angelo Keyes and Marquis Ragland combined for 27 tackles for loss last season. Of note is coach Rod Broadway's squad will play two FBS teams (Kent State and Tulsa) and the other two defending MEAC champs (Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central) on the road.

---=

NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL

2015 Records: 8-3 overall, 7-1 MEAC (Tie/1st)

Spring Practices: March 7-April 8

Storyline: NCCU ended last season with seven straight wins and its 13 All-MEAC selections were the most in the conference. Third-team choice Malcolm Bell hopes to develop into the conference's top quarterback, and his receiving corps gets back standout Quentin Atkinson from injuries. That's huge considering the Eagles converted only 28 percent of third downs last season. Dorrel McClain nearly rushed for 1,000 yards as a freshman, so the offense will be versatile. On defense, coach Jerry Mack is replacing leading tackler C.J. Moore and All-MEAC cornerback Ryan Smith, but linebacker LeGrande Harley, a transfer from South Florida, is a big addition. A handful of players will sit out the spring after having surgeries, but the Eagles will look to develop their depth as they head toward another possible banner season.

---=

SAVANNAH STATE

2015 Records: 1-9 overall, 1-7 MEAC (Tie/8th)

Spring Practices: None (NCAA APR Penalties)

Storyline: With Earnest Wilson III having departed after three seasons to Elizabeth City State, linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Tony Pierce is serving as interim head coach. But the Tigers won't have spring practices for a second straight year because of APR penalties. They expect to return a veteran squad for preseason camp in August, with 17 starters (eight on offense and nine on defense) and kicker/punter John Barron. The Tigers hope quarterback Tino Smith will emerge this season. If so, senior Arshon Spaulding can switch from quarterback to an all-around threat. They need better play from their wide receivers and defensive backs. The front seven on defense has talent with the likes of outside linebacker Marquis Smith and defensive end Connor Christian.

---=

SOUTH CAROLINA STATE

2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 6-2 MEAC (4th)

Spring Practices: March 14-April 9

Storyline: The coffers will look good for the Bulldogs, but their early season record may not after they open with three straight FBS opponents - UCF, Louisiana Tech and Clemson. They won't play in Orangeburg until Oct. 8, which is asking a lot after some key playmakers and defensive standouts departed after last season. Quarterback Caleb York is sitting out the spring after an impressive performance as a freshman. The team's focus is on replenishing the offensive and defensive lines, which were hit hard. NFL-bound defensive tackle Javon Hargrave is the glaring loss, although linebacker Darius Leonard has the potential to replace Hargrave as the MEAC defensive player of the year. No doubt coach Buddy Pough's squad faces a tough challenge.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.