Jeff Gilbert is the finest passer I've ever seen," says Western Carolina coach Bob Waters. That's strong talk from a man who once shared tailback duties in the San Francisco 49er shotgun with John Brodie and Billy Kilmer and who coached at Stanford during the Jim Plunkett era. But allow Waters his enthusiasm. Last season Gilbert threw for 21 TDs and led the Southern Conference Catamounts to the I-AA championship game, which they lost 43-7 to Southern Illinois. Gilbert throws most often to 5'8", 156-pound wideout Eric Rasheed (89 catches in '83). The supporting cast is virtually unchanged.
Without David Charpia, the No. 2 passer in I-AA in '83, and tailback Stanford Jennings, the third-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, Furman will lose the No. 2 spot in the Southern Conference to East Tennessee State. With running back Jerry Butler on academic probation last year, the Buccaneers were 3-8. With Butler back, along with 19 starters, the Bucs will be 8-3.
"I canned him because it looked like duck season had opened when he kicked," says Indiana State coach Dennis Raetz of Scott Bridges, who was benched in the fifth game but later won a playoff game over Eastern Illinois with three field goals—one in the fourth quarter, two in overtime. Says Raetz, "The way he came back is a credit to him, not to coaching." With 16 first-teamers coming back, including Jeff Miller, who last season completed 152 of 287 passes with only four interceptions, Indiana State will replace Southern Illinois as the top I-AA team in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis lost their coach, Rey Dempsey, to Memphis State and their quarterback, Rick Johnson, to the USFL. What's left for new coach Ray Dorr? Sophomore kicker Ron Miller, who converted 18 of 22 field goals in '83, tailback Derrick Taylor and the offensive line.
After going 2-9 in '82, North Texas State finished with an 8-4 record last year. How did the Mean Green do it? Not with size. State's best defender was, and is, 5'9" linebacker Mike Sizelove. The top receiver was, and is 5'8" Tim Wasson. The leading candidate for the empty quarterback spot is 5'9" Scott Toman. Having lost half its '83 starters—including two All-America defenders—the Mean Green will also lose the Southland Conference to Northeast Louisiana. The Indians feature four All-Americas, including defensive back David Outley. His play of the year: taking an onside kick 53 yards for a touchdown.
Nevada-Reno won the Big Sky title with a formidable running attack, but (coach Chris) Ault's Infantry lost two 1,000-yard rushers, a wide receiver who's now with the USFL and a superb kicker, Tony Zendejas. Reno has another Zendejas, Tony's brother Martin, and a solid defense, but the Wolf Pack won't beat Boise State or Idaho State.
Boise State has the next hot Big Sky quarterback, sophomore Hazsen Choates. He took over midway through '83 and passed for 1,108 yards and ran for 309. The Broncos have a sure pro pick in inside linebacker Carl Keever, who has made a total of 266 tackles the last two seasons. Idaho State features punter Jeff Kaiser, who averaged 42.5 yards for his 67 boots in 1983. An engineering student, Kaiser likes to calculate the velocity of the ball (about 85.8 feet per second) as it leaves his foot. The Bengals' toughest games—Montana, Boise State and Reno—are at home in the Mini-dome (capacity: 12,000). When it's full, the temperature can soar into the 90s, and teams not used to the heat tend to wilt as the game progresses.
Resourcefulness has a long history at Eastern Kentucky. In 1969, when the state denied Eastern Kentucky president Robert (Hogjaws) Martin the funds to build a football stadium, Martin erected a classroom building that happened to seat 16,000 people on its roof, which slants down toward the football field. And don't forget that Eastern Kentucky's most famous graduate, Lee Majors '63, was rebuilt out of spare parts in TV's The Six Million Dollar Man. Then there's coach Roy Kidd, who has taken players spurned by the likes of Louisville and Kentucky, and guided the Colonels to the playoffs five years in a row. They won the national title in 1979 and '82. This season Kidd's offense will revolve around two sophomore quarterbacks, Greg Parker and Pat Smith, and All-America center Chris Sullivan. The Colonels will win the Ohio Valley, but not without a fight from Middle Tennessee State, which went 8-2 in '83 with the No. 5 passer in I-AA, Mickey Corwin, and tailback Vince Hall, who ran for 949 yards.
Four years ago Delaware State lost a game 105-0. The man charged with rebuilding the program was Joe Purzycki, who had the distinction of being the first white ever to coach at a historically black school. Last season the Hornets went 7-3-1. DelState was a running team in '83, finishing second in I-AA with 283.4 rushing yards a game. For speed, the Hornets have Gene Lake, who gained 1,069 yards last year. For power, they have 6'3", 280-pound fullback Franz Kappel, who bench-presses 520 pounds and made the Sheridan Black College All-America team even though he's white. Also back is John Taylor, whose 22 catches in '83 produced an average gain of 29.7 yards.
You won't find Grambling or Southern in the I-AA playoffs. This year their Bayou Classic, always played before a full house in the Louisiana Superdome, conflicts with the first round. Another SWAC power might make it. In all likelihood it will be Mississippi Valley State, which is led by both the No. 1 passer, Willie Totten, and No. 1 receiver, Jerry Rice, in the division. Last fall Totten threw 28 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. Rice finished with 102 catches, including 24 in one game. "He could catch a BB in the dark," says coach Archie Cooley.
Colgate's Steve Calabria, a lineman as a schoolboy, was injured during his only year as a high school quarterback in Carle Place, N.Y. His parents, who emigrated from Sicily in 1947, never saw him play; in fact, they thought the football their son was playing actually was soccer. The pros like Calabria's size (6'5", 212 pounds), and Colgate likes the 6,135 yards Calabria has thrown for in leading the Red Raiders to two straight I-AA playoff berths. Unfortunately, Calabria is the whole show for Colgate.
Returning for Holy Cross are hot free safety Bill McGovern, who stole six passes in '83, and hotter tailback Gill Fenerty, the LSU transfer who ran for 1,101 yards. The quarterback is Peter Muldoon, a fine passer (54%) who scored four TDs scrambling. "You never see him take a slide," says fullback Chuck Doyle.
Tailbacks Paul Lewis of Boston University and Andre Garron of New Hampshire each ran for more than 1,000 yards and scored 20 and 18 touchdowns, respectively. Though BU was 9-4 and a playoff team a year ago, New Hampshire, with 16 starters back, will win the Yankee Conference. Harvard will play Perm for the Ivy title on Nov. 10, but the wildest action in the Ivies will be provided by a couple of Princeton history majors. As a sophomore last fall, Doug Butler threw for 3,175 yards and 25 TDs. His favorite target: senior split end Derek Graham, who caught 84 passes for 11 touchdowns and a 15.7 average. Other players to watch:
•Murray State's Willie Cannon. The top freshman runner in I-AA in '83 with 179 carries for 776 yards.
•Northern Arizona defensive tackle James Gee. On one series in a 41-38 upset of Nevada-Reno, Gee stopped runners behind the line on three straight plays.
•Southwest Missouri free safety Mike Armentrout. Teams made a point of throwing away from him, and he still led I-AA in interceptions with 10.
•Montana quarterback Marty Morn-hinweg. With him, the Grizzlies won the Big Sky in '82. Without him in '83 (he was academically ineligible), they went 4-6.
•Morehead (Ky.) State linebacker Charlie Franklin. Voted "Mr. Physique" in a campus sorority contest, Franklin, who's a fierce hitter, worked during the summer of '83 as a stripper.
•Virginia Military Institute guard David Twillie. Rhodes scholar shoo-in. Voted the outstanding member of his class as a freshman, Twillie, now a senior, is a 3.54 bio major headed for medical school. He's also a former Junior Olympic champion in judo, a viola player with the youth orchestra in Little Rock, a ballet dancer, a singer and an actor who has performed in plays in New York and L.A.
•Arkansas State linebacker Stacy (Car Hop) Price. A former state decathlon champ, he bets people he can jump over cars, does it—and pockets the cash.
1. WESTERN CAROLINA
2. INDIANA STATE
3. BOISE STATE
4. EASTERN KENTUCKY
5. HOLY CROSS
6. DELAWARE STATE
7. IDAHO STATE
8. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE
9. NORTHEAST LOUISIANA
10. NEW HAMPSHIRE