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HBCU Game Time

CIAA Football Preview

I’m excited to write HBCU Game Time, powered by BOX TO ROW for JET!  As host of the national sports talk radio show “From the Press Box to Press Row,” I cover all sports, with an emphasis on our Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Over the last 10 years, the CIAA has flourished in football.

Look at any number of events that would indicate as much. Shaw took down mighty Tuskegee in the Pioneer Bowl in 2004. In 2005, Saint Augustine’s became the first CIAA team to garner a No. 1 regional ranking.

In 2006, North Carolina Central hosted a second round NCAA Division II Playoff game after receiving a first round bye. That same year, Elizabeth City State received an at-large berth to the playoffs.

More recently, Winston-Salem State has taken the conference to another level with three-straight NCAA Playoff appearances, including an appearance in the national championship game in 2012.

Last year, Virginia State was poised to challenge WSSU for the CIAA title, but an unfortunate incident caused the cancellation of the championship game.

The conference looks to put that incident in the rearview.

Winston-Salem State still has to be considered the favorite in the conference. There have been quite a few changes for the Rams. In December, former head coach Connell Maynor took the same position at Hampton as defensive coordinator Kienus Boulware takes over the reins. The defense, ranked No. 1 in the country last year, will be depleted a bit with some big losses including that of All-American linebacker Carlos Fields, who is with the Oakland Raiders.

Boulware has a good problem at quarterback. First team All-CIAA performer Rudy Johnson returns for his senior season after leading the league in completion percentage (63 percent), passing yards (2,401) and touchdowns (25). Former University of Alabama and University of Virginia transfer Phillip Sims will challenge for the starting spot. According to Boulware, receivers have been having trouble catching the ball because of the velocity of the passes.

Both are expected to play.

Coming into the season, Fayetteville State is the team most poised to challenge WSSU for the Southern Division crown, returning 64 players who made contributions from a team that finished a surprising 6-4, 5-2 in the league last year. Junior Derek Bryant took over at quarterback in the fourth game of the season and finished the season completing 56 percent of his passes, averaging 238 passing yards per game with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

Defensively, the Broncos gave up close to 400 yards per game in 2013. But those numbers can be a little misleading. The Broncos ranked first in the nation in turnover margin (1.9) and were third in the conference in interceptions (18).

The leader of the defense is one of the most dynamic players in the conference in free safety Michael Johnson. Johnson registered 65 tackles (40 solo), five interceptions and eight pass breakups.

Look for Shaw to also challenge the Rams. Shaw is the only CIAA team to have defeated WSSU, which happened back in 2010 – the Bears last CIAA championship. The defensive line will be improved and the Bears have perhaps the best offensive player in the conference in running back Marquise Grizzle, who led the league with 1,276 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

In the Northern Division, last year’s champion Virginia State has to be the frontrunner. As surprising as FSU was, the Trojans was more surprising, finishing 9-1, 7-0 in the conference. This year could be more of a challenge for second year head coach Latrell Scott with the loss of All-American running back Jordan Anderson and quarterback Justin Thorpe although they return eight starters. Sophomore Tarian Ayers is more than capable at quarterback, having started and won two games last year. Three of the top four pass catchers return led by Gene Holloman and Javion Smallwood, who combined for 85 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Trojans return eight starters on a defense that ranked second in the CIAA in points (17.4) and total yards per game (304). As good as the defense was last year, it was young. Ronald Lewis (10 tackles for loss) will anchor the line, while Shaquille Edwards (five sacks, 11 tackles for loss) moves the linebacker.

About Donal Ware

Donal Ware, HBCU GameTime

Donal Ware is the authority on HBCU football.  Listen to Box to Row on Fridays 1p ET/10a PT on SiriusXM Channel 141 and Saturdays 12p/9a PT on SiriusXM Channel 142. You can follow Donal Ware on Twitter @dware1 and @boxtorow and Facebook /box2row. Please share your thoughts at digitalpitches@ebony.com.