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HBCU Game Time

Tennessee State 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.

Tennessee State could have one of its best football programs in years.

The HBCU Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) coaches think so.

The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the BOXTOROW Preseason coaches poll after finishing second to Bethune-Cookman in last year’s final poll.

TSU returns 58 letterwinners and 13 starters – six on offense and seven on defense – from a team that had one of its best seasons in history in 2013.

TSU finished 10-4 last season. The Tigers did receive an at-large berth in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs and made the most of the opportunity, defeating Butler 31-0 on the road in the first round, before falling to Jimmy Garoppolo-led Eastern Illinois – winners of the OVC – for the second time.

Five players were named to the BOXTOROW All-American team including offensive tackle Kadeem Edwards who was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year’s NFL Draft. Center Demetrius Rhaney was also drafted – in the seventh round – by the St. Louis Rams.

The TSU defense ranked sixth in the country last year. While the linebacking unit will miss two starters, middle linebacker Nick Thrasher returns for his senior season. Thrasher, entering his fourth year as a starter, has amassed 230 tackles in his career.

Sophomore Justin North and junior college transfer Vantavious Williams are the top candidates vying for the two starting outside linebacker positions.

Senior Anthony Bass will be the anchor on the defensive line. Bass was the OVC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 after registering 34 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss, 10 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

The secondary returns two starters, led by Daniel Fitzpatrick, one of the best players in the country. Fitz, as he is called, led FCS with eight interceptions, broke up eight passes and recorded 75 tackles. De’Ante “Pop” Saunders, who was named to the OVC All-Newcomer team, made seven starts recording four interceptions, nine pass breakups, 39 tackles and five tackles for loss.

Meanwhile, the TSU offense, while not receiving as much publicity as the defense, is not to be underestimated. Quarterback Michael German in his first two years was on his way to stardom. But some off-the-field issues put him in head coach Rod Reed’s doghouse last year and he’s had to earn his way back. In seven games last year, German threw for 1,168 yards, completing 60 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. He is the starter coming into his senior season and was selected to the All-OVC preseason team. In the interim Ronald Butler played well in his first year, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,405 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions after playing in all 14 games for the Tigers. He was named second team All-OVC.  Both could play.

Telvin Hooks is the top returning rusher from last year. Hooks carried the ball 146 times for 688 yards and scored five touchdowns. Transfers Tom Smith (Tennessee), Greg White (Missouri) and Stephen Hopkins (Michigan) will certainly add depth.

Despite the loss of Edwards and Rainey, three starters do return to the offensive line led by redshirt senior right tackle Robert Myers, a preseason All-OVC selection. Redshirt sophomore Jessamen Dunker had a solid freshman year starting 13 games at left tackle. Derek Sibley is the other starter, playing in 13 games, staring nine in 2013. Redshirt junior Jhaquelle Love and JUCO transfer DeAndre Haynes have the inside track on locking up the other two staring spots.

After getting three teams into the FCS Playoffs last year, the OVC will once again be tough. Jacksonville State has been picked as the favorites to win the conference. The Tigers easily handled JSU 31-15 on the road last year and TSU hosts the Gamecocks on October 11 at Hale Stadium. Eastern Illinois has been picked to finish second followed by Tigers and the two meet in Charleston, Ill. On October 25.

Out of conference, the Tigers face Alabama State on September 6, Jackson State in the annual Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis on September 13 and host Florida A&M at LP Field on September 27.

The Tigers open the season on Saturday against Edward Waters in the annual John Merritt Classic.

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.