Since Rod Reed took over as the head coach of the Tennessee State football program in 2009, the Tigers have seen a steady resurgence under his watch. After going 3-8 in his inaugural season, he has led his team from being conference bottom dwellers to playoff contenders.
Last season saw the Tigers emerge as one of the elite teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, winning 10 games and earning a bid to the FCS playoffs, where they were unfortunately eliminated in the second round by OVC foe Eastern Illinois.
As the fledgling season begins to unfold, the Tigers return an experience-laden squad with 15 starters returning for the 2014 season, six of whom had All-Conference honors. That, along with their exploits last season earned them the 15th spot in the Sports Network FCS preseason poll. Primed and ready to pounce, TSU is ready to step onto the national stage.
The offense is a bit of an enigma coming out of the offseason. The good news is that the front line looks to be stout, boasting an average weight of a whopping 309 pounds. Couple that with the experience of returning starters Derek Sibley, Robert Myers and Jessamen Dunker could give Tennessee State the best offensive line in the conference.
While the offensive line definitely looks to be the strength of this power attack, the running back position is another matter. Projected starter Tevin Spells and backup Tom Smith, a transfer from Tennessee, have minimal experience. Spells only had 18 carries for 85 yards with as a freshman last year, while Smith had 24 carries for 95 yards and neither of them scored. TSU fans can approach looking at these two backs one of two ways: 1) untested or 2) unknown.
The quarterback spot is also tricky, although for an entirely different reason. Both redshirt senior Michael German and sophomore Ronald Butler have both had ample opportunity to be the signal caller for TSU. German, having gotten the nod as the projected starter, brings experience, but only appeared in seven games in 2014. Butler played in all 14 games whilst starting 10 as a true freshman. Both combined for 2,573 yards and 26 touchdowns. Either way the Tigers have two wily veterans to put under center.
Unfortunately, the hardest hit group on the offensive side of the ball would be the receiving corps. Ryan Mitchell, the team’s leader in receptions and yards from a year ago, returns as the only wideout on the team who snagged more than 20 passes last season. Mitchell and fellow starter Weldon Garlington combined to more than triple their receiving counterparts (including tight ends) yardage and touchdowns alike last season (791 yards and 10 touchdowns). It will ease fans’ and coaches’ minds alike if a third receiving threat could be established and help spread the field to open up the run game.
Experience at the quarterback spot and on offensive line is very important, but a lack of known quantities at the other skill positions, no one will be able to discern their effectiveness until they are put into a game situation is why the offense receives a C+.
For every question mark the offense has, it seems the defense has an answer. The only area that could be a concern is the linebacking corps. Nick Thrasher, the team’s leading tackler from a year ago returns as the most experienced member of this group. His leadership will be crucial to not only his and his counterparts’ success, but the defense’s success as a whole.
The linebackers’ job should be made simpler due to the simple fact that the defensive line looks to be the strongest unit of the defense. With three returning starters, there is no shortage of savvy in the trenches. Samquan Evans and Dinsdale Jackson will clog the middle and Anthony Bass, the stalwart senior who had a breakout season a year ago, will once again terrorize quarterbacks streaking off the edge.
With the defensive line potentially wreaking havoc up front, the secondary will have ample opportunity to take advantage of mistakes. The defensive backfield returns two starters from a year ago in seniors Daniel Fitzpatrick and De’Ante Saunders who combined for 12 interceptions.
This team made defense its staple last season and it looks to be what will help to carry the team until the offense starts to click. With a solid mixture of experience and talent, TSU’s defense gets an easy A-.
Special Teams: C
While the majority of Tennessee State’s specialists return, they project to remain average.
The loss of kicker Jamin Godfrey places kickoff and placekicking duties squarely on the shoulders of the little known Cameron Carter. Punter Leon Holderhead returns and while he averaged a meager 38 yards per punt last season, he did place a third of his kicks inside the 20-yard line and 10 were longer than 50 yards.
Meanwhile, Martine Stevenson will once again handle kickoff return duties flanked by De’Ante Saunders, who will also man punt return duties. Stevenson is the homerun threat of the two, carrying one kick back for a score last year. Saunders does a solid job, but is nowhere near as flashy as his cohort.
While Stevenson will keep opposing personnel wary, he only fielded 18 kicks last season partially due to the defense’s ability to keep teams from scoring. Carter having not yet been tested remains a mystery and leaves Holderhead as the cornerstone for this group. Their average production earns them a C.
If the defense is an engine, Bass is the belt that makes it turn. The senior defensive has proven to be a multi-faceted defender who makes his presence felt in many ways. From forcing fumbles to blocking kicks, the only thing Bass did not do last season was intercept a pass, although he had ample opportunity. This season everyone remembers his name and while he will be targeted his impact will be felt.
While Spells and Smith both have low mileage, neither has had the opportunity to be the premiere back and carry the load. Both backs have the chance to either make or break this season for the Tigers. Their offensive line looks to be one of the best in the OVC and they have two tried and true quarterbacks so the ball is in their hands, for lack of a better phrase.
Tennessee State will have a great year if…
The defense needs to perform to a level similar to that of last season. If that happens, fans will see a tenacious, opportunistic unit that will be able to keep games close while giving the Tiger offense more chances to try and score.
The Tigers will struggle if…
A third receiving option needs to develop. Whether that be tight end Joshawn Bowens or receivers Chris Sanders-McCollum and Dantwuan O’Neal, one or all of these three need to step up in order to prevent the offense from becoming one-dimensional and predictable.