Kris Ferguson

It's Another CIAA Season!

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Welcome to another year of CIAA football. I am humbled to be here for yet another year as your guide. The 2018 season is shaping up to be a real arms race in both divisions. Here’s what you need to know to start the season:

The CIAA has three new Head Coaches among its schools, and all three schools reside in the North Division. The South Division features two new Offensive Coordinators and a plethora of new quarterbacks. The arms race I mentioned? John Dell of the Winston-Salem Journal put out a nice article that uncovered what CIAA schools are spending in scholarships in 2018. Surprisingly, Shaw took the top spot with 28. The reminder: Fayetteville State with 26, Winston-Salem State, Livingstone, and Virginia Union with 25, Johnson C Smith, Chowan, and Virginia State with 24, Saint Augustine’s with 17, and Lincoln and Bowie State with 12. Elizabeth City State didn’t release a number, though last I remembered in 2015 that number was 17. Despite the scholarship dollars that tilt in the South’s favor, the CIAA North remains the football power center. Last year was the 2nd time in 3 years that the CIAA had two playoff representatives, and both times those playoff teams came from the North Division.

At media day, the coaches voted the following predicted order of finish: 12 Lincoln; 11 Livingstone; 10 Johnson C Smith; 9 Shaw; 8 Elizabeth City State; 7 Chowan; 6 Saint Augustine's ; 5 Virginia Union; 4 Winston-Salem State; 3 Virginia State; Predicted Runner-Up Fayetteville State; Predicted Champion Bowie State

I will say that I do think the top three teams in each division have little margin of effort. Last year’s championship game participants were decided on the divisions’ last regular season game. If that isn’t nerve wracking, I don’t know what is. Fasten your seatbelts, for I think this year will be just as thrilling.

Without further ado, here is my predicted order of finish:

12 Lincoln Lions (Last Year 0-10)

Key Losses: WR Andre Price (second in the conference in receiving yards), WR Elijah Smith, LR Rhamir Thomas

Key Returners: QB Vincent Espinoza, WR Carlos Croslin, DB Rob Thomas III, LB/S Deion Miller

Biggest Question: Last year I asked if Lincoln could win more than three games. This year is…uh…can the Lions win a single game?

Key Word: Help.

Lincoln parted ways with interim Head Coach Reginald Byarse after one year. Yet again, it’s a new year and a new Lincoln head coach. If anyone is keeping score, it would show five head coaches in seven years. New HC Josh Dean enters the lion’s den hoping to make some progress going forward. He certainly has his work cut out for him. The Lions surrendered the most points of any team in Division II last year (over 60 points). Dean has a defensive background, so surely you’d think this statistic is going to improve going forward. On offense, Lincoln returns QB Espinoza, who is actually an effective QB when given time. There were two main problems on offense last year: 1. the offensive line typically gets overwhelmed, forcing him to run for his life or throw the ball away, and 2. the offense gets forced to play from behind instead of controlling the game tempo. The schedule is tough, and wins will be hard to come by, but I think the Lions will be scrappier than last year.

11 Livingstone Blue Bears (0-10)

Key Losses: DB Gregory Hines, QB/P Thaddeus Bell

Key Returners: WR Everett Ransom, DL Armond Cox, DB Elems Ukwu

Biggest Question: Can the Blue Bears hold onto the football?

Key Word: Overhaul

Last year’s Blue Bear offense was bad. Like really bad. The evidence: The offense averaged only 15.5 points a game, rushed for 2.8 yards per attempt, converted 26 percent of third down conversions, and turned the ball over nearly three times a game. The last point is striking – regular readers of this blog know that Livingstone perennially has a case of butter fingers, and the turnover bug has struck at really terrible times. My understanding of Livingstone is that 35 players aren’t returning in an attempt to rejuvenate the program. Case in point is at the quarterback position, where Bell opted not to return, and 2017 starter Xavier Longerbeam has been demoted to third string. It is possible that Livingstone’s 10 of 11 starters on opening day are new, with the lone returner being Ransom. Defense seems to have fared better and should be led by Cox and a number of other returning players. If Livingstone can get out of its own way, it should nab a few wins against its very soft schedule. Speaking of the schedule, all but three games are away this year. Don’t be alarmed to see the Blue Bears traveling to 2 NAIA schools this year. The schedule was designed this way because of the construction happening on campus.

10 Johnson C Smith Golden Bulls

Key Losses: DB Carlo Thomas, QB Jordan Lane

Key Returners: WR/KR Desmond Dozier, DB Basir Wright, DB Jahvez Mitchell, S Kahj Huitt, DT Zach Cannon, LB Marcel Toran, P/K Brandon Howard

Biggest Question: Will this season any different than prior seasons?

Keyword: Depth
JCSU has faced significant challenges during the Kermit Blount era. The past three years have been marred with one offensive woe after another. Let us count the ways: two years ago, the Golden Bulls got to a point where they have to convert a defensive lineman to offense because they didn’t have enough healthy lineman. That same year, they had to resort to using an emergency backup QB who was a WR on the roster for multiple games because of injuries. The last two years, the run game has been rather ineffective (last year it was 2.9 yards per attempt). Last year, the scoring average was less than two touchdowns. Again. For the second year in a row. Yet, right out the gate, JCSU yet again has to figure out their QB situation. Last year’s starter, Terrance Ervin has not shown up for camp. If he doesn’t show, then the job is likely to fall to Senior QB Harold Herbin to start the season. Two newcomers back him up. The run game returns last year’s leader in RB Jachin Watkins, but he’s going to have to rush for more than 280 yards this season to take pressure off the pass game. If there is a bright spot, it’s that the Golden Bulls seem to have more depth at this point in camp than they have in prior years. The defense should be better with leading tackler Toran and Cannon leading the way. Despite the loss of Thomas, the secondary should continue to be a no fly zone with the return of Wright, Mitchell and Huitt. The secondary was top five in the country in passing yards allowed. Special teams is another solid area with All-CIAA preseason selections Howard and Dozier (in his returner role) helping with field position.

9 Elizabeth City State (4-6)

Key Losses: QB Daquan Neal, K Josh Laverty, P Fisher McInville

Key Returners: LB Miacah Cooper, WR Deon Yarborough, WR Sayquan Holder, DB BJ Harrington, DB Johnathan Turnage, TE
Carlton Evans, LB Vincent Thomas

Biggest Question: How productive will the offense be?

Keywork: Mysterious

The losses that ECSU endured go beyond just the players. Remember in 2016 when ECSU had a new Head Coach and no one knew what to expect? Well, we are back to that same scenario two years later. Head Coach Earnest Wilson was let go in the offseason for an unknown reason. ECSU also lost WR Coach Montario Hand and Defensive Coordinator Marcus Hilliard to North Division rival Virginia Union. Enter SWAC veteran Anthony Jones as head coach. Jones built Alabama A&M into a winner during his tenure (not to mentioned, he faced Virginia State’s head coach Reggie Barlow when he was in the same capacity at SWAC rival Alabama State). There are a lot of pieces in place for the Vikings to be competitive, especially on defense. Both starting WRs are back too. But, there are three major questions. 1. Who will play quarterback? Mr. Everything Daquan Neal, who was the leading passer AND rusher has exhausted his eligibility. The job appears to be falling to either a JuCo transfer or two Freshman QBs. 2. Can the run game improve? No running back rushed for more than 200 yards last season. The lack of balance really hurt the Vikings last year, as teams keyed in on the pass to get the offense off the field. 3. What will special teams look like? Both the Kicker and Punter exhausted their eligibility (McInville is actually a special teams student assistant now), so how the team plays the field position game will also be an unknown. Not to mention, ECSU has a lot of freshman (especially on the offensive line) and transfers on this year’s roster. It is going to be an interesting season in Northeastern North Carolina.

8 Saint Augustine’s Falcons (5-5)

Key Losses: LB James Hickman, DE Chasz Cosby, DB Denzel Huff-Malone, WR Sam Boyd

Key Returners: QB DJ Johnson, RB Jeremiah Miller, WR Lenwood Joyner, DL Keywan Morgan, DB Roy Garris K/P Sean Smith

Biggest Question: Was last year the start of a trend, or a one-hit wonder?

Keyword: Continuity

SAU is at a bit of a crossroads. Last year was the first non-losing season SAU has had since 2012. Now, the Falcons have a bit of a question mark, and that question mark exists on the sidelines. The offseason wasn’t kind to HC Tim Chavous, as he had quite a bit of coaching turnover. Virginia Union raided SAU’s staff and took the Falcons’ Offensive Coordinator (Alvin Parker), Defensive Coordinator (Edward Pointer) and Secondary Coach (Nigel Rios). Now, SAU has what has to be one of the youngest staffs in probably all of college football. Former SAU great Kevin Jones is now the DC, while WSSU’s all-time passing leader Kameron Smith takes over as OC. Smith arguably has less of a learning curve given the experienced offense that returns. The Falcons return QB’s Johnson and backup Demetrius Lewis, RB’s Miller and backup Josh Glisson, and WR Joyner. The Falcons also have OL Calvin Montgomery and Zach Jenkins returning, though OL seemed to be rather porous at times and not give enough time for Johnson to go through his reads. I think the Falcons have a problem on defense, given that Cosby and Hickman were anchors to the defense. Hickman in particular lead the conference tackles, and Cosby was right behind him. This sobering reality is not good when it was the defense kept them in games that they would have lost prior to 2017. Jones will need to find playmakers and in a hurry, as the offense has a knack for going flat sometimes. If the defense isn’t shored up, look for the Falcons to fall back to earth pretty quickly.

7 Shaw Bears (3-7)

Key Losses: QB Darron Downing, WR Trevante Long, WR Karocqus Jefferson

Key Returners: LB Devon Hunt, DB Jaleel Scroggins, DB Kaleb Barfield, K Beni Kensemi, WR Marquis Gorham, WR Daniel Bender

Biggest Question: Can Shaw actually finish close games?

Keyword: Potential

Every year during the Adrian Jones era, I’ve thought to myself that this is the year that Shaw is back. I’ve been disappointed in 2016 and 2017. But there was a step forward in 2017. Shaw lost three divisional games by a touchdown or less and followed that stretch with a demoralizing loss to crosstown rival Saint Augustine’s. If Shaw can get over that hump of winning close games, then they have a chance to return to the championship game. First, a couple of items need addressing. The Bears lose a multi-year starter in Downing, and are turning to QBs Keon Marsh (who was hurt most of last year) and Vidal Woodruff to lead the offense. Whoever the passer is should have solid protection from the offensive line and has plenty of talent at WR in Gorham and Bender. The running game gains the services of NCCU transfer RBs Dorrel McClain and Ramone Simpson. One would think that could only help a run game that mustered 122 yards a game. The pass defense has to get better in order to keep points off the board. With that said, the interior defense is solid, especially with Hunt and Scroggins returning. In short - this is my sleeper team.

6 Chowan Hawks (4-6)

Key Losses: DL Nate Wyche, LB Dakota Baer, TE Brandon Whitehead, TE Drew Buck, WR Herman Dupas, K/P Connor Killeen

Key Returners: QB Bryce Witt, RB Tyrell Freeman, DL Tyler Bembry, LB Dre Terry, WR Torry Baker, RB Michael Offutt

Key Question: Are the Hawks this year’s spoiler team?

There’s alot to like about the Hawks. Admittedly, I am a fan of Chowan because I followed them growing up and read newspaper clippings about them in their D-III days. When the Hawks made the jump to D-II, they became known to almost always have a dynamic QB/WR combo. This year is no different with the return of Witt and Baker. As a true freshman, Witt threw for more yards than most of his CIAA peers. Add in WR Ra’cee Lucas, and you have your typical Chowan pass offense that’s good for a few 300 yard games. Both RBs Freeman and Offutt had a single game of 300 yards plus in total offense last year, and they are excellent weapons. The offensive line is also seasoned. Chowan’s defense does have some holes in it with the departure of Wyche and Baer. Wyche in particular was having a Defensive Player of the Year type season before he got hurt midway through the season. He finished his college career missing the second half of the season. Terry moves from DB to LB this season after bulking up, and that should ease the pain of losing Baer. The secondary will be young, which leaves the Hawks susceptible to the pass.

5 Fayetteville State (6-5)

Key Losses: P Matthew Trau, LB Seth Johnson

Key Returning: RB Stevie Green, RB Donshel Jetton QB Richard Latimer, DB Elvin De La Rosa, K David Lamb, OL Tyreek Bailey, DL Jalen Cousar, LB Anthony Harris

Biggest Question: Can the Broncos win more than six games since like….forever?

Keyword: Defense

At one point last year, I almost felt like you might as well replace the FSU Bronco logo on the helmet, field, official letterhead, and anything else associated with FSU with a headshot of #28. RB Stevie Green sorta of flew under the radar with the Trenton Cannon, Robert Chesson, and Amir Hall debates. But when you have a guy who can convert a 3rd and 26 by rushing for 27 yards, you just can’t leave him out of any debates (sorry SAU fans for reliving the nightmare). Green is the premier returning RB in the conference. Jetton, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year is no slouch either, and brings a true one-two punch in the backfield. HC Richard Hayes gambled with burning QB Latimer’s redshirt last year, and that paid dividends. The offense should be juiced with former Dixie State and Western New Mexico OC Reilly Murphy taking the reins. If you don’t know anything about either school (Dixie State is in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, while WNMU is in the Lone Star Conference), then just know this: both schools became really strong passing teams under Murphy’s direction. Latimer certainly could take a step forward under Murphy’s tutelage.

Conversely, the defense leaves a lot to be desire. The Broncos surrendered an average of over 400 yards, and the defense will have to markedly improve in order to defend the Southern division crown. Granted, the defense was really young with freshmen and sophomores, but Hayes is a defensive coach. The Broncos do have a clutch kicker in Lamb, who won games multiple times for the Broncos in the closing minutes of games.

4 Virginia State (10-1)

Key Losses: RB Trenton Cannon, LB Brandon Lynch, P/K Matt Hillquist, QB Niko Johnson, WR Zach Parker

Key Returners: QB Cordelral Cook, DL Alexander Williams, DB Shakym Peters, WR Josh Harris, LB Malik Sexton, S Kurtis Brooks, DB Will Adams

Biggest Question: Will special teams be better this year?

Keyword: Reload

You probably thought I was going start off with talking about the run game. That is a major issue, but more on that in a minute. For a top tier team, VSU has a gaping wide issue in the kicking game with Hillquist now graduated. Last year’s K Cesar Alfaro went 1/5 for FGs and all the kickers collectively missed 11 PATs. Points are points, and the CIAA North has a razor thin margin of error. That’s an area that requires immediate attention.

To address the run game: Since 2013, the Trojans have had the luxury of having 1000 yard rushers except for one year (in 2014, Kavon Bellamy missed that mark by a mere 11 yards). The Trojans do have returning RBs with game time experience, but replacing Cannon isn’t something that is easily accomplished. Then again, having Cook rushing for some of those yards does help. Cook is a dual threat QB who is improving as a passer. It is his show now that backup Johnson has graduated. Despite the loss of vocal leader Lynch, the defense should be really solid at all levels beginning with Williams, Sexton and Brooks.

Barlow will probably have me eating crow over having VSU this low, but I think their Northern Division rivals I’ve selected above them are really gunning for the Trojans this year. At this point, its hard for me to see them making it through those two matchups unscathed.

3 Winston-Salem State (6-4)

Key Losses: WR Canard Brown, DB Kailan Chavis, P Dillon Griffith, OL Josh Wormley, OL Donald Adams-Baggett, DL Amyl Smith, LB Kyrell Williamson, RB Farrell Murchinson

Key Returners: QB Rod Tinsley, RB Kerrion Moore, WR Will Walton, LB Pat Green, DE Jarell Bright, OL Devonte Mackey, DB Tyrell Fleming

Key Question: Will the passing game be resurrected?

Key Word: Balance

WSSU is not an option team. Yet, somehow, the Rams managed to pass for a paltry 1208 yards during the season. Let me list the CIAA teams that had fewer passing yards: none of them. Let me restate my point: the Rams finished dead last in the conference in passing yards last year. Promoted OC Natrone Means will need to find ways to rejuvenate the pass offense. The regression of Tinsley from 2016 wasn’t expected, and things will have to change in order for the Rams to contend for a conference championship and playoff spot. Tinsley has faced competition in camp from transfer QBs Emiere Scaife and Arthur Whaley, and last year’s backup Miles Timmons, but its likely that he will be the starter at the season opener. The run game is solid with Moore, but sad news just came out about backup Murchison missing the season while he battles cancer. As if rivalries didn’t need more fanned flames, former Fayetteville State HC Lawrence Kershaw joins the staff to coach OL. I expect that area to be rather solid this year after being bolstered with transfers. WSSU’s defense was very strong last year and this year should be no different. Green returns after being granted a sixth year of eligibility, while Bright and fellow lineman Jack Nimmons anchor the line. The defense was top five in the country in passing yards allowed, and the secondary should remain strong with Fleming and opposing corner DB De’andre Blevins.

WSSU really needs to show balance this year if it wants to improve from last season. Balance is needed between an effective pass and run game. Last year, WSSU lost games because the defense just got worn down as games and ultimately the season progressed.

2 Virginia Union (6-4)

Key Losses: WR Chatzon McKenzie, WR Gustavious Dames, RB Aron Baker, DL Karl Calhoun

Key Returners: QB Darius Taylor, RB Tabyus Taylor, WR Jewison Dawson, WR Lavatiae Kelly, OL Shamdu Nalls, DL Lonnie Morton, DB Sterling Hammond, DB Quantaye Battle, K Jefferson Souza

Biggest Question: Will all the pieces come together?

Keyword: Discipline

Things are getting serious in Richmond. VUU let go of former HC Mark James last year amid a lot of turmoil between him and the administration. Enter alum Dr. Alvin Parker and his crew of experienced coaches raided from other CIAA schools into a place that has not won a conference championship since 2001. Parker is a veteran OC that has built good offenses at his last two stops (Saint Augustine’s and Elizabeth City State). He has a plethora of talent in his first season as a HC. Leading the way on offense is QB Darius Taylor. He is one of the conference’s top QBs. RB Tabyus Taylor returns after missing most of last season due to injury. The OL is anchored by Nalls, and the WR position is very seasoned with Dawson, Kelly, and Olu Izegwire. The defensive secondary is strong with last year’s CIAA defensive POY Hammond (who is also a D2football.com Preseason Second Team Selection), Battle, and Ray Lewis III. The interior defense will be a question mark with the loss of Calhoun, but the return of Morton helps.

If there is an area that requires immediate attention, it’s penalties. VUU was among the conference and the country’s most penalized teams in the Mark James era. Giving up free yards means making things harder for the Panthers. Bad habits are hard to break.

1 Bowie State (9-3)

Key Losses: RB Robert Chesson, DL Sean Copeland, WR Brandon Britton, DB Rahman Kamara, P Lawrence Forbes, WR Daivon Nixon

Key Returners: QB Amir Hall, RB Maurice Williams, WR Kerrick Pollock, WR Lansana Sesay, DE Derrick Tate, DB William Flowers, DB Roger Richardson, DB Taylor Johnson

Biggest Question: Who protects Amir Hall?

Keyword: Interchange

Bowie State is the trendy pick here and I can’t knock it. The Bulldogs have a legit Harlon Hill candidate in QB Amir Hall (also a D2football.com preseason first team selection) and a very deep WR core with Pollock, Sesay, Deron Smith, Gilbert Lunsford, and Geordan Clark. Losing Chesson, who lead the conference in touchdowns scored (and now holds the title as most TDs scored in a single game in NCAA history) is a blow. I’d imagine that Maurice Williams steps into that role. The Bulldogs’ biggest question mark is at OL, as the entire starting line will be brand new. Protecting Hall will be the upmost importance, as depth behind him is shaky. Defensively, Tate is a sack machine. Last year’s secondary also shared the distinction with WSSU and JCSU as top five in the country in fewest passing yards allowed, and three of the major contributors return. Bowie’s two losses were from teams that scored over 40 points, further improvement from an already solid defensive unit should edge the Bulldogs over VUU and VSU.

Look for week one predictions by Wednesday, as several schools have Thursday night games to open the season. You can follow me on twitter at @d2kferg.

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Updated 08-27-2018 at 08:37 AM by Kris Ferguson

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CIAA

Comments

  1. Chuck Bitner's Avatar
    Good work, my friend.
  2. OGramball3r's Avatar
    Great read. Add to that the WSSU kicking game as a question mark.
  3. Kris Ferguson's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by OGramball3r
    Great read. Add to that the WSSU kicking game as a question mark.
    So I forgot to mention the kicking game as an issue. Apparently last year's kicker took a year off, and the Punter has to be replaced. Looks like WSSU added a kicker who was at a D3 school I believe and another kicker from a nearby high school. The kicking game is so treacherous now with Will Johnson two years removed from the game.