FLORENCE, Ala. — North Alabama has not gone to Division I; it only seems that way.
The Lions didn’t stop landing major college talent with the hiring of former Auburn coach Terry Bowden. Division I players have poured in from all over the place, including seven from his father Bobby Bowden’s Florida State team alone.
The team’s 24 transfers includes starting quarterback Harrison Beck (North Carolina State), former FSU receiver Preston Parker and ex-West Virginia starting defensive back Quinton Andrews.
Now, the question is how will this newly assembled group jell in a program that reached the Division II semifinals last season? Only two of the transfers went through spring practice with UNA.
“We’re going to try to shoot to surpass last year,” Bowden said. “That’s our goal. And you know something, I don’t think we’ll not meet our goal because of talent. I think we have found … athletes that will give us a talent level that is equal to or exceeds last year.”
The Lions have reached double-digit wins and made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons under Mark Hudspeth, who left to become a Mississippi State assistant.
Bowden has been out of coaching since 1998.
16 starters back for Golden Bears
Coach Billy Joe’s peers are expecting big improvement from his second Miles team.
The Golden Bears were picked by Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference coaches to finish fifth in the league this season, a year after going 2-8.
Quarterback Chivas Jones is a preseason second-team All-SIAC pick after throwing for 1,051 yards with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions as a freshman. Offensive lineman Kenneth Peaks was also tabbed for second-team honors.
The Bears have to replace leading rusher LaQuan Phillips in a weak ground game that produced only five rushing touchdowns. Phillips accounted for three of those.
Nine starters return on offense and seven on defense.
Cole takes over Stillman reigns
Former Alabama State coach L.C. Cole takes over the program amid low expectations. The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the SIAC.
Cole does still have preseason All-SIAC running back Quinn Porter. Porter rushed for 740 yards and added 350 more receiving last season, scoring a combined 11 touchdowns.
Cole has to replace six starters on offense and eight on defense, including defensive back Dre’Mail Hardin and end Alex Dumeus. Porter is the only one of the top four receivers who returns. Quarterback Cedric Harris is also gone.
Cole is 41-25 as head coach.
Williams returns at quarterback
Quarterback Deon Williams is back after receiving a medical redshirt year. The junior college transfer sustained a season-ending knee injury in the third game, and the passing attack was never quite the same. Williams already had thrown for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns against three interceptions.
The Tigers went 4-7 and won just two Gulf South Conference games.
Other key skill players also return. Running back Dameon Baylor is back after rushing for 730 yards and nine touchdowns. The versatile Terry Allen returned kicks and was the team’s No. 2 rusher and receiver and also played some at quarterback.
Linebackers DeAntuan Matthews and Jeremy May and defensive back J.D. Douglas lead the defense.
Barlow uses Auburn ’93 team as example
Reggie Barlow will use any motivational tool he can for his Alabama State Hornets, even if it means pointing to a success story that happened an hour down the road and 16 years in the past.
The Hornets are ineligible for a Southwestern Athletic Conference title this season due to NCAA sanctions, so Barlow has to get creative. Remember the 1993 Auburn team that went undefeated in that situation?
“We’ll talk about Auburn,” Barlow said. “We’ll let them know how Auburn didn’t lose a game that year and how people still recognize that team as one of the best teams in the nation that year. You’ve got to do all those things to motivate these guys and keep them motivated.”
Barlow and Alabama State can also derive motivation from the goal of getting the program back on the right track. The Hornets are 8-14 in Barlow’s first two seasons and won just three games in 2008.
The first order of business has been finding a quarterback. Chris Mitchell, a starter in 2007, is the top contender after sitting out last season because of academics. Now, Brandon Dowdell, who finished 2008 as the starter, is academically ineligible.
Running back Rahmod Traylor and top receiver Darius Mathis both are among the seven starters returning from an offense that was last in the SWAC in scoring and total yards.
Barlow said the offense will switch up some and he feels Traylor can be a 1,000-yard rusher.
The defense is also switching from a four-man front to a three-man front to be more athletic and aggressive.
The biggest star power comes on that side of the ball, where linebackers Rechard Johnson and Adrian Hardy are both preseason All-SWAC first-team picks.
Bulldogs look to rebound from 2008
Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones is in an unfamiliar position.
For the first time since taking over the Bulldogs in 2002, he must rebound from a losing season. The good news for Jones & Co. is that 17 starters return from a team that was a game away from making the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game despite a 5-7 record.
The Bulldogs couldn’t quite overcome an 0-3 start, though, and Jones is looking to avoid a repeat performance. They open Sept. 5 at Tennessee State.
“We have to come out of the blocks hot,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to dig ourselves a hole and we’ll use the remainder of the season trying to get out of it like we did last year.”
Reasons for optimism include an offensive line that returns all five starters, led by center Xavier Manuel. Incumbent quarterback Kevin Atkins is trying to hold off a challenge from Kentucky transfer DeAunte Mason, a redshirt freshman.
Perrilloux to miss opener with Tech
Jack Crowe searched for signs that his Jacksonville State players were slacking off or sulking during the offseason.
After all, the Gamecocks won’t be eligible to compete for an Ohio Valley Conference title or make the Football Championship Series playoffs because of NCAA penalties from academic progress ratings.
The good news for Crowe?
“I’ve not seen a change in our work habits,” the coach said.
With the addition of players who transferred in, he likes the Gamecocks’ talent as well as their attitude.
Quarterback Ryan Perrilloux will be suspended for the Gamecocks’ season-opener against Georgia Tech for violating an unspecified team rule.
Greg Smith led Georgia Tech in receiving two years ago, then switched positions last season with the changing of offenses under coach Paul Johnson. Smith, who already has a business degree, will face his former team in the Gamecocks’ opener on Sept. 5 — the first of seven road games.
The Gamecocks have a potential star at each part of the field defensively, where nine starters return from the league’s top scoring defense.
Brandt Thomas leads a line that Crowe said could be Jacksonville State’s best “in quite some time.” Then there’s linebacker Alexander Henderson, who led the Gamecocks with 103 tackles last season, and cornerback Carnell Clark. All three were preseason all-conference selections.
Samford seeks to improve 6-5 mark
The Samford Bulldogs are hoping to prove the skeptics wrong again.
The Bulldogs fared better than some expected in their debut season in the tough Southern Conference, recording their first winning record in six years despite being led by a freshman quarterback and closing out their Ohio Valley tenure last year with just four victories.
They didn’t convince everyone, though, with last year’s 6-5 record and .500 mark in the Southern Conference. Samford was picked to finish sixth in the league going into this season.
Tailback Chris Evans returns after rushing for a Samford-record 1,284 yards, including 14 touchdowns, and earning first-team all-conference honors. That helped take some of the burden off quarterback Dustin Taliaferro, who still passed for 1,745 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named SoCon freshman of the year.
The offensive line only has two starters back, center Jon Weber and Thomas Gray, who has been moved from guard to left tackle.
The defense is led by linebacker Bryce Smith, who led the team with 92 tackles and five interceptions. He and safety Andy Davis were both second-team All-SoCon performers last season.
Noseguard Patrick Hatcher, defensive end John Michael Clay and cornerback Jamael Lett also return.
Versatile QB Webb has Blazer hopes up
Neil Callaway and UAB have endured plenty of growing pains the past two seasons, losing lots of games while relying heavily on young players.
Now, they’re hoping those trials start to pay off.
Led by versatile quarterback Joe Webb, the Blazers return every offensive starter and another seven on defense from a team that has won only six games the past two years. They gave themselves something to build on by winning two of their final three last season.
It starts with Webb. He was one of only three Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in his first season after shifting back from wide receiver.
UAB also had 79 scholarship players report for fall camp, significantly more than Callaway had the past two seasons. He lost only 14 lettermen.
All that has led to increased expectations on campus even if the Blazers were picked to finish next-to-last in the Conference USA by league media.
The Blazers do have to replace their top three tacklers and face a nonconference schedule that includes visits to Texas A&M, Mississippi and Troy. Also gone is cornerback Kevin Sanders, who had a nation-leading seven interceptions.