Senior-laden Tennessee State primed for OVC title run

NASHVILLE, Tenn.Breakthrough is one way to describe Tennessee State football in 2013.

The Tigers made the Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs for the first time since 1999. They also won a postseason game for the first time since 1986, captured the Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship and finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference, their best finish since consecutive league titles in 1998-99.

Yes, it was arguably the best season for Tennessee State football in three decades. And how did Tigers coach Rod Reed view it?

"Last year, we got Christmas a little early," Reed said Monday during OVC Football Media Day. "We were a little ahead of schedule, which is always good. But hopefully, we can maintain the momentum. We’re expecting a lot from this team."

That’s what happens when a senior-laden team evolves from five to eight to 10 wins in a three-year span. This preseason, the Tigers were picked in a vote of league coaches and sports information directors to finish third in the OVC, behind projected winner Jacksonville State and two-time champion Eastern Illinois.

"Expectations are high," said Reed, the fifth-year Tigers coach and former All-American linebacker at the school. "Like I tell the players all the time in challenging them, ‘I didn’t set the bar. They set the bar.’ When you raise the bar at that level, expectations are going to be even higher.

"And expectations with this staff are higher. It doesn’t just trickle down to the players, it’s for the coaches, too. We expect lot of ourselves."

While the Tigers return only a dozen starters from last year’s 10-4 squad (six offense, six defense), they have plenty of senior bell cows, as well. That includes senior defensive end Anthony Bass, who was tabbed to repeat as OVC Defensive Player of the Year.

"The coaches are always saying that we must be doing something right," said Bass, a key cog in a defense that ranked sixth nationally in total defense (296.6 yards per game) and seventh in scoring defense (18.1 points per game) last year. "So, we are going from five wins my freshman year to eight wins to 10 wins last year. Now, it’s why not go all the way in terms of being undefeated this year.

" … A successful season to us would be to win an OVC championship and a national championship. As far as the OVC championship, we would like to go undefeated, first and foremost."

Joining Bass on the OVC preseason all-league defensive team were senior strong safety Daniel Fitzpatrick, senior cornerback De’Ante Saunders and junior middle linebacker Nick Thrasher.

Fitzpatrick led all of Division I — either FCS or FBS — last season with eight interceptions; Saunders made the league’s all-newcomer team in 2013; and Thrasher was first-team all-league after amassing 110 tackles, most for the Tigers since 2002.

"When coach (Reed) recruited us, especially the seniors, he told us if we stuck together, that we will get a championship," Fitzpatrick said. "We’ve gotten closer and closer every year, and hopefully with hard work, this will be that year. For this class of seniors, that would be great."

The Tigers return two quarterbacks — sophomore Ronald Butler and senior Michael German — who saw extensive action last year. German was the scheduled starter, but was suspended the first two games because of off-the-field issues. He still completed 13 touchdowns passes with no interceptions, the best rate in FCS.

"This is the first time he has really gone through a full spring and summer workouts and being able to come into camp and not have to worry about anything but football when camp starts," Reed said of German, who joined senior tackle Robert Myers on the OVC preseason offensive all-league team.

Thrown into starting duty as a true freshman, Butler played in all 14 games, starting 10, and completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,405 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was named second-team all-OVC.

"We have created a situation around here where we have some depth on our football team," said Reed, whose team opens the season Aug. 30 against visiting Edward Waters College at LP Field. The OVC opener is Sept. 20 against visiting Tennessee Tech.

"We expect other guys to come in and play," Reed said. "I thought Butler did a very credible job for us last year coming in and starting (10) games and basically leading us to the playoffs."

Reed feels the team’s recent run of success will breed more success.

"That is really important," Reed said. "That is one of the things that I have noticed with our kids this summer. We had a bunch of kids that were here on their own, working out, finding jobs, just to be able to hang around here and stay.

"I think they understand the benefit of how it works and being able to play in November and December."

Jacksonville State was picked to win the OVC for the first time since claiming consecutive titles in 2003-04. Gamecocks junior running back DaMarcus James, who led his team with 867 rushing yards last season, was named OVC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Two-time champion Eastern Illinois was picked to finish runner-up, but had four first-place votes compared to Jacksonville State’s 10. Tennessee State also received four first-place votes. Eastern Kentucky and UT-Martin were tabbed to finish fourth and fifth, respectively.

Last season, Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State and Tennessee State all made the FCS playoffs, marking the first time the OVC had three teams in the postseason.

"You always want to see your hard work pan out," Fitzpatrick said. "We still know that we have some things that we want to accomplish, winning the OVC and having a deeper run in the playoffs. But seeing those eight wins and then 10 wins come to fruition, it really inspires you to play harder and do more of the little things to get that chance."

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Jacksonville State (118 votes — 10 first place)
2. Eastern Illinois (110)
3. Tennessee State (107)
4. Eastern Kentucky (82)
5. Tennessee-Martin (79)
6. Murray State (54)
7. Tennessee Tech (48)
8. Southeast Missouri (34)
9. Austin Peay (16)

PRESEASON HONORS

Offensive Player of the Year: RB DaMarcus James, Jacksonville State
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: DL Anthony Bass, Tennessee State