Tennessee St. ready to ‘Break The Rock’ again in OVC play

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rod Reed knows very well the tradition of Tennessee State football, the only Historically Black College that is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.

He first started living it while growing up the son of Robert Reed, a former All-American guard for the Tigers in 1963-64 who later played for the Washington Redskins. From father to son, stories were spun of the HBC powerhouse coached by legendary John Merritt, who won six small-college national championships and four black college football national crowns from 1963-83.

Two decades later, Reed would then live and breathe TSU football on his own, as an All-American linebacker. He would set the team’s single-season tackles record in 1987, while guiding the Tigers to the second round of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.

Indeed, Reed knows what it means to wear a Tigers uniform, just like such NFL greats as Richard Dent, Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Claude Humphrey. And it certainly made him a natural to be named TSU’s head coach three seasons ago after spending seven years as an assistant.

“This is my home, so it’s personal,” Reed said here Monday during OVC Football Media Day, where his Tigers were picked to finish third in the FCS (Football Championship Series) league behind defending champion Eastern Illinois and perennial power Eastern Kentucky.

“These are where my roots come from,” he added. “I’m not from a Bill Walsh pedigree. I’m not from a Mike Holmgren pedigree. I am from a (longtime Merritt assistant) Joe Gilliam pedigree. I am from a John Merritt pedigree. Those are my mentors. Those are the people I learned from.”

That embrace of tradition is not lost on the Tigers, who last season started 7-0 and found themselves nationally ranked as high as No. 17 before an overtime loss at OVC rival Jacksonville State started a season-ending slide of losing three out of four.

Even so, the Tigers remained ranked and in search of an at-large FCS playoff berth until the last game. And they still had an 8-3 record, best since last winning the OVC and making the playoffs in 1999, and figure to build on that momentum this season with the return of 20 starters, including all 11 from the OVC’s top-ranked defense.

“I have been through the good, the bad and the ugly,” said senior guard Kadeem Edwards, who was named preseason all-OVC along with six other teammates — junior tight end A.C. Leonard, senior center Demetrius Rainey, senior defensive end Antonio Harper, junior linebacker Nick Thrasher, junior strong safety Daniel Fitzpatrick and junior cornerback Steven Godbolt III, the OVC preseason defensive player of the year.

“Just to see this program take a step in the right direction is good,” Edwards added. “I think we can really compete in this conference. The preseason poll has us ranked third. Personally, I don’t believe we’re third, but we still have to play football at the end of the day.”

While the Tigers compete for an OVC title, there is another scheduling component unique to TSU, compared to other league opponents. That’s the tradition-rich and popular classics the Tigers annually play against other HBC members that usually attract huge crowds.

This season, TSU plays host to the annual John Merritt Classic against Bethune-Cookman at LP Field to open the season on Sept. 1, followed by the Southern Heritage Classic against Jackson State in Memphis, Tenn., on Sept. 14 and the Gateway Classic against Central State in St. Louis on Sept. 28.

The Tigers also travel to longtime HBC rival Florida A&M on Sept. 7. Among their first five games, the Tigers play one OVC game at Tennessee Tech on Sept. 21 and close the season with seven league games in as many weeks.

“You know, that’s tough,” Reed said of balancing the importance of playing HBC classics with league play that determines the postseason. “Because we are an HBC school, that is our heritage. So, when we play Jackson State, when we play Florida A&M, it’s just as huge as playing Eastern Kentucky or Tennessee Tech.

“So, we really don’t have any letdown games. We are on edge for 12 straight weeks, because we are expected to win at a high level, week in and week out.”

Last season, TSU returned home games to campus for the first time since 1999 when a $1.4 million renovation to 60-year-old Hale Stadium — affectionately known as The Hole — was completed. After three games last season, the Tigers will play only one game — vs. Austin Peay on Nov. 9 — at Hale Stadium.

The remaining home games will be played at LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

“It was electrifying,” Edwards said of TSU returning games to campus after a 13-year absence. “It was great for the school. It got the community more involved. It was good for the team because we finally felt like we had a 12th man.”

While the Tigers are upbeat heading into the season, they did have a hiccup during the offseason when two-year starting quarterback Michael German was suspended indefinitely after being arrested in February for felony vandalism (allegedly damaging a car while jumping and dancing on it).

Reed said a court date has yet to be set, but German —who passed for 2,751 yards last season and remains atop the team’s depth chart — is in the process of passing academic hurdles that would allow him to return to the team.

Even so, Reed and the Tigers are counting on 2013 to being that breakthrough, even down to coming up with the motto Breaking The Rock for the season.

“That’s our kids’ motto,” Reed said. “They have been talking about that in the weight room, breaking the rock. We have to break through. This could be a breakthrough year for us.”

Which is exactly the reason Edwards joined Reed’s first recruiting class back in 2010.

“Coach Reed always preaches tradition never graduates,” the Sanford, Fla., native said. “So, just to come here and play for this great university and just have a part in history here, it has been an amazing deal. That is what really made me come here.”