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Work Left for Prairie View A&M
Nearly nine months after finishing their first winning season since 1976, the Prairie View A&M Panthers got their 2008 fall camp under way with a practice Monday night.
The coaches, the drills and most of the faces were the same from last season, but the camp’s theme was significantly different.
Last year, the Panthers’ theme was to “dig deep,” something they did well down the stretch, winning five of their last six games to finish 7-3. But with a squad that returns nine starters on offense, 10 on defense and two on special teams, the Panthers plan to take care of “unfinished business” this season.
Prairie View coach Henry Frazier III believes this year’s team can elevate the program to a higher level.
“Last year, our theme was digging deep, and we knew we had to dig deeper to legitimize (ourselves) as a program,” said Frazier, who is 18-24 in four seasons at Prairie View. “And I think we’re there. We know what it takes to win, (and) we know how to work.
“There is unfinished business, and it is to identify the path of what we need to finish.”
For sophomore wide receiver Anthony Weeden, the path to closure is simple: winning the SWAC crown.
“Anything less than the SWAC championship wouldn’t be accepted,” he said. “That’s what we’re basically shooting for. A winning season was fine and all, and everything was good, but we really just want to win the SWAC.”
The Panthers’ success could hinge on the play of the defense, which was one of the best in the nation last season. Led by reigning SWAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America linebacker Zach East (127 tackles, 14½ tackles for loss in 2007), Prairie View held opponents to a measly average of 15.2 points per contest, third lowest in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“No other team has a defense as good as ours,” Weeden said. “We say that if our offense could put up 21 points a game, just 21, we’ll win the game.”
The defense had to carry the load for much of last season until the offense began to mesh as a unit under the leadership of quarterback Mark Spivey, who began the season as a backup to Chris Gibson. Spivey took over after the loss to Grambling State and went 5-1 as a starter.
In a good place
Spivey and his young group of wide receivers spent considerable time working together during spring practice, and Weeden expects the passing game to be much improved. Junior Joe Townsend will line up opposite Weeden, with juniors Shaun Stephens and Gabriel Osaze-Ediae serving as the third and fourth receivers.
The running game should be in good hands with the two-headed rushing attack of Donald Babers and Calvin Harris and fullback Herman Bray helping clear the lanes.
“We got better at the end of the season because people started to get confident, they started to play better, and they started to believe in the system,” Babers said. “This year, we have some incoming freshmen who have to learn some things, but I believe that once we jell as an offensive unit, it’s going to be hard for us to be stopped.”
Among Prairie View’s highlights in 2007 was its dominance of the SWAC Eastern Division. The Panthers went 5-0 against their Eastern rivals, including a 30-27 win over SWAC champion Jackson State.
Prairie View, however, went only 1-3 against the Western Division, and Frazier knows the Panthers will have to improve that mark to have a shot at the conference title.
Still, the Panthers can smile knowing that they beat the previous two SWAC champions (Alabama A&M and Jackson State) in the last two years. This sends the Panthers into this season with a wave of momentum.
“That’s a great accomplishment for our class, coming and changing the program around,” Babers said. “But we have to maintain what we did last year.”
Work left for Prairie View
By Ronnie Turner, The Houston Chronicle
Photo Credit: Melissa Phillip/The Houston Chronicle