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Tennessee State beefs up running back corps
If there was anything Rod Reed learned as a first-year head coach last season, it’s that you can never have enough good running backs.
That was painfully obvious when he began last season with one running back academically ineligible, then saw his top two running backs suffer injuries during the season. This year, Reed has devoted his preseason camp to making sure he has plenty of capable backs ready to step in.
“We’re just trying to do all we can to make sure we weather this storm the first two or three weeks of the season as far as having guys ready to play and having some quality backups to be able to give our starters some blows,” Reed said.
Last season, senior Preston Brown started the season as the featured back. Through five games, Brown was one of the leading rushers in the Football Championship Subdivision, averaging 152 yards a game as TSU was off to a 3-2 start.
But then a torn ACL ended his season. The Tigers were already without Trabis Ward, who was declared academically ineligible. Dante Thomas would start five games and lead the team with 793 yards before he injured his leg. Ryan Berry was hobbled with a high ankle sprain.
This year, Reed has eight tailbacks fighting for playing time, led by Thomas, who was named to the all-Ohio Valley Conference preseason team, and the return of Ward. He also has a pair of talented freshmen in Kaylen Pearson and Telvin Hooks.
“I think we’ve addressed the depth issue that we had last year,” Reed said. “If we can bring these young guys along and the stars align for us a little bit, then I think we’ll be OK.”
The Tigers’ offense will be manned by senior quarterback Jeremy Perry, a former Wooddale star entering his second season as the Tigers starter. Perry completed 131 of 244 passes for 1,469 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Three of Perry’s top five targets from a year ago are returning – Calvin McNairl, Jeremy Pryor of Whitehaven and Devin Wilson.
Defensively, the Tigers are anchored by senior linebacker Rico Council, who was tabbed the OVC’s preseason co-defensive player of the year. Council had a career-high 79 tackles last season.
Council is one of two returning Tigers who were among the team’s top seven tacklers a year ago. Council was second on the team, joining defensive lineman Lamar Wallace, who was fourth with 47.
Other key returning players include defensive backs Justin Bather and Joseph Wylie and defensive end Marcus Broxie. The Tigers also add linebacker John Jones, a senior transfer from Florida.
The Tigers were 2-0 against Southwestern Athletic Conference teams and 1-1 against foes from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Unfortunately, though, they compete in the OVC, where the Tigers were 0-7.
Reed hopes to soon have TSU competing annually for league championships in the same way perennial power Jacksonville State currently does.
“We tried to address those issues in recruiting to catch up to where they (Jacksonville State) are,” Reed said. “We feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”
A closer look at: Tennessee State
Rewind: The 2010 season was a rocky one for first-year head coach Rod Reed, who saw his team finish 3-8. A rash of injuries and the inability to close out close games played a big part in the Tigers’ misfortunes. Five of their losses were by seven points or less, including three by three points or less. After a 3-2 start, the Tigers dropped their last six games.
Fast forward: With the running back position on offense and the linebackers on defense being the strength of the Tigers, Reed believes the play of the offensive and defensive lines will determine just how good TSU will be. In addition to leading rusher Dante Thomas returning, the Tigers also get Trabis Ward, who was academically ineligible last season. The Tigers’ hard-hitting linebacker crew is led by senior Rico Council, named the OVC preseason co-defensive player of the year. Council is coming off a career-high 79-tackle season last year and currently ranks second on the school’s all-time list with 209, trailing his coach, Reed, who had 406.
By Marlon W. Morgan, Memphis Commercial Appeal