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Despite losses, ASU Hornets feel they have talent to succeed
Alabama State players and coaches were understandably dejected when they left Legion Field last December after losing a hard-fought defensive struggle to Texas Southern in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game.
But there was a silver lining as well.
Ten starters were set to return, and an incoming recruiting class would give the Hornets a level of talent and depth they haven’t had in several years.
That was before academic casualties and disciplinary action left the Hornets starting over, looking for starters at several positions, most notably at linebacker.
“We were young last year,” defensive coordinator Cedric Thornton noted. “It was a young group of guys and a brand new system, so they had to adapt and catch it on the fly. We’re basically in the same situation, the only difference is I have a good core group that has been in the system two years and they understand what’s going on.”
Predicting the path of Alabama State’s football program would have been much easier before 14 scholarship players failed to maintain academic eligibility and offensive tackles Kenderick Delaine and Kevin Bryant decided to quit for personal reasons.
The transfer of two offensive linemen and quarterback Greg Jenkins should help offset offensive woes, but the defense lost four of its top eight linemen and three of its top four linebackers.
Replacing linebackers Nigel Carr and Brandon Roberts won’t be easy, but Thornton believes the Hornets will be a solid unit after moving weakside linebacker Demarques Taylor to the middle.
“Naturally, it starts with Demarques Taylor,” ASU head coach Reggie Barlow said. “He’s a guy that is preseason all-SWAC and he’ll make sure he gets the guys lined up. He’ll do a good job. I think it’s a solid group, a good coachable group, and guys will play within the system. That will allow us to have some success at that position.”
Taylor was a redshirt freshman in 2010, inserted into a starting role after another redshirt freshman, Leland Baker, suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason practice last year.
Baker is back, helping Taylor anchor the middle this fall.
“We thought he would be one of those guys that would be (good for) 80-90 tackles a season,” Barlow recalled. “Then he tore his (knee ligament). He’s been working hard and has picked up weight but still is a little bit stiff because of his ACL, and that’s why we’re playing him in the middle. He knows how to play ’sam’ and ‘will,’ but until we can get him back where he’s fluid and reacting (he’ll play in the middle).
“At some point in the season, he’ll probably be playing outside, but right now he’s behind Demarques.”
Baker said he has been practicing at all three linebacker positions and is eager to return to the field and help the Hornets win a SWAC title this fall.
“We’re going to have to have some young guys step up and play a role, and the veteran guys are going to have to play a part, too,” Baker said. “I was playing ’sam,’ then he moved me to ‘will,’ now I’m playing ‘mike.’ I really feel like he’s trying to let me learn what all of the linebackers do so I can play any of them, because I think I’m versatile enough.”
At the strongside position, Le’Andre Crawford will return with experience , followed by Brandon Slater and true freshman Marcus Owens. At the weakside position, Jakari Wilcoxson returns with experience, followed by junior college transfer Winton Stewart.
“As a whole defensive unit, we play well together,” Wilcoxson said. “Over the summer, all of us worked hard. We feel like we’re family.”
The unexpected losses haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of the players who have adopted a motto of “unfinished business,” inspired by last year’s championship game loss. Questions may remain as the season opener draws near, but the players believe they will respond with the correct answers.
“We’re really, really close,” Wilcoxson said. “We’re competing, and it’s not a sour competition. We know we’re going to need each and every last one of us to get where we want to be.”
By Tim Gayle, Montgomery Advisor