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Conference newcomer SSU seeks respect
This is a special season for Savannah State University’s football program because it’s the Tigers’ first as a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“It’s a sense of belonging,” said SSU senior quarterback A.J. DeFilippis, a Benedictine graduate. “We have a home now. We have a group of teams that we can play every year and maybe establish some rivalries, and establish our power and maybe get some respect from these teams.
“Our past records, we’re not really thinking of it that way. We don’t want to look back. We want to look forward and know that we can establish our power in this conference.”
SSU has not produced a winning record since 1998, when the Tigers went 7-4 in the NCAA Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. SSU was without conference affiliation since leaving the SIAC in 2002.
The Tigers finished 1-10 last season. Among the 117 teams ranked in the Football Championship Subdivision, SSU was No. 111 or worse in 11 of 17 statistical categories, including pass efficiency defense (No. 117), total defense (No. 114) and total offense (No. 113).
The MEAC’s football coaches and sports information directors picked SSU to finish last among the conference’s 11 schools that play football.
Vote of confidence
SSU first-year head coach Steve Davenport, who was hired Jan. 7 after four seasons as the running backs coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, revealed during SSU’s Media Day that he voted the Tigers No. 1 in the MEAC’s preseason poll.
“He’s shown us that he has confidence in us, and he believes in us,” DeFilippis said. “It gives us that drive to know that we can do that and
we can do what he believes we can do.”
SSU returns 16 starters from last season’s team: nine on defense, seven on offense.
“We’ve got some really good seniors, which is how you build a quality program,” Davenport said. “I feel really, really good about what I’ve got. I wasn’t sure I would feel that way when I first got here.
“But in my assessment of what we’ve got, going through spring with the kids, my expectation of them is a lot different than what I thought I would get. The reality is different. These kids are hungry to be successful.”
SSU has not released its depth chart, but Davenport said DeFilippis is the starting quarterback. Sophomore Antonio Bostick is DeFilippis’ backup. How the offense will fare is among many intriguing storylines because this is the first coaching job at any level for offensive coordinator Terance Mathis, who played eight of his 13 NFL seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
At running back, fifth-year senior Justin Babb returns after suffering a season-ending hamstring injury. Babb, SSU’s leading rusher in 2009 and 2008, was granted a medical redshirt. He ran for 804 yards and six touchdowns in 2009.
“(Being in the MEAC) gives us an opportunity to kind of hold onto something, something that we can see at the end of the road, a goal to reach,” Babb said. “It’s something to play for.”
Sophomore Sheldon Barnes, a Bradwell Institute graduate, led the Tigers in rushing with 563 yards and four touchdowns last season as Babb’s replacement.
Sophomore Simon Heyward, a Beach High School graduate, led the Tigers in receiving with 56 catches for 423 yards and a touchdown.
“If we can be solid in all those areas, I don’t see why we can’t win a MEAC championship,” DeFilippis said.
Hunter leads defense
Defensively, the Tigers are led by senior free safety Darren Hunter, who made a team-high 76 tackles last season. Hunter was selected to the All-MEAC preseason second team.
“We have something to play for,” Hunter said. “We’re not out here just playing games. We have a goal: the MEAC championship.”
At special teams, senior Derek Williams will handle field goals, extra-points, punts and kickoffs. He is 31-of-38 on field-goal attempts, including a career-long 47-yarder against Norfolk State last season.
SSU will play 11 games, including five at home in reconstructed T.A. Wright Stadium. The Tigers’ season opener is at 5 p.m. Saturday against Albany State University in the Music City Classic at Henderson Stadium in Macon.
“We have broken the season down into two parts, to be honest with you,” Davenport said. “We have thought about those first three games, and going out and trying to win those, but the fourth game against North Carolina Central is, obviously, where our attention is going to be when it comes around. It’s the start of the MEAC schedule. The winner of that game is in first place, 1-0. I don’t know what anybody else will do, but until you’ve lost you’re still in first place.”
SSU 2011 SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Sept. 3 Albany State** 5 p.m.
Sept. 10 at SE Louisiana 8 p.m.
Sept. 17 at Appalachian S. 6 p.m.
Sept. 24 *at N.C. Central 6 p.m.
Oct. 1 *Howard 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 *at Morgan State 1 p.m.
Oct. 15 *Florida A&M 7 p.m.
Oct. 29 *Hampton 2 p.m.
Nov. 5 *Norfolk St. 5 p.m.
Nov. 12 *at Bethune-Cookman 3 p.m.
Nov. 19 *South Carolina St. 2 p.m.
*Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game
By Noell Barnidge, Savannah Morning News