By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
Thing have been tough the past few years for those part of one of the nation’s top HBCU football fan bases, Florida A&M.
Since 2012, the Rattlers program, which has won 567 games over its history, including the first FCS national championship in 1978, has won only 15 games, the worst five-year period in FAMU football history.
But buoyed by a second-half of 2016 in which they won four of seven games, the Rattlers go into the 2017 season feeling like they are a team on the rise and ready to look more like the FAMU teams of yesteryear than the ones of yesterday.
“We’re very close,” said defensive end Calvin Darville during the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Media Day last week. “This upcoming season, you’re going to see a different team, a different swag. We’ve been working hard all off season and we’re ready to showcase that.”
Others are also beginning to see the Rattlers rise. MEAC coaches and sports information directors picked Florida A&M to finish sixth in the 2017 conference race, which is where they finished last season. They were picked to finish eighth at the beginning of last season.
The Rattlers have six offensive players who were named to the 2017 preseason All-MEAC team, including quarterback Ryan Stanley who headed a passing offense that was fourth in the conference last season. His top target, wide receiver Brandon Norwood, returns as do three preseason All-MEAC offensive line picks. While Stanley and running back Devin Bowers combined for 749 yards rushing last season, head coach Alex Wood will need to shore up a running game that was one of the worst in the MEAC last season.
“We know we can run zone read and we can throw play-action pass off it. That’s where we’re going to hang our hat on,” Wood said. “You have to be able to run the football, obviously, to be successful offensively.”
The Rattlers ranked in the bottom half of the MEAC in total defense and defensive scoring in 2016, with real problems stopping the run. But FAMU’s secondary was the league’s best, allowing just under 159 passing yards a game last season. They return preseason All-MEAC picks in defensive backs Orlando McKinley and Terry Jefferson. As a freshman in 2016, Jefferson had 46 tackles, while McKinley was one of the MEAC’s best in passes defended. Both had four interceptions last season.
“The thing that has to come to fruition for us is playing a lot better defense,” Wood said. “To win a championship, you’ve got to play really good defense and that’s something that we’re going to emphasize.”
They will be under the gun early. A rugged, first seven games this season includes a strong Texas Southern team from the SWAC, FBS SEC team Arkansas, preseason nationally-ranked Tennessee State, MEAC champ North Carolina Central and NCAA playoff team North Carolina A&T.
“We’ve got a veteran team coming back, which is exciting, and obviously something every coach cherishes when you’ve got a lot of veterans coming back,” Wood said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to line up.”