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With HBCU Football Elite Status Secured, Tennessee State Eyes Playoffs

Mike German will have to sit out the first two games of 2013 for Tennessee State. (TSU Tigers Photo)

Conference: Ohio Valley
Coach: Rod Reed
2012 Record: 8-3
2013 Non-Conference Schedule: Bethune-Cookman, FAMU, Jackson State, Central State
2013 Classics: John Merritt Classic (BCU), Southern Heritage Classic (Jackson St.) St. Louise Gateway Classic (Central State)

Telvin Hooks will look to pick up the slack left by the departure of Trabis Ward. (Orlando Sentinel photo)

Offense:

The Tigers finished last season with arguably the best returning quarterback in Black College Football, Mike German. The 6’2, 215 pound rising junior followed his Ohio Valley Freshman of The Year season in 2011 with a solid sophomore campaign, completing 215 passes out of 358 attempts for 2,751 yards and 18 touchdowns. All signs pointed to a breakout year for both German and TSU. Then things went south for the QB, first legally and later academically. German missed both the spring game and the majority of the fall camp before being declared eligible and rejoining the team.

Despite his restored eligibility, German will not be allowed to play first two weeks of the season, meaning redshirt freshman Ronald Butler will start against two teams from his home state of Florida. The reports out of camp were positive for Butler, but he’ll face a tough task for his first start against a veteran Bethune-Cookman defense.

Tennessee State didn’t suffer many losses from 2012, but there is a big hole in the backfield. Trabis Ward had a monster year for the Tigers at running back last season, rushing for over 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. Ward elected to turn pro after his junior season, leaving Telvin Hooks as TSU’s most experienced ballcarrier. Hooks averaged five yards per carry as Ward’s backup, and should be the featured back. Look for Tim Broughton and Darion Hall to contribute as well.

The most outstanding receiver for TSU is All-American tight end A.C. Leonard. The former Florida Gator flourished last season, catching 51 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns. Leonard won’t be the only weapon in the passing game as sophomore Joe Bowens seems poised for a breakout year. The 6’5 Greenville, SC native caught 28 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if his touches double this season.

TSU should also be solid at offensive line with several key player returning, including Kadeem Edwards, a two-time All-OVC selection.

Antonio Harper finished with four sacks in 2012. (TSU Tigers Photo)

Defense

As many playmakers as the Tigers have on the offensive side of the ball, the numbers suggest that its strength will be its defense. The Tigers return all 11 starters from a defense that finished tops in the OVC in total defense, and second in the conference in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 22.8 points per game.

The defensive line will be paced by senior DE Antonio Harper (36 tackles, 4 sacks) and junior DT Anthony Bass (24 tackles, 4 sacks). Samquan Evans and Jack Ndem will cause problems for opposing lines as well.

There’s no dropoff at linebacker, as junior Nick Thrasher returns to head an athletic group. Thrasher had a coming out party in 2012, recording a team-high 105 stops, shutting down things in the middle. Lending a hand on the outside will be several talented players, including seniors and Gregory Barksdale and Wilson Robinson.

Things just get better the deeper you go into the TSU defense, as there aren’t many deeper defensive backfields in the FCS. It all starts with All-American cornerback Steven Godbolt, who picked off six passes and broke up six others during his sophomore season, winning multiple All-American honors. Overall, the Tigers held opponents to an OVC-low 208 passing yards per contest. Safeties David Fitzpatrick and David Van Dyke finished second and third on the team in tackles last season and broke up fifteen passes. And the defensive backfield should be even better this year with the addition of former Florida Gator De’Aunte Sanders.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsOutlook

Last season’s TSU squad started 7-0 before stumbling towards the end of the year to finish 8-3. A year older, and presumably a year better, this team should be better. But this team won’t have the ability to sneak up on teams as it did last season. They are a known commodity.

The Tigers start the season against three quality HBCU opponents, including the defending MEAC Champs (Bethune-Cookman) and the SWAC East Champs (Jackson State). Both games will be worth watching as Butler will make his first start against BCU in the John Merritt Classic and German will be available to step on the field for the first time against JSU. German’s body of work is impressive, but Butler will be looking to show he can play as well.

Once the Tigers get in conference play, the stakes get higher. A key stretch will be back-to-back weeks against Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky, the two teams picked to finish above them in the OVC. If they can win one of those two, they should be in decent shape. If they win both, the playoffs are a strong possibility.

While this team has experience, many of its key players still have two seasons of eligibility remaining. The Tigers may be the most talented team in black college football, but being in the OVC, they’ll have a tougher route to the playoffs than their MEAC counterparts. Still, with a solid defense and playmakers like Leonard and German on offense you can’t count them out. While I think the Tigers are a year away from peaking, don’t be surprised if TSU sneaks into the expanded FCS playoffs this season.

Prediction: 9-3, OVC Runners Up (At-Large Playoff Bid)

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