BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Every year for the past three seasons, the SWAC’s Eastern Division crown has belonged to the Alcorn State football team.
However, the path for Alcorn State (5-6 overall, 5-4 SWAC) to the title game came with far more resistance last season.
In the preceding championship seasons, the Braves bolted to 10 wins in 2014 and followed up with a nine-win season in 2015. The journey to the 2016 crown incurred more stumbling moments including an early three-game losing streak and a pair of losses in the second half of the season.
But, the Braves were nearly able to complete a full comeback as it made it back to the championship game and held a 17-point lead before ultimately losing to Grambling State 27-20.
“When you have a lead like that and try to put a team away, it really does [feel like heartbreak],” McNair said.
“They [Grambling State] did a great job of coming back in the second half and playing tough. I think coach [Broderick] Fobbs did a great job and made adjustments at halftime. I don’t know if our guys got a bit complacent because we had a 17-point lead, but it’s always tough to lose them like that.”
In 2016, the Braves produced one of the better all-around scoring offenses in the conference as it ranked fourth with 30.3 points per game, was third in total offense (420.6 yards per game), and finished second in rushing offense by racking up 215.2 yards per contest. The Braves passing offense was more toward the middle of the pack with 205.5 passing yards per game (sixth in the SWAC).
Alcorn State has found success in employing a two-man rotating quarterback strategy by splitting work between senior Lenorris Footman and redshirt-sophomore Noah Johnson. The pair have nearly split their pass attempts (150 and 148 respectively) and yardage totals (1,131 and 1,116) down the middle and both exist as dual threats to run the ball as well.
“It’s always a great problem to have when you have a 1-2 punch like that at quarterback,” McNair said. “Lenorris [Footman] went out in the Southern game and Noah [Johnson] came in and played tremendously for the last couple games. Those are the things that we try to instill in our guys that it’s next guy up.”
De’Lance Turner is expected to be the lead back again as the senior is coming off the heels of a season in which he ran for 744 yards on 132 carries (5.6 yards per tote) with five touchdowns. The 6-1, 214-pound running back from McLain, Miss. was sixth in the conference in rushing yards per game with 67.6 yards per contest.
The offense should also be aided by senior right tackle Tim Gardner (6-6, 300 pounds), who helped Alcorn to a top 10 ranking in nation for fewest sacks allowed (0.90 allowed per game), and a No. 17 ranking in rushing offense.
Lining up at receiver will be returning redshirt senior Norlando Veals, who was a proven commodity in 2016. The 6-3, 191-pound wide out was fifth in receiving yards per game (56.1 receiving yards per game).
With many of their offensive weapons in place, the Braves appear to be a formidable foe to keep off the field.
We caught up with Coach Stanchek after football practice this morning and he discussed the O-Line and the run game https://t.co/u6v5ZcDN7p
— Alcorn Sports (@BRAVESSPORTS) August 15, 2017
A focus on improvement in 2017 will be the kicking game. The Braves were among the worst teams in the conference as far as finding a dependable kicker to tack on those much-needed points. Alcorn State made good on just 5-of-11 field goal attempts (.455) and finished with the worst percentage (.864) on point-after kicks as the team missed six PATs.
No team was better all-around in getting after the opposing quarterbacks and protecting their own quarterback than the Braves. Alcorn State ranked tied for first in sacks with Grambling State with 38 sacks and also did the best job at preventing sacks on their own quarterback as their offensive line held opposing defenses with just 13 sacks for the entire season (tied with Southern and Prairie View A&M).
Winning the turnover battle should be crucial as well. The Braves were minus eight in that category a year ago and will need to come closer to flipping that number around if they expect to contend for a title again.
Last season, Alcorn State ranked sixth in scoring defense (29.0 points allowed per game), third in total defense (393.5 yards allowed per game), fifth in rushing defense (161.7 yards allowed per game) and sixth in passing defense (231.8 yards allowed per game).
The loss of Darien Anderson should be felt on the defensive side of the ball as the departed senior led the conference in sacks with 13, was third in tackles with 93 and third in tackles for a loss with 18. The Braves will also be seeking others to step up on the defensive line with the departures of LB Michael Hurns (68 tackles, five sacks) and DE Stacey Gardner (42 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks).
A potential player to lead the Braves defense might be senior DE Michael Brooks, who came on toward the end of last season and finished with 31 tackles and was an All-SWAC Preseason First Team selection. But, it appears that Alcorn will need plenty of players to step up and fill in the void left by their key losses from a year ago.
The Braves had seven players in all named to the All-SWAC Preseason Team including two First Team selections in OL Gardner and DL Brooks and five on Second Team in RB Turner, OL Deonte Brooks, WR Veals, DL Ramonte Bell, DB O.J. O’Neal.
Head coach: Fred McNair; Record at Alcorn 5-6 (second year); Overall 5-6 (second year).
2016 record and finish: 5-6 overall, 5-4 SWAC (first in the SWAC East Division)
Returning statistical leaders
Passing: Footman (84-of-148, 1,134 yards, 6 TD, 6 Int); Johnson (84-of-150, 1,116 yards, 11 TD, 5 Int)
Rushing: Turner (132 carries, 744 yards, 5 TDs)
Receiving: Veals (31 receptions, 617 yards, 7 TDs)
Tackles: Daniel Franklin (52)
Sacks: Brooks (four)
Interceptions: Javen Morrison (three)
Potential game breaker: Veals. The Brookhaven, Miss. native is an absolute field stretcher as he displayed his big-play potential with 19.9 yards per reception in the 2016 campaign. The redshirt senior also showed a nose for the end zone as he found pay dirt on seven occasions. If he can become a more of a trusted piece of the offense (2.8 receptions per game), Veals can reach a new plateau.
Sat, Sept. 2 MILES COLLEGE 6 p.m.
Sat, Sept. 9 @FIU 6:30 p.m.
Sat, Sept. 16 MCNEESE STATE 6 p.m.
Sat, Sept. 23 SOUTHERN 6 p.m.
Fri, Sept. 29 @ Texas Southern 8 p.m.
Thurs, Oct. 5 @ Alabama State 6:30 p.m.
Sat, Oct. 14 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M 2 p.m.
Sat., Oct. 21 @ Grambling State 2 p.m.
Sat, Oct. 28 Open
Sat, Nov. 4 ALABAMA A&M 2 p.m.
Sat, Nov. 11 MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 2 p.m.