Tennessee State's expectations easily exceed preseason predictions

Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 7:39pm

With college football teams set to open preseason camps in the coming days, The City Paper looks at programs of significant local interest.

Tuesday — Tennessee; Wednesday — Vanderbilt; Thursday — Tennessee State; Friday — Middle Tennessee State

TENNESSEE STATE (3-8, 0-7 Ohio Valley Conference in 2010)

Though they were picked to finish eighth (out of nine teams) by the OVC coaches and sports information directors, the Tigers have higher expectations for Rod Reed’s second year as head coach.

Though 16 starters return, including 10 on offense, Reed says TSU continues to rebuild after he redshirted all but three of his freshman last year.

Still, the Tigers have more than enough talent to put together a surprise season. To do so, they’ll have to overcome a schedule that features seven road games and a conference that is balanced.

Offensively, the running game should be a strength again if the offensive line successfully can replace two starters. Running back Dante’ Thomas returns and sophomore Trabis Ward is ready to play after a redshirt year. Calvin McNairl will be the go-to threat at wide receiver after catching 34 passes for 429 yards and four touchdowns.

But someone will have to step up and fill the void left by leading receiver Joseph Hills, who was signed by the Titans last week. Jeremy Perry is hoping for a better season at quarterback after he adjusted to a pro-style offense and new coordinator last year.

Middle linebacker Rico Council anchors a defense that returns six starters. The front seven is full of experience but the secondary is a question mark. Marquez Hall and three-time All-OVC selection Eugene Clifford are gone. So Justin Bather and Joe Wylie will need some help to prevent big plays.

• One to watch (offense): Dante’ Thomas, running back. The preseason All-OVC selection returns as the league’s second leading rusher from last year. The Dallas native ran for 793 yards and six touchdowns on 155 carries (5.1 yards per carry).

The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder didn’t have to do it all last year, splitting carries with Preston Brown, before he went down with an injury, and then Terrance Wright. It will be more of the same this season as redshirt-sophomore Trabis Ward will spell — and challenge — Thomas at the running back spot. But Thomas brings senior leadership and experience to a position that will be relied heavily on, especially early.

• One to watch (defense): Rico Council, linebacker. The senior middle linebacker was named the league’s preseason co-defensive player of the year and has a knack for delivering the big hit.

The 6-foot-1, 256-pounder from Chattanooga led the Tigers last year with four sacks in addition to 79 tackles, which was the second most on the team. His 209 career tackles rank behind only those of head coach Rod Reed on the school’s career list. His lead-by-example style will be essential for a unit that will infuse a lot of young talent.

• 2010 in review: The Tigers ended the season on a six-game losing streak but five of their eight losses were by fewer than seven points. They ranked fourth in the OVC in scoring defense (23.5 points per game) and total defense (342.2 yards per game) but couldn’t stop the big play.

Opponents scored a touchdown of 30 yards or more in six different games. Offensively, the running game was strong, ranking second in the OVC. But there was no balance as the passing game sputtered with quarterback Jeremy Perry adjusting to a new system. 

• Quote of note: “We’re really excited about [2011]. We’re not going to make any excuses. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But if all the stars align for us and we can keep some people healthy, I think we are going to make a run at it.” — Reed

Key dates
Sept. 3 vs. Southern: The 12th annual John Merritt Classic features two teams looking to put dreadful 2010 seasons behind them. 

Sept. 24 at Air Force: The Falcons went 9-4 last year, including losses to Oklahoma, TCU and Utah (all ranked at the time). They finished the season with a victory over Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl.

Nov. 5 at Eastern Illinois: The Tigers let a win on senior day last year slip away against the Panthers, who rallied from a 28-7 halftime deficit to win in overtime.

Nov. 19 vs. Jacksonville: Depending how the rest of the season goes, TSU could play the role of spoiler or still be a contender in its regular-season finale. Either way, the Tigers figure to be in for a battle with the Gamecocks, who were picked to win the OVC title.