On Sunday, Big Blue takes on Bethune-Cookman for the 15th annual John Merritt Classic at 7 p.m. at LP Field.
The Tigers return 18 starters from last year’s 8-3 team including 11 on the defensive side of the ball.
However, the team’s biggest question mark will be at quarterback where freshman Ronald Butler will make his first start of his career. Butler won the job this fall when he beat out senior Holt Claiborne and JUCO transfer Lamar McKnight.
The good news for Butler is that he will have the luxury of throwing to junior tight end A.C. Leonard who is a preseason All-American by a handful of publications. Last year, Leonard led all OVC tight ends and underclassmen in receiving yards (733). He also hauled in six touchdown passes as a sophomore.
The squad will also break in a new starting running back Trabis Ward left the program at the conclusion of last season. Ward lead the conference in rushing attempts (309) yards (1,422) and touchdowns (15) in 2012. Matching Ward’s production might be difficult for one player to do, so the team will likely turn to both Telvin Hooks and Adam Davenport to carry the load. Hooks rushed 75 times last year for 425 yards for an astounding 5.7 yards per carry average. 2013 will be Davenport’s first year at Tennessee State after transferring from the Naval Academy.
On defense, the Tennessee State will return all 11 starters from a defensive squad that led the OVC in total defense in 2012 (361 y/pg). Second Team All-OVC selection Nick Thrasher will once again captain the defense from the middle linebacker position, a year removed from leading the squad with 105 stops and 9.0 tackles for loss.
The secondary is highlighted by First Team All-OVC cornerback Stephen Godbolt III and Second Team selection safety Daniel Fitzpatrick who combined for 106 tackles and seven interceptions- six by Godbolt. Even with retuning all 11 starters, the Tigers’ defense still only has seven seniors listed on the two-deep depth chart.
The Tigers’ opponent in the JMC will be the defending MEAC Champions and preseason No. 1 ranked HBCU team, Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats finished 9-3 last season including a 21-14 loss to TSU in Daytona Beach.
B-CU returns 13 starters from 2012 including its leading rusher, passer, receiver and tackler.
Isidore Jackson will enter his senior season as the Wildcat’s go-to-guy on the ground, a year removed from rushing for 1,069 yards on 191 attempts for a 5.6 average. Jackson was also the leader in all-purpose yards (1,217) and scoring (72 points).
Handing Jackson the ball will be junior Quentin Williams who rushed for 635 yards, himself, in B-CU’s spread offense. Williams’s main duty last season was to throw the ball and he performed well, tossing 11 scores compared to just two interceptions. Eddie Poole was on the receiving end on most of Williams’s passes, leading the team in receptions (32), yards (439), and touchdowns (5).
On defense, Jarkevis Fields will return after compiling 103 tackles from the linebacker position a year ago.
TSU will hope to improve to 11-4 in JMC games and 7-1 against B-CU when the teams kick off the 2013 season at 7 p.m.