NASHVILLE --- Tennessee State will kickoff the 2003 football season by hosting South Carolina State in the 2003 John Merritt Classic. Game time is 7 p.m. in the Coliseum in downtown Nashville.
The Tigers begin the new season in hopes of turning around last season's campaign. Coach James Reese has set a ?Back to Business? approach this year's campaign and says his team has had a productive preseason camp.
?The guys have worked hard and we are ready to play a game at this point,? said Reese, who is set to begin his fourth season as his alma mater's head coach. ?We are a much better team than we were at this point last season and hopefully we can avoid mistakes and injuries and get off to a good start.?
The Tigers were plagued by turnovers as they lost a 26-20 decision to the Bulldogs last August 31 in Orangeburg. TSU committed five turnovers and saw a 20-3 lead disappear.
TSU has the nucleus of its team coming back to face the challenge. Fielding one of the nation's youngest teams last season, the Tigers return 20 players who saw primary starting duty.
?We know South Carolina State is bring a very good football team to town,? said Reese. ?However, our players will be ready for the challenge.?
Offensively, the Tigers return many weapons. Senior wide receiver C.J. Johnson has the opportunity to become TSU's all-time leading receiver in yardage. Johnson made 45 catches for 1,034 yards and scored nine TD's his junior season.
TSU is hoping for an injury-free season from running back Charles Anthony as he enters his junior year. Despite missing action with injuries, Anthony rushed for 882 yards on 150 attempts, scoring 10 TD's.
The Tigers have one of the Ohio Valley Conference's most versatile performers in senior receiver Carlos Wright. Wright scored touchdowns receiving, rushing, and on punt returns last season and even had one TD pass. He will again be a player the Tigers will look to get the ball to often with his big-play capabilities.
One of the goals for the Tigers in spring practice was to settle on a starting quarterback coming out of the session. TSU used four different starters last season.
Junior Riley Walker will enter the season as the probable starter. Walker was 45-89-5 for six TD's before being injured late in the season.
Defensively, the Tigers will look to be more opportunistic and avoid allowing the big play. Pursuit of the football was a point of emphasis during spring drills under new defensive coordinator, Rod Reed, a former Tiger All-America linebacker.
The unit does have a pair of returning first-team All-OVC cornerbacks in seniors Scott Cunningham and Deon Giddens. Cunningham led the OVC in passes defended with 19 breakups and three interceptions. Giddens led the team with 65 unassisted tackles and five pass interceptions.
Manny Robles is a veteran at the tackle spot and Keith Rogers saw his first action last season. Establishing up front depth will be a key for the unit.
Joey Hudak returns for his junior season at kicker after earning second-team All-OVC honors. Hudak also handled the majority of the punting chores, but sophomore Kevin Roberson saw more duty as the season progressed.
South Carolina State finished its first season at 7-5 under Oliver ?Buddy? Pough. Pough took over the reins of the Bulldog program, replacing the legendary Willie Jeffries who retired.
SCSU returns 41 lettermen, among them 13 starters, with many of them on offense. Senior quarterback Reese McCampbell (5-11, 180) returns to direct the Bulldog offense, which averaged 26.8 points last year.
On defense, the Bulldogs will field a hard-hitting linebacker corps and the secondary should be among the best in the MEAC. Dreak Pooler, who was second on the team in total tackles with 82 stops, leads the unit.
TSU leads the series with South Carolina State 4-2. SCSU has won the past two meetings, last year's decision and a 34-28 decision in 1997.
The Tigers will be shooting for their fifth straight win in the John Merritt Classic, named in honor of the legendary TSU coach. Last season, TSU rolled to a 41-8 win over Prairie View A&M.