It is one thing to set expectations every football season. It is another thing to rise above them through constant adversity, injuries and challenges faced over the course of a season.
Alcorn State has managed to maintain its winning ways over the last six seasons in which five of them include appearances in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Championship game, three conference titles and two trips to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
Fred McNair, who enters his fourth season as head coach for Alcorn State, is responsible for guiding the Braves to three consecutive SWAC East titles and winners of the 2018 SWAC Championship.
That level of success, however, comes with a big price: constantly setting higher expectations.
“They always rise,” McNair said. “I tell the players that you pay the price for winning.”
As fall camp begins in a few days, McNair and his coaching staff begin the grind of building greater expectations with hopes of reaching new levels of success that include repeating as SWAC champs but ultimately winning the Celebration Bowl, a game that was filled with missed opportunities and still sits on the minds of Braves’ players.
To do that, the need for consistency in all aspects of the game will be the key as the Braves prepare for another season on the gridiron.
- Top SWAC RBs 2019: Alcorn State’s De’Shawn Waller
- Top SWAC QBs 2019: Alcorn State’s Noah Johnson
- SWAC Preview: Alcorn State
The gift of depth
The Braves finished the season 9-4 overall and 6-1 in conference play last season. Their success, however, did not come easy and without any hiccups.
Injuries can play a critical role on a team. Luckily, the level of depth on the Braves roster allowed them to overcome their hurdles and many of those players have gained valuable experience from a year ago.
“Having depth helps us out a lot,” McNair said.
“When a man goes down, the next man comes up. That’s why we strive to develop our depth as much as we can.”
Expectations for 2019 Season
Almost anyone who has been there on Gameday can tell you there is nothing like a Saturday afternoon on “The Reservation” at Jack Spinks-Marino Casem Stadium with an electrifying crowd of Alcornites packed in the stands to cheer on their Braves.
The tailgating, the fellowship, the Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite marching band and the level of intensity the players bring to the football field make the reservation one of the toughest venues to play in the SWAC.
The fans play a big part in the team’s success. When the Braves take the field for their first game against in-state Southern Miss on Aug. 31, McNair said his team will bring the excitement for fans but it will ultimately play Braves football.
“We are going to play hard and play even harder this year,” McNair said.
“Everybody realizes that we are the SWAC champs. But, we have to play like we are and that’s what we are going to do the course of camp to try to get these guys ready.”
Key players returning for the Braves
The 2018 season was built upon a Braves team that featured 12-All SWAC selections that included 10 on the First-Team, six HBCU All-Americans, a STATS FCS Third-Team All-American and a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American.
In 2019, however, the Braves will be without three of their playmakers from year ago: Sterling Shippy, Trae Ferrell and PJ Simmons.
The good news?
Alcorn enters the 2019 season with 14 selections for the All-SWAC Preseason First and Second teams with many of them returners from last year’s core of players on offense and defense.
Offensively, the Braves return the 2019 Preseason SWAC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Noah Johnson, the 2018 SWAC Newcomer of the Year in running back De’Shawn Waller, three offensive linemen in Deonte Brooks, Mustaffa Ibrahim and Kevin Hall and kicker Corey McCullough.
Currently, Johnson ranks eighth all-time in school history in touchdown passes (30), ninth in passing yards (4,018) and 10th in rushing yards (1,867). In 2018, he threw for 2,207 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also ranked third in the FCS in rushing yards per carry (7.5) and 16th in completion percentage (62.1).
The Braves led the conference in total offense (473.3 yards per game), rushing (285.8), first downs (23.2) and time of possession (32:42) in 2018.
“We have a great offensive line coming back, a great running back and my quarterback is phenomenal,” McNair said.
“Those are the guys who we are looking for leadership in offensively.”
Waller, who missed a couple of games because of injury last season, said he is very excited for the season.
“I am ready to play football and being healthy is my only expectation,” Waller said. “Other than that, I’m just going to come out and play and hopefully make longer runs.”
ASU also returns the 2019 Preseason All-SWAC Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Solomon Muhammad. Despite missing two games, Muhammad finished second on the team in tackles with 64, recorded four sacks and nine tackles for a loss.
Other first team All-SWAC selections include defensive backs Javen Morrison and Qwynnterrio Cole, second team All-SWAC defensive linemen Darrell Henderson and Theron Bonds, second team punter in McCullough, second team All-SWAC linebacker Brelion Harris and defensive back Daylon Burks.
The Braves led the conference in total defense (291.4 ypg), scoring defense (21.5 points per game), rushing defense (91.2 ypg), interceptions (14), sacks (4.0), tackles for a loss (9.5) and fewest first downs allowed (16.2).
Getting back to the Celebration Bowl
Aside from winning another division crown and SWAC title, Alcorn’s next biggest challenge resides in the Celebration Bowl where the Braves will not only look to make another appearance but to hoist the winners’ trophy, something they failed to do a year ago in a heartbreaking loss on a “controversial” two-point conversion that would have tied the game.
A popular opinion might be that Alcorn could have won the game or at least played a little longer – maybe overtime – if the Braves picked up the two-point conversion. But for McNair, the outcome of the game was much bigger than one play.
“We left a lot plays out there on the field. It is not about what they did but what we didn’t do,” McNair said at the 2019 SWAC Media Day.
Every season brings with it a new outlook and fresh perspective. And for Muhammad, the lack of not winning the Celebration Bowl was all apart of God’s plan.
“It is a reason for everything. I think that God did not want us to win it last year,” Muhammad said.
“He knew he wanted us to come back and work harder for it so we could show that we really deserved it.”
Can Alcorn Keep It Up?
After the game against Southern Miss, Alcorn returns home to play Mississippi College before going on the road to play McNeese State. From there, the Braves open up conference play with three SWAC games with two at home against Prairie View and Mississippi Valley before traveling to Montgomery, Alabama to play Alabama State, the team that stunned Alcorn 28-25 in five overtime loss.
Following Alcorn’s homecoming against Savannah State, the Braves have a bye week before arguably beginning their four toughest games of the season against teams who are projected to do well in the conference.
The Braves get a regular season rematch of the 2018 SWAC Championship game against Southern at home before going on to the road to face Grambling. Then, Alcorn will get a taste of Alabama A&M in front of its home crowd before the season finale of the Soul Bowl against Jackson State, a game that will be played in Jackson this season.
The stakes are high but the expectations are even higher for the Braves.
“We have a lot of good teams on our schedule and we have to be prepared to play,” McNair said.
“That’s our mindset. Prepare each week and take one game at a time.”