When Bennie Ellender departed Arkansas State for Tulane he left his successor with a nod of the head, a shake of the hand and the key to the family jewels. Bill Davidson, Class of '56 and for the last eight years Ellender's offensive coordinator, inherits 17 starters from the unbeaten (11-0) national champions of 1970. As an indication of their individual worth, four of them were either first team, second or honorable-mention All-Americas.
Quarterback James Hamilton is the most valuable, if only because he has guided the team to three consecutive Southland Conference titles. He passed for 1,800 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and was the outstanding offensive player in the 38-21 Pecan Bowl win over Central Missouri.
His leading receiver, Chet Douthit, has graduated, but succeeding him is Kearney Blalack, who averaged 30 yards on kickoff returns as a freshman. Hamilton can also call on a ground game that features Calvin Harrell, who gained 1,266 yards and scored 13 touchdowns last season. Johnnie Carr was so effective as a substitute (with 596 yards rushing and six touchdowns plus 178 yards passing in three of four attempts for two touchdowns) that he has earned a starting role in the same backfield. Harrell will provide the brawn, Carr the speed.
The defense has only two vacancies. One of them is entrusted to Bill Phillips, an All-America at offensive guard, who moves to linebacker. The secondary is keyed by Dennis Meyer, who intercepted 13 passes in 1970.
Arkansas State is unbeaten in its last 19 games and hasn't suffered a conference loss since 1967. Not only does Coach Davidson have tradition and talent but by 1973 he'll be playing in a new 25,000-seat stadium. The situation is reminiscent of the teen-age son who finally gets to drive the family car. He knows it runs fast and smooth and will get lots of admiring glances at the drive-in. And he knows, too, that if he dents a fender he'll be walking again.
When Dr. Harold E. Sponberg became president of Eastern Michigan University in 1965 the football followers around Ypsilanti rejoiced. "If we think winning is part of excellence in the academic program," said the former Gustavus Adolphus guard, "then I'm all for winning. I don't want a weak athletic program any more than I want our choir to sing off key."
Prospects for this year's choir are uncertain, but the football team should make just the kind of music Dr. Sponberg likes to hear. "This could be my best team of all time," says Coach Dan Boisture, who came to Eastern Michigan in 1967 after eight years as a Duffy Daugherty assistant at Michigan State.
The Hurons were 7-2-1 last season and the tie was with that power of powers, North Dakota State. The key performer in ground-oriented Slot-I attack should again be Tailback Larry Ratcliff, who gained 1,011 yards last fall and had runs of 83, 73, 53 and 44 yards among his 10 touchdowns. Ratcliff has a very good friend in Quarterback Bobby Hill, who calls on him 25 times every Saturday. Hill plays just the kind of quarterback expected from an ex-marine: demanding and hardnosed. He became a starter after midseason last year and under his direction the Hurons won their last four games, outscoring the opposition 129-8. Ratcliff and Hill can count on an offensive line that Boisture rates as the team's top asset.
The defense recorded five shutouts last year and, although graduation losses have changed the four-four front to a wide-tackle six, it should again be strong. The widest and best of the tackles is Dave Puriefory, a 245-pounder who runs the 40 in 4.6. End Will Foster and Back Darrell Mossburg are other capable defenders for the Hurons.
There is talent and depth at every position and a schedule that brings six of nine opponents to Ypsilanti. When the choir is also in town, there should be some big weekends for Dr. Sponberg.
The winner of the Ohio Valley Conference should be in line for national recognition this year and a good choice for that honor is Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels came very close last season but were upset in the final game 16-13 by Morehead State to finish 8-2 and fall short by mere percentage points. There were only four seniors on that team, all of them offensive linemen. Coach Roy Kidd has gone to his stockpile of defensive talent, highlighted by Tackle Wally Chambers and Linebacker James Croudep, and made changes which should once again give Tailback Jimmy Brooks plenty of romping room. Brooks gained 1,013 yards as a freshman, 1,102 as a sophomore and 970 as a junior, and how many backs do you know who rush for 4,000 in a career?
Brooks is one of the few Eastern players who came to Richmond on a full scholarship. Of the 12 starters on last year's offensive team (two fullbacks alternated) only one other had any kind of financial aid until he proved himself on the field.
"A player can go into spring practice without a cent and come out of it with a full grant by working his way up to the first unit," says Kidd, who must treat his 50-scholarship limit like a fussbudget housewife. "Our spring practices are really something because these kids know it can mean bread in their mouths."
Kidd's formula has worked so well in his seven years as coach that the college-division football team at Eastern has succeeded the university-division basketball team as the big sport on campus. And in Kentucky that's no small accomplishment.
Jacksonville State University is not the same school where those seven-footers play basketball. This one is in Alabama and until recently the school was consistent only in its ability to play losing football, which went right along with its reputation as the "Friendliest Campus in the South." Last fall it stopped being friendly. In a frenzied rush from mediocrity, Jacksonville State won all nine regular-season games and defeated Florida A&M 21-7 in the Orange Blossom Classic. With 18 starters returning, all of them coached by a Bear Bryant protégé of the early 1960s, mind you, the Gamecocks should again win more games than friends. Coach Charley Pell has so much material that he must talk about "overconfidence and complacency" when looking for something to complain about.
The offense last season averaged 32.5 points and 392.8 yards per game behind the passing of Quarterback Doc Lett and rushing of Tailback Boyce Callahan. The 158-pound Callahan was an exceptional freshman, gaining 1,293 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. The defense returns everyone, including Linebacker Gary Godfrey, the Mid-South Conference MVP. It allowed only 10.4 points per game and forced a turnover once every five plays. Against Western Carolina the secondary came up with 10 interceptions, an NAIA record. With all this comes Placekicker Danny Kemp, who made nine of 15 field goal tries and scored 63 points.
When Pell took over in 1969, Jacksonville was fourth in a four-team league. "The first thing I did was look up the band director and ask for his support," says Pell, who favors the total performance approach to winning. That first team was 3-6, the second 10-0, and as for this year Pell says, "My ambition is not to beat Alabama, but to have the best small-college team in America." Rest easy, Alabama.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE
It is simpler to measure the consumption of beer during a postgame bacchanalia at Chub's Pub in Fargo, N. Dak. than to count the various streaks, skeins, runs and strings associated with the local college football team. The consecutive successes of North Dakota State now include 36 regular-season games without a loss, 33 at home, 24 in the conference, seven North Central Intercollegiate championships, six berths in the Top Ten and four bowl appearances. Coach Ron Erhardt's five-year record is 46-3-1 and he has won two national titles.
The top-poppers at Chub's Pub barely care that half of the 1970 team that finished 9-0-1 is gone. Erhardt replaced 10 offensive starters last year and still went unbeaten at a time when he could have been coaching Wisconsin of the Big Ten.
Erhardt is a consummate winner who has been associated with nine unbeaten teams in 14 years of coaching. This staggering success is due in part to a pragmatic approach that allows him to adjust and make do, plus a hunch player's knack for correctly anticipating the opposition. As one former player puts it, "Sometimes it appears he's coaching the other team."
North Dakota State's prospects are buoyed by the return of Quarterback Mike Bentson, a home-town boy who set the school total offense record last season with 1,728 yards—1,248 passing and 480 rushing. Wayne Stevenson rejoins him at fullback and top receiver Pete Lana will again line up wide. Sophomore Bruce Reimer replaces leading ground gainer Dennis Preposki but Guard Lyle Anderson returns to lead the blocking charge in those relentless Veer option sweeps.
Defensive losses include the entire line-backing unit and the right side of the four-man front. The defensive secondary, with three of four players returning, appears set. But even if it wasn't, it probably wouldn't matter a bit.
Somewhere under that cloud of El Producto smoke, hidden behind dark glasses and with a natty derby balanced atop his head, is burly, flamboyant John Merritt, coach of Tennessee State. The Tigers won their third mythical black championship last year under Merritt, who came to Nashville in 1963. State's record was 11-0 and the strengths of that team return, Quarterback Joe (Jefferson Street) Gilliam and a pair of imposing offensive and defensive lines. "They won't face any tougher opposition this season than they faced out there today," said Merritt at the close of spring practice.
The worth of that line talent is reflected in Larry Woods, a second-string tackle behind returnee Ed Jones. Woods was a fourth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions. "We either don't know our talent or we have lots of depth," says Merritt slyly.
Quarterback Gilliam—his nickname comes from the street that bisects the campus—is a drop-back passer who threw 20 times a game last season. "A pass is just a long hand-off," Merritt says, but Gilliam's seem to be longer than most since he averaged 17 yards per completion. His more conventional hand-offs go to Alfred Reese, leading rusher and scorer who also does the placekicking.
It is talent like this that has prevented a Merritt team from finishing worse than 6-3. "A Negro boy has got to be motivated to win," says Merritt. "He hasn't had much opportunity. We teach him he can't afford to muff it."
Merritt and his chief recruiter, Shannon Little, are advocates of the hard sell, although Gilliam, the son of Defensive Coach Joe Gilliam Sr., was an easy catch.
"The reason I drive a Cadillac is not because I can afford it or because I like it," Merritt says. "I drive it because it is important to present a good appearance. Boys who live on a dirt floor are bound to be impressed by a man who drives a big car and dresses well."
Chances are they'll be impressed by that 11-0 record, too, Coach.
Montana has won all 20 of its regular-season games the past two years only to be soundly defeated by North Dakota State in the Camelia Bowl. Graduation decimated the defensive line and linebacking corps but the offense is well stocked with veterans in the backfield and interior. Delaware will be seeking its fourth straight Lambert Cup but without 15 of the starters who finished 9-2 in 1970. Coach Tubby Raymond anticipates another formidable ground attack and rushing defense. If Western Kentucky shores up its defense it could repeat as Ohio Valley Conference champion. Quarterback Leo Peckenpaugh and sophomore runners Clarence Jackson and John Embree make the offense go. Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson should notch his 200th career victory with at least seven more wins this fall. A smart set of offensive guards named Solomon (Freelon and Cannon) return from a 9-2 team. Thirteen veteran starters heighten Abilene Christian's chances but missing is Jim Lindsey, the college division's most offensive player ever. Ron Lauterbach takes his place at quarterback with a keener eye on the ground game. Don Harr set a school record with 1.106 yards rushing last year, so the Wildcats might again approach the 9-2 success level.