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Tuskegee aiming for repeat in SIAC

Jacary Atkinson and Tuskegee made everything look easy last season. Duplicating that perfect record will be anything but.

The Golden Tigers will face Football Championship Subdivision teams Alabama State and Alabama A&M this season as they try to extend a 16-game winning streak. Dodging talk about the streak might be impossible.

“It’s been tough, because you can’t seem live it down,” Tuskegee coach Willie Slater said. “We’ve got to get ready to play this year, and everybody we play will be gearing up for us. I love this challenge. I’d rather have this challenge than have it the other way.”

There are some hurdles for the defending black college national champions, who outscored Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opponents by an average of 27 points in 2007. Atkinson was dominant as a first-year starter, earning league player of the year honors.

He led the nation in passing efficiency, setting school records with 2,979 yards and 34 touchdowns. Atkinson also ran for 594 yards and seven TDs.

Slater sees signs that he could be even better.

“He’s got more knowledge about defenses and about how people play against him, and hopefully that’s going make us better,” he said. “We’ve just got to stay hungry and humble. If he stays hungry and humble, he’ll get better. If he gets full of himself, then we’ll have a long season.

“He’s been working his tail off. I’m impressed with that. I think he’s a great young man, which means he’s going to stay humble, will keep working hard and will be hungry.”

Atkinson did lose three of his top four receivers and three-starting linemen. He gets back first-team All-SIAC pick Jason English, who scored on 14 of his 39 receptions.

Tailback Richard Fitzhugh is gone, too. Stephen Freeman led the starting contenders with 440 yards and averaged 6.6 per carry.

Defensively, the seven returning starters are led by All-SIAC tackle Jarvis DeVaughn, who had 12 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick last season.

Cornerback Justin Hannah has five interceptions in each of the past two seasons.

“We want to get better in the secondary,” Slater said. “That’s a wait-and-see game. If we do get better in the secondary and we do get a little more depth on the defensive front, then we should have a very good defense. I’m a firm believer that if they can’t score, they can’t beat you.”

The Tigers don’t have any open dates on the 11-game schedule.

“Once we get started it’s a mad dash,” Slater said. “We’ve got nine conference games, and conference games are tough, I don’t care who you’re playing. They’re always tough.”

A look at other Division II teams from around the state:

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Miles

Hall of Fame coach Billy Joe will try to lead a turnaround.

It won’t be easy even for Joe. The Golden Bears won only two games last season and were winless in the SIAC. They also were last in the league in rushing, scoring and total offense.

The running game was particularly ineffective, producing just 33 yards a game and exactly 1 yard per rush. The offense returns only three starters.

Leading rusher LaQuan Phillips is back after gaining 290 yards.

Top receiver Derrick Hector, a preseason all-SIAC pick, has left the team. Quarterback Ellis George is also gone.

The defense wasn’t the problem last season. Chris Bostock is a preseason all-conference selection after recording five sacks. Vincent Hill had six interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.

Miles did end a seven-game losing streak by closing the season with a win over NAIA Concordia.

Joe replaced the fired Wade Streeter and is entering his 32nd season as a head coach. He ranks behind only Eddie Robinson in victories at historically black colleges with 237 wins.

Joe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame’s Divisional Class and ranks fourth alltime in the Football Championship Subdivision in wins.

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North Alabama

The Lions have reached the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs four of the past five seasons, but haven’t made it to the championship game.

This team was picked to finish second in the Gulf South Conference behind Valdosta State by a slim 95-94 margin. North Alabama is also ranked fourth in the preseason poll.

Quarterback A.J. Milwee, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist last season, sports a 21-3 record as a starter. He’ll have plenty of backs to hand off to.

The Lions have their top six rushers back, and David McCants and Brandenn Pickett combined for 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Plus Tim Hicks returns after missing half the 2007 season with a knee injury.

The offensive line has lost right guard Luke Chenault for the season with an injury, but the other four starters return and are led by All-GSC center Sam Hathorn.

Only the receiving corps was hit hard by graduation, though top receiver Joemal Campbell is joined by former Middle Tennessee State starter Bobby Williams.

Defensively, two-time All-GSC linebacker Michael Johnson leads the way while two starters and three key reserves are gone from the line. University of Virginia transfer Chris Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 300-pounder, could help bolster the front.

Placekicker Tom Schneider is a California transfer.

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Stillman

Greg Thompson’s Tigers have had two straight 7-4 seasons, but must replace prolific quarterback Charles McCullum. Several defensive stars are among eight returning starters on that side of the ball, led by All-SIAC defensive back Dre’Mail Hardin. Hardin was second in Division II with nine interceptions last season.

Defensive end Sammie Hill and linebacker Darrin Mack also are back. Running back Quinn Porter scored 11 touchdowns last season running and receiving, and top receiver Kenneth Brown also returns.

Junior college transfer Darryl Nevis and Cedric Harris are vying to replace McCullum.

Stillman was picked to finish fifth in the SIAC.

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West Alabama

West Alabama was picked seventh in the Gulf South Conference, and that would be progress. The Tigers failed to win a league game last season and were 1-9 overall.

Coach Bobby Wallace added four new coaches, including offensive coordinator Will Hall, who is installing a spread offense. Hall won the Harlon Hill Trophy as North Alabama’s quarterback in 2003.

Junior college transfer Deon Williams, a former Valdosta State signee, could be the starter at quarterback. Kurt Kennedy had 319 passing yards in six games as a backup last season.

Terry Allen did a bit of everything last season as the team’s top receiver and No. 2 rusher. He also set a GSC record with 216 kick return yards against Harding, including a 100-yarder.

Fullback Cole Mason is back after leading the team in rushing.

The defense is led by linebackers Tariq Ali and Greg Smith, who are joined by Mississippi transfer Garry Pack. Pack started 18 games in three seasons with the Rebels.