New year, new team but same goals for Tuskegee's Willie Slater
Willie Slater sounds less like a man with a successful formula than a guy who appreciates the effort and support necessary to implement his plans.
Perhaps that’s why he’s spent the past decade building upon the mountainous legacy of Tuskegee University football.
The Golden Tigers, who open the 2016 season at Clark Atlanta Saturday on ASN, return key performers and welcome promising newcomers following a season that ended in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“I don’t know how we can be complacent,” said Slater, 92-24 in 10 season at Tuskegee. “It’s a new year and a new team. We have several of the guys back that played last year, but we lost a lot of guys, too. We have to replace those guys. That always makes it interesting. Hopefully, we’re not complacent. Hopefully, we’re trying to get better. It looks like they’re working hard, trying to get better.”
Tuskegee finished 10-3 and was named Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) national champion for Division II programs, the program’s 12th HBCU national title overall and sixth since 2000. The Golden Tigers, who lead all HBCUs in victories (668) made their third consecutive trip to the NCAA playoffs and won their first postseason games (their appearance in the annual Turkey Bowl prevented them from participating in the NCAA playoffs until recently).
Tuskegee is ranked 17th in the preseason AFCA D2 poll and 19th by D2football.com. The Golden Tigers were picked second in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference West Division behind Miles, which handed them their only league loss last season.
NCAA playoff run aside, the fact that the Golden Tigers didn’t even win their conference title motivates the players as they head into this season.
“We try to keep them grounded, day to day,” defensive coordinator Joseph Carter said. “That’s the biggest part of it. Understanding that we have a tremendous opportunity and to take advantage of the opportunity. We try to be honest with them. … You can’t ever let the man across from you outwork you. We try to outwork our opponents.”
Carter, who has been with Slater the entire time at Tuskegee, retools a unit that had a remarkable statistical resume last season. The Golden Tigers’ defense scored eight touchdowns, tied for first in Division II, came up with 23 interceptions (tied for fifth) and 31 turnovers (tied for 11th). Turnovers set the table for a dozen scoring drives of fewer than 30 yards and seven of fewer than 20.
Carter knows that duplicating last year’s defensive productivity isn’t a given and said that he doesn’t talk about it with the players.
“It’s one of those things,” he said, “like a guy makes 88 free throws in a row, and as soon as you mention it, he’ll miss one. That’s the same way it is with me, I don’t even talk about it. We try to be as fundamentally sound as we can and we emphasize takeaways if they’re there. I think everybody in the country talks about trying to score on defense. We’ve just been fortunate enough to have some guys with unique skill sets that can get the ball in the end zone.”
Tuskegee’s defensive prowess helped offset 29 turnovers by the offense as well as 1,219 yards in penalties. The Golden Tigers were 162nd of 168 teams in penalty yards per game (93.77) and 163rd in penalties per game (10.46).
Slater said that ball security and the discipline to reduce penalties have been points of emphasis in camp. “We have to be better in those areas,” he said.
The Golden Tigers graduated All-America linebacker and tackling machine Jewell Ratliff, as well as all-conference safety Michael Robinson. But they’re led by safety Jonah McCutcheon (7 interceptions in 2015), linebacker Osband Thompson and SIAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Julian Morgan, an undersized 6-1, 225-pound defensive end who is at times unblockable. He had 9.5 sacks a year ago despite missing three games with injury. Morgan is the ringleader of a D-line that returns its top six players and appears to be the strength of the team heading into the season.
Senior Kevin Lacey enters his third year as the starter at quarterback, which provides continuity for the offense, and he has top receiver Desmond Reece. The staff is still sorting through a group of talented, if untested backs that includes transfers Brandon Gainer, Eric Bright and Kenny Gant, along with freshmen Jayjeirin Craig and Marquez Burdette.
Tuskegee fields a different team with different challenges than last year’s group that grew into a national contender as the season progressed. But the pieces are in place to add to the program’s legacy.
“Fundamentals and techniques,” Slater said. “I think we have to embrace that. In my opinion, that’s why we’ve been successful all these years. We’ve been able to convince guys to embrace the fundamentals and techniques and playing hard.”
Photo courtesy Tuskegee University