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MOVING ON UP…

UWA looks to build on late-season momentum in 2005

By Jerry Hinnen / Sports editor

2-9 seasons usually don’t provide a college football program with a signature moment, a big play and a big win that catapults the team into the next season with energy and confidence. But most 2-9 seasons don’t end the way 2004 did for the University of West Alabama.

Down 27-15 at the end of three to rival North Alabama, UWA fought back to 27-22 and had the ball on UNA’s 31-yard-line with only five ticks of the clock remaining. On the game’s final play, Tiger QB Josh Crouch launched a Hail Mary in the direction of double-covered receiver Andre Epps, who shrugged off the Lion defenders and came down with the ball to give UWA a shocking 28-27 win.

The big home victory had the UWA campus buzzing for weeks, and as the Tigers welcome one of their largest recruiting classes ever for head coach Sam McCorkle’s second season back in charge, there is the feeling that the UNA victory was only the first in a series of big moments to come at Tiger Stadium.

“We’re really excited,” McCorkle said. “We had a great spring and the way we finished up last year, winning on the last play, was good for our players. With that game, and the spring, and the competitiveness our guys showed, we’re moving in the right direction.”

Senior strong safety and defensive leader Richard Bevill says that the UNA victory was huge for the team’s confidence hading into the 2005 season.

“We’d come close a lot of games, and that one we finished. That was where we learned how to go out and finis ha game,” Bevill says. “Now we just have to instill that in the young guys.”

UWA’s biggest problem may be how many of those young guys there are. Bevill is UWA’s only returning senior starter, and one of only three seniors on the roster. The Tigers return only two starters on offense (including none on the offensive line), five on defense, and neither of last year’s kicking specialists. Every quarterback on last year’s roster is gone.

McCorkle admits that there will likely still be some growing pains for the developing program this season.

“We’re a really young team,” he says. “We don’t have a great number of seniors or juniors, but we do have almost 60 freshmen. We’ve got to have leadership.”

For that, McCorkle will lean on the few upperclassmen he has, such as Bevill, Epps, and returning starting defensive end Tim Kelley.

As the unquestioned leader of a defense the coaching staff will expect to keep the Tigers in games while the young offense develops, Bevill’s role is especially important. McCorkle says Bevill’s penchant for the big hit–“We do not have a guy on our team who hits any harder”–and ability to change the game with it is what sets him apart as a leader.

For his part, Bevill (SR, 5-10, 165) says he hopes to lead, but by doing his job at safety and letting his play speak for itself

“I don’t feel any pressure [ to lead]. I just want to set an example with my actions,” he says. “I’m not a talkative guy. If the everyone else can look and see me working hard, hopefully they’ll just follow my lead.”

Having the privilege of serving as Bevill’s position coach is new secondary coach Ken Watson, a former UWA All-Conference player who has returned to Livingston after a stint coaching with Miles college in Birmingham.

“He’s a great safety,” Watson says. “People love to see good hits…he’s the quarterback of our defense.”

Despite Bevill’s presence, the Tigers’ youth movement–the other three projected starters are all sophomores–means that there is still room for development in the defensive backfield. Returning contributors S Kellen DaCosta, SS Marcus Foxworth, FS Demarcus Thornton, and CB Terence Campbell will help, but so will a seasoned and talented defensive line, Watson says.

“A good front four is vital to the success of the secondary,” Watson says. “And we have a good defensive line.”

McCorkle agrees, calling the Tigers’ defensive line the strongest unit on his team “if they can go out and do the things they can do,” he says. Given McCorkle’s belief that running the ball and stopping the run are the keys to victory, his defensive line is one of the biggest reasons for his confidence entering this season.

“They could set the tempo,” he says, “for the way we play football.”

The line is led by returning starters Kelley (JR, 6-0, 222) and tackle Alvin Garrett (JR, 5-11, 300) who led the team in 2004 with 2.5 sacks. Junior end Sam Farley and transfers Brandon Phillips and Jason Riles will also look to have an impact.

With all of the Tigers’ starting linebackers from last season graduated, this year’s group will be talented but untested. Juco transfers Tradexter Hamilton, Kidane McBride, and Lewis Thompson will be asked to contribute immediately, and impressive sophomore John Wallace (6-1, 218) will need to build on a successful freshman season.

On offense, McCorkle is committed to running the football. Due in large part to his predecessor Randy Pippin’s emphasis on the pass, the offensive line wasn’t as physical or overpowering in 2004 as McCorkle would have liked. Enter Jason Underwood, the Tigers’ new offensive line coach, who promises that won’t be a problem this season.

“We feel really good about our ability to run-block,” Underwood says. “We’re going to be more physical than we have been…we’re strides ahead of where they were last year.”

Underwood says working with the many underclassmen on UWA’s roster has actually been a blessing during his first spring with the program after working with Butler University for the previous two years.

“These young guys never got used to another system,” he says. “They don’t have start over developing new habits. We got them as freshmen and they know they’re going to play and they’re excited.”

That excitement and the commitment to physical football means that even though the offensive line will replace every starter from 2004, McCorkle believes that good recruiting and excellent tutelage from Underwood will make this year’s line better than last year’s despite their lack of experience.

“They’re more aggressive,” he says. “We’ll be better than we’ve been. If coach Underwood and these guys stay together for a couple of years, when they’re juniors and seniors they’ll be the most dominant offensive line in this league.”

The list of those potentially dominant guys starts with redshirt freshman Shadie Jones, a transfer from Division I South Florida who came to Livingston looking for a program more committed to the run than the Bulls. Underwood said Jones had a terrific spring and will be expected to start this fall at right guard.

Redshirt freshman Cody Turner will likely fill out the right side at tackle, with juniors Zach Giddens and Paul Girton working at center with Giddens the probable starter. On the left side, Girton, redshirt freshman Ryan Sanders, and sophomore John Young will all compete for playing time. Junior Raynardo McVay and redshirt freshman Randall Hunt will also be in the o-line mix and could receive the starting nod.

Size will not be an issue for the Tigers. Jones, Turner, Sanders, McVay, and Hunt are all 6-feet or taller and all tip the scales at more than 300 pounds, with Turner the biggest of the bunch at 6-5, 330. Underwood says that the line will likely average in the neighborhood of 320 pounds.

“We want players wh ocan move guys around,” Underwood says. “These are guys who were looked at and bypassed by bigger schools, usually because maybe their feet weren’t quite quick enough for them, but they’re perfect for us…we’re just going to come out and try to run the football.”

The biggest beneficiary of all that beef? Junior tailback Jerin Wright, one of the Tigers’ two returning offensive starters. At a stocky 5-9, 217, Wright is a powerful-yet-shifty back who picked up 491 yards on only 88 carries from the fullback position, an impressive 5.6 yards-per-carry average. Wright will be spelled by redshirt freshman Josh Jones and joined in the backfield by fullbacks A.J. Holloway and Jared Day.

On paper, the UWA passing game will be something of a question mark, as none of the quarterbacks on the 2005 roster were Tigers in 2004. But thanks to athletic sophomore James Reiter, a 6-1, 199 transfer from the Citadel, McCorkle remains confident UWA will make the passes they need to.

“He’s competitive,” McCorkle said, making note of the fact that Reiter led Daphne to a state title during his tenure there. “He can run around, do some things, make some things happen for us.”

There will be a battle to claim the backup QB position, with true freshmen Matt Patterson, Phillip Merryman, and Michael White all in the mix.

Reiter’s go-to-receiver will almost certainly be Epps, the second of UWA’s returning starters. The 5-10, 165 junior wideout led the Tigers with 19 receptions for 201 yards and will be looking to improve on those numbers this season. The talented and tall (6-3) Utavius Ingram will occupy the other starting receiver position. Itawamba Community college transfer Chris Coach had a big spring and will see plenty of playing time as well.

Add it all up and it equals to renewed optimism in Livingston.

“I would be shocked,” Underwood says, “if this team doesn’t finish above .500.”

And regardless of exactly what record UWA claims this year, it seems a stretch to imagine that with all the young talent assembled on McCorkle’s team, that Epps’s catch against UNA wasn’t the beginning of a bright, bright future for the Tigers.

“Our potential,” McCorkle says, “is tremendous.”