The Bowie State football team closed the 2013 season with three consecutive victories. That wasn't enough to get the Bulldogs' record better than the .500 mark, but the momentum generated by the strong finish could help boost the team's confidence entering the 2014 campaign.
Bowie's late-season victories against CIAA foes Virginia Union, Lincoln, and Elizabeth City State pushed the team's record to 5-5 overall, and 3-4 in the conference. Seven starters return on both the offensive and defensive units, giving head coach Damon Wilson reason to believe the Bulldogs can be even better in 2014.
"This is our most seasoned group," said Wilson, who is entering his sixth year as the head coach at Bowie. "We want to extend the length of our season. Our guys went through a lot of ups and downs that have prepared them for this year. But we have to play a strong four quarters and finish games."
Wilson will have to find a suitable replacement for graduated quarterback Jared Johnston, who completed more than 54 percent of his passes for 1,667 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013. Four players are competing for the starting quarterback job, and the most experienced is Trevon Bennett. The senior passed for 123 yards and two touchdowns during four games.
The Bulldogs' running game will be the strength of an offense that averaged 33.2 points per outing. Senior running back Keith Brown is back after rushing for a team-leading 1,132 yards and 16 touchdowns. Brown, who gained 5.1 yards per attempt and rushed for 230 yards and four touchdowns in Bowie's season-ending victory at Elizabeth City State, will be joined in the backfield by senior Kendall Jefferson, who contributed 367 yards and nine scores on the ground.
"Keith came into camp a little lighter," Wilson said. "He's very important for what we want to do this season, and he's using his senior leadership to get our offense going. Kendall is our speed guy."
A veteran receiving corps will make the Bulldogs a balanced offensive unit. Senior tight end Khari Lee led the team with 34 catches. Junior wide receiver Nyme Manns was the Bulldogs' deep threat, averaging 18.1 yards on his 27 catches. Brown, who caught 27 passes out of the backfield, and junior wide receiver Garry Cropper (19 catches, 15.3-yard average) will give the new quarterback two more viable options in the passing game.
"It's a very versatile group," Wilson said. "Khari creates a lot of matchup problems for the defense. Manns is our vertical threat who can turn a short pass into an 80-yard score, and Cropper can do it all."
While the offense appears to be the team's strength, Bowie State will need to improve a defensive unit that surrendered 30.6 points per game in order to challenge for the CIAA crown. Antoine Young, who led the team with 66 tackles, and Delante White (54 tackles, three interceptions) have departed. The new defensive leaders will be junior cornerback Curtis Pumphrey (51 tackles, team-leading five interceptions) and senior defensive lineman Anthony McDaniel, whose 44 tackles included 16 for lost yardage and eight sacks. Sophomore linebacker Kevaugn Townsend (33 tackles) is also expected to be a major contributor. Junior linebacker Jonathan Harris, a transfer from Savannah State, has been impressive in the preseason.
"We have to get off the field on third down," said Wilson, who is 26-25 during five seasons at the state's only NCAA Division II program. "We can't give teams any extra opportunities, and we've been working on third-down situations a lot in camp."
After Bowie State breaks camp, it will face visiting Saint Anselm during the Sept. 6 season opener. One week later, the Bulldogs will travel to Baltimore for a matchup with Morgan State. Wilson said his team is looking forward to challenging Morgan, a member of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
"We would like to play that game every year," Wilson said. "We don't believe in a D-I, D-II, or D-III player. We believe that there are good football players everywhere."