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Roles reversed in the SWAC

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Those "How did you spend your summer vacation?" papers were given an early twist at Prairie View A&M. During spring practices, head coach Henry Frazier III had each of his players write a half- page paper that answered the question "How do champions prepare?"

Considering the Panthers are coming off their first Southwestern Athletic Conference title since 1964, Frazier expects as many right answers on paper as he will on the playing field.

"We're in uncharted territory as defending champions," said the winner of the 2009 Eddie Robinson Award, which honors the FCS Coach of the Year. "I don't think anyone in the program has ever experienced this here at Prairie View. Forty-five years is the last championship here at Prairie View. I wasn't born."

Frazier focused on player attitudes this spring, because Prairie View will be a Texas-sized favorite to win a second straight title. With a talented roster that could feature 18 senior starters, the Panthers' seventh-year coach believes, "It's one of things that the only thing that can stop us is ourselves."

K.J. Black was the 2009 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.
That's where the Grambling State Tigers hope to step in. The 2008 SWAC champs from Louisiana surrendered the title to Prairie View, losing 35-32 in their regular-season meeting. Considering the Tigers have been the conference champion 22 times over the last 50 seasons, that didn't sit well with the most storied program among the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

With Grambling State uncertain about the NCAA granting two-year-starting quarterback Greg Dillon a sixth year of eligibility, and Prairie View seemingly having everything in place, the usual roles in the SWAC are changed this season. The hunter has become the hunted, and vice versa.

"We're just trying to go and get better and try to win some football games," said Grambling State coach Rod Broadway, who is in his third season with the Tigers. "Hopefully, when the smoke clears we can be in this thing at the end. I don't know about hunted or being hunted or all that other stuff. When you win, like Grambling's won, you always have a bull's-eye on you and everybody takes a pretty good shot at you. So you've got to be ready to play every week. That can be a difficult situation sometimes.

"Our focus is we're still attacking, we're still going after folks," Frazier said. "That's the thing when you take that 'hunted' mentality. You kind of think you've arrived. But that's not the mentality that we're taking."

"I treat (Grambling State) like any other opponent. That was the big one to get off our back because they were the last team in the conference that we were able to beat (during Frazier's tenure). Coach Broadway is a first-class guy. He's going to have his guys ready to play, I know that."

Prairie View has finished 9-1 in each of the past two seasons, losing only to Grambling State in 2008 and then to FBS program New Mexico State by a field goal last season. With the return of seven players who earned All-SWAC honors, the Panthers have reason to be confident. Quarterback K.J. Black, the 2009 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year who completed over 70 percent of his passes for 2,033 yards and 22 touchdowns, and leading rusher Donald Babers will operate behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, including guards James Dekle and Tim Tusey. Defensive end/outside linebacker Quinton Spears is the defensive leader, and punter Pedro Ventura will vie for All-America honors.

"Our overall team speed is probably the fastest we've had here since we've been here at Prairie View," Frazier said. "It's definitely the most depth we've had since we've been at Prairie View and the most experience we've had at Prairie View. We always looked at 2010 as a year we could be really good. Once K.J. emerged last year, it kind of kicked up a year earlier. We have all the pieces in place to be a very successful football team. As long as we continue to work very hard and trust our teammates, I think the sky's the limit for this group."

Grambling State's 7-4 record last season was considered a big disappointment after the Tigers had played in the SWAC Championship Game in 2007 and '08. Their strength is on the defense, which is led by senior end Christian Anthony, who was named to The Sports Network All-America First Team last season, and linebacker Cliff Exama. Dillon, the dual-threat at quarterback, had originally walked on at another university before walking on again at Grambling State, so the Tigers are waiting to learn from the NCAA about whether he will be at the controls this season. They return running backs Frank Warren and Cornelius Walker, who combined to rush for nearly 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns. Wide receiver Kiare Thompson is also one of the top kickoff returners in the FCS.

The West is Best
Since the Southwestern Athletic Conference created East and West divisions and a championship game in 1999, the West Division has produced eight of the 11 overall champions:

1999 - East: Jackson State, West: Southern; Champ: Southern
2000 - East: Alabama A&M, West: Grambling; Champ: Grambling
2001 - East: Alabama State, West: Grambling; Champ: Grambling
2002 - East: Alabama A&M, West: Grambling; Champ: Grambling
2003 - East: Alabama State, West: Southern; Champ: Southern
2004 - East: Alabama State, West: Southern; Champ: Alabama State
2005 - East: Alabama A&M, West: Grambling; Champ: Grambling
2006 - East: Alabama A&M, West: Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Champ: Alabama A&M
2007 - East: Jackson State, West: Grambling State; Champ: Jackson State
2008 - East: Jackson State, West: Grambling State; Champ: Grambling State
2009 - East: Alabama A&M, West: Prairie View A&M; Champ: Prairie View A&M
Source: Southwestern Athletic Conference
"Like everybody, we're very optimistic at this time of year, and we think we have a chance of having a good football team," Broadway said. "At this game, especially at this level, if you get one or two (key) injuries, it changes the whole outlook of your football team. I do know this: whoever wins this conference will be lucky and good. Because you're got to be lucky to stay healthy.

"Prairie View is doing a good job. There's a lot of teams. You just have to be ready every week. That's the bottom line. You can't not be ready because anybody can beat anybody. We just have to be on top of our game and not get too concerned with anybody (else)."

Prairie View and Grambling State will play each other Sept. 25 at the State Fair Classic in Dallas.

AROUND THE NATION

- Defending Great West Conference champion UC Davis is clearly moving on to Plan B after two-year-starting quarterback Greg Denham, who has thrown for 6,435 yards and 46 touchdowns during his career, decided not to play this fall to pursue a career in the ministry. Among the Aggies' three returning QBs, Austin Heyworth was the only one to play last year, earning GWC Player of the Week honors when he replaced an injured Denham and threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a win over Portland State. Sean Maraz was the backup in 2008, while Randy Wright was on the travel squad as a true freshman last season. Coach Bob Biggs has a history of developing quarterbacks.

- Major League Baseball's amateur draft will be held Monday through Wednesday. Villanova wide receiver Matt Szczur, who was the MVP of the Wildcats' 23-21 win over Montana in the 2009 FCS Championship Game, could be drafted in the fourth- to eighth-round range. Teams know what he is seeking money-wise for him to sacrifice his senior season of football. He also is more interested in being drafted as a catcher than a corner outfielder.

- Georgia State has yet to announce starting times for its first season, but the Panthers' first game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2 when they host NAIA program Shorter College at the Georgia Dome. The Panthers, unclassified this season, will move into CAA Football in 2012.

- All hail the tackle leaders. Eastern Washington linebacker J.C. Sherritt was the runaway tackle champion in the FCS last year, totaling 170 overall and nearly 14.2 per game as a junior. Of the 25 players who averaged at least 10 tackles, 22 return this season.

- It's too bad 2008 FCS champion Richmond can't rethink the 8,700 capacity at its new, on-campus E. Claiborne Robins Stadium, the $25 million expansion to the old First Market Stadium. The Spiders have sold out their 4,000 season tickets (up from 2,720 season tickets last season), and remaining seats in the stadium will be used for students, players' families, prospects and visiting teams (per CAA Football regulations). A limited number of individual game tickets might be available in August.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/CraigHaley.

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