The Alabama A&M Bulldogs are the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference champions and picked to win it again.
Coach Anthony Jones’ response: So what? The score starts out 0-0, and so does the record.
“No one has given us an advantage or spotted us points because of what happened last year,” Jones said. “If you want try to relive last year, things are going to really be bad for you.
“We realize how competitive this conference was last year, and we anticipate it being the same.”
Besides, that team lost one of the league’s best defensive players in linebacker Johnny Baldwin, and fullback Kevin McCants is the only returning running back who recorded a carry last season.
Only Grambling, which won three straight championships from 2000-02, has ever successfully defended its title.
Quarterback Kelcy Luke is a big reason why the Bulldogs were the pick to repeat after finally winning a SWAC title in their fourth trip to the championship game.
Luke has passed for 4,389 yards and rushed for 1,227 in his career.
“I just always feel the most important person you can have back there is a signal-caller with experience and leadership ability who’s been a winner,” Jones said. “It’s invaluable to have a kid back there who understands the offense and more importantly knows how to help the people around him get better.”
Perhaps that will include whoever takes over at tailback, where the Bulldogs must replace Nic Luke, Kelcy’s brother. And on the offensive line, which lost three starters.
One candidate in the backfield is Ulysses Banks, who averaged 34.3 yards per kick return and scored twice as a freshman to earn SWAC freshman of the year honors. Those 14 returns were his only touches on the season, however.
“He’s not a big guy. We lose power with him, but he brings plenty of speed,” Jones said. “He’s an explosive back. We saw what he did last year returning kicks. You’ve got to account for him all over the field.”
Anthony Green, among others, is also competing for the job.
Like Banks, wide receiver Thomas Harris made an impact as a freshman. He had 27 catches for 327 yards.
Tight end Charles Moody is a two-time all-conference player.
The line returns starting tackles Darius Turner and James Sanders, a preseason All-SWAC pick.
The defense also took a few big hits. Baldwin and defensive lineman Kevin Lockart were both All-SWAC first-teamers last season
But starting ends Christopher Traylor and Dominic Cummings return. Traylor led the team with 9.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss despite missing four games.
At linebacker Avery Moland was the team’s No. 2 tackler behind Baldwin with 66 tackles.
The secondary returns six players with extensive experience, led by cornerback Frank Moore. Moore led the SWAC with six interceptions last season.
Punter/placekicker Rashan Cylar is also back.
Jones figures a program’s strength shows in how it copes with the loss of players like Baldwin, a fifth-round NFL draft pick.
“That’s the great thing about college football, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Every year or every other year or so you get people with an opportunity to step up and show what they can do.
“Johnny Baldwin had a great career for us but his time is over. Now, we’ve got to get somebody else ready to play. The teams that do that with some type of consistency continue to have success. With those who don’t, you see a big falloff.”
The Bulldogs open Sept. 1 at Tennessee State.
– Associated Press
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