COLUMBIA, South Carolina – The Benedict Tigers are looking to put last year's winless season in the rearview mirror and head coach Mike White is confident the Tigers will be much improved in 2016. The question is, are they improved enough to compete with one of the top teams in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association when they open the season on Saturday in the Palmetto Capital City Classic?
"I do understand what our record was last year. We are a better football team this year. We are going to face a good football team this Saturday. They are one of the better teams we'll see on the schedule. But we'll be ready. This will be a challenge for us," White said.
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The Tigers averaged just 62 yards rushing per game in 2015, and gave up 214.7 yards per game on the ground. White blamed those woes on the offensive and defensive line and that was a big hole the Tigers focused on during the offseason.
"For Benedict football to get where we need to go, it is our big men who need to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball," White said. "Offensive and defensive lineman have worked hard so we can run the ball and protect our quarterback, stop people running the ball and giving up big plays. That's what we've been working on."
On the offensive line, Benedict got bigger with 6-foot-5, 280-pound Craig Hinsonat left tackle and 6-foot-7, 315-pound transfer Kellen Williams at right tackle.Mario Williams, a 325-pound freshman, will start at right guard, with 337-pound sophomore Justin Brown under center. On the defensive line, 368-pound Aaryn Guy returns to clog up the middle at nose guard, while 320-pound sophomore defensive end Charles Williams returns after finishing second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss last season. Freshman Wendell Bing, a 6-2, 280-pounder, will start at the other defensive end spot.
"I'm hoping this year we will be very effective in running the ball and stopping people from running the ball," White said.
Behind the bigger and better offensive line, the Tigers return running backRaheem Jennings, who was Benedict's leading rusher last year with 211 yards as a freshman, but averaged 4.1 yards per carry. New this year is 270-pound fullback Jeremy Johnson.
"Jeremy is big. He catches the ball well. We're looking forward to seeing him run," White said.
Running the offense will be junior quarterback Mason Duckett, who threw for 322 yards and completed 64 percent of his passes last season. True freshmanPhillip Brown will also see time at quarterback. Other playmakers for the Tigers will be George Myers Jr., who was All-SIAC last year as a punt and kick returner and led the team with 23 receptions last year. Myers also was third on the team in rushing and even played some quarterback. Junior Okechi Ntiasagwe is a deep threat whom the Tigers hope to utilize better this year. Ntiasagwe scored Benedict's only touchdown last year against Livingstone on a 73-yard pass.
Defensively, middle linebacker Stephen Williams is back for his senior season after finishing second on the team last year with 52 total tackles. Benedict will have some freshmen in the defensive secondary in safety Robert Cummingsand cornerback Travionte Brown, but White is confident the young players will be an improvement over last year.
The Blue Bears are coming off a 5-4 season, their first winning season in 17 years. Defensive end Armond Cox was named to the preseason All-CIAA team.
The good news for Benedict fans is that Drew Powell, the Livingstone quarterback who threw and ran for 356 yards last year, is not on this year's roster. The bad news is Livingstone coach Daryl Williams says this year's Blue Bears team is deeper and faster than the team that beat the Tigers 49-6 in last year's season opener.
"We're a little bit more explosive, we're a little deeper at receiver, we're deeper at running back, and we strengthened our linebacking corps," Williams said. "We're a whole lot faster than we were last year. I'm excited about the players we have. Our expectations are to win a championship. I make no bones about it."
White said the Tigers will be much more prepared for the Blue Bears this year.
"Livingstone is a high-powered, high-pressure team. They're going to put a lot of pressure on us. They never huddle. The head coach is the offensive coordinator, so he does everything. You're going to see a reverse, halfback passes, and you're going to see every trick in the book. So we have to be on our toes and make sure that we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."
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