The State of State: Bulldog Football 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Buddy PoughThere's an added pep in the step of Oliver "Buddy" Pough these days.

Having undergone hip replacement surgery during the offseason, sauntering around the practice gridiron without a golf court will be a little more pain-free for the South Carolina State head football coach.

"This hip that I have right now is my good hip," he said. "I'm back to walking and getting myself in shape for (training) camp so that I can go out and be effective in what I do."

As for the overall 'health' of the team entering his sixth season at the helm, Pough is equally optimistic despite a brutal three-game stretch to open the season with two road games against Division I foes Air Force and the University of South Carolina.

"We're hoping that this is going to be our best football team," he said. "You sometimes have these real big ideas about how you can be and what you think you can do. But it's our toughest schedule and a little bit unusual in that first year of playing a Division I school, a Bowl Division school, that we would have two of them that first year. You would think that you'd rather start out with one, but things just kind of worked out to get two different and exciting styles of games and we just felt like that for the good of the program, we were going to do that this time."

For all the excitement surrounding those historic contests, Pough believes the game which takes more precedence will take place betweem the Air Force and USC games, when his team goes against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rival Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla. Last year's 45-14 pasting by the Wildcats was not only the worst loss suffered during Pough's tenure, but placed the Bulldogs at a disadvantage for the conference title and automatic playoff bid it never overcame in finishing 7-4 overall, 6-2 in the MEAC.

"Bethune is probably the most important game right now on our schedule," he said. "It's at a critical time for us where we'll be coming off that tough Air Force game and getting ready for maybe the biggest game in a long time here, that South Carolina game, and it means more than either one of those games. We will definitely spend the majority of our time in our preseason preparation preparing for Bethune and then, from that point, let the chips fall where they may with the other big Division I games."

Injuries and installing an "overcomplicated" system which took some time for the replacement players to learn were among the reasons for the defense's struggles during the 1-3 start, Pough said. Expect to see a more simplified system with former Benedict head coach John Hendrick on board which the players should adapt to more quickly.

"I think John understands dealing with our style of player better," Pough said. "He was at Benedict, he was at Mississippi State. Both situations had similar style of players to what we have here and he's been successful dealing with the kind of style player we have here. I'm looking forward to seeing exactly how he molds this defense to the point where we can become a more aggressive unit."

Although the defensive line was hit hard by graduation, Pough is excited about newcomers like defensive ends Jason Ayers and Sterling Blunt and East Carolina transfer Joe Council, tackle Samuel Chester and linebacker Julius Wilkerson of Gaffney to go with returning players defensive end Keyon Brooks, defensive tackle James Simmons, BANDITs Marshall McFadden and David Erby, linebackers Tony White and LaTavis Henderson and defensive backs LaQuinn Ellerbee, Markee Hamlin, Stephon Gore, Terrance Allen and B.J. Revis.

Changes to the offense is why Pough believes quarterback Cleveland McCoy ran into some difficulties last season. The Hollywood native completed 51 percent of his passes and orchestrated an offense which ranked first in the MEAC, but threw more interceptions (nine) than his previous two seasons combined and seemingly struggled during the second halves of most games.

Rather than look back, Pough is looking forward to McCoy having a spectacular season.

"He had his problems from time to time last year," Pough said. "I thought that might have been as far as the redesign of our terminology and the way we run our offense. But I think that's pretty much all behind us now. He's got that down to the point now where everything is pretty much second nature. I'm looking forward to him having a great senior year."

McCoy will be surrounded by a bevy of weapons on offense. And while SCSU will have to overcome the graduation of MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, running back DeShawn Baker, and Offensive Lineman of the Year Clyde Reed, they do return a bulk of talent on offense led running backs Will Ford, Travil Jamison and Jonathan Woods, offensive linemen James Lee, Raymond "Duck" Harrison, Nathaniel Richardson and Nygel Pearson and wide receivers Dustin DuBose, Phillip Smalls and Trey Young.

McCoy, Ford, Woods and Simmons all underwent surgery during the offseason and are expected to be healthy for the start of training camp Aug. 5. As for Pearson, who missed most of the past two seasons due to foot problems, Pough listed him as "80-90" percent.

Additional targets for McCoy are also on the way with wide receivers Phillip Morris, Tron Jackson and Chase Robinson and North Carolina State transfer tight end Octavius Darby. Then there's the anticipated arrival of South Carolina's "Mr. Football" quarterback Malcolm Long, whom Pough confirmed is eligible to play this season and will see action in certain situations.

"The thought going into the season and the recruiting process was that we'll try to do for him what Florida did for (backup quarterback Tim) Tebow last year," Pough said. "Some of that same kind of stuff where we give him maybe two-three special kinds of series or special situations that we'll fit him in and then at that point, then kind of expand on it as the season goes along. But this is Cleve McCoy's senior year. We expect him to be the best offensive player in the league this year. So we don't want to do anything to take away from that."

The biggest concern for Pough entering training camp is special teams, specifically in the punting area. With Chris Dupree gone, Orangeburg-Wilkinson graduate Aaron Haire will have to demonstrate more consistency than demonstrated during his sporadic appearances last season.

Stephen Grantham's return as placekicker is expected to solidify that position and the Bulldogs look to build on their nation-leading kickoff return coverage.

Despite a 40-17 record during his first five seasons, Pough knows certain questions will remain until the Bulldogs finally win the MEAC outright and compete in the postseason.

"Can we win the big one? Can we get over the hump?" he said. "We've been second or tied for first pretty much every year since our first year. We've got to get to the point now where we get this team into the playoffs, and I think anything short of that is a complete failure for us. So, I think that's the biggest question for us -- whether we can get that done."

T&D Senior Sports Writer Thomas Grant Jr. can be reached by e-mail at tgrant@timesanddemocrat.com or by phone at 803-533-5547.

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