Previews: Maryland | Navy | Towson | Hopkins | McDaniel | Stevenson
New Morgan State football coach Tyrone Wheatley doesn't broach the subject of building a football team directly. The big-name rookie head coach talks more about building men than building, say, an offensive line.
Excuse Wheatley, a former Michigan star and 10-year NFL running back with the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, for painting in broad stokes while he rolls up his sleeves and works on the Bears, who went 4-7 last year. There's work to be done, but the Bears could be better than advertised. Morgan State knocked off then-fourth-ranked North Carolina A&T State last September to snap the Aggies' 15-game winning streak and had three losses by a total of eight points last year.
With 17 starters back and a team talented enough to place nine players on the three-deep 2019 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason team, Wheatley has some options. But even with that talent, MEAC coaches and sports information directors tabbed the Bears to finish eighth in the league's preseason poll.
"Job No. 1 is basically getting the young men in the program to understand and trust who I am in the process," Wheatley said of his first head coaching job. "Without trust nothing happens."
Morgan State players have seen a lot happen the last few years, and not all of it good. Wheatley is the program's fourth head coach since 2014, and 2014 was the last time the Bears made the postseason. Lee Hull, Fred Farrier and most recently, Ernest Jones have come and gone as the Bears went into hibernation.
Wheatley thinks he can awaken the once-proud program, and he's all about mentoring "Morgan State men" and emphasizing the details, right down to players picking up after themselves in the locker room.
"I was always taught you must take care of home," Wheatley said. "It represents who you are. When people come into your house, come into your room, walk into your office, that's what they see. That basically depicts your character. If you're going to walk by a sock laying on the floor, you're looking past the little things."
While sweating the details, Wheatley is optimistic his offense -- 108th in the FCS last year at 18.7 points per game -- will have a little more sock this year, even though the team has to rebuild an offensive line that lost three starters. Left tackle Joshua Miles was taken by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The good news is the talent at the skill positions, starting with two solid quarterback candidates in redshirt sophomore Dion "DJ" Golatt Jr. and senior DeAndre Harris. Harris led the team in passing last year, hitting 51.6 percent of his throws for 1,009 yards and five touchdowns. He was second in rushing, running for 359 yards and three scores.
Golatt was a spark plug off the bench and took over later in the year, accounting for 53.4 percent completions, 694 yards and six passing touchdowns. Leading rusher Joshua Chase is back with his 4.0 yards-per-rush average, 514 total yards and three scores. The senior back earned MEAC third-team honors during the preseason.
There's also a bevy of Bears pass-catchers led by seniors Manasseh Bailey (24 receptions for 425 yards, four touchdowns and a 17.7-yard average) and Deontaye White (25 for 201 yards). Uber-athletic tight end Xavier Gravette had 18 catches, an 11.1-yard average and five touchdowns and was a preseason first-team pick.
Junior left guard Stefan Touani was a second-team choice, and he'll anchor a rebuilding front line that also has senior center Tarik Johnson back and emerging junior tackle Bruce Trigg, a preseason third-team pick.
Defensive co-coordinators William Carr and Antonio James have eight starters returning in the MSU 4-3 defense, led by 2018 All-MEAC linebackers Rico Kennedy and Ian McBorrough. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Kennedy was a preseason first-team pick on the strong side and led the Bears with 10 tackles for loss among his 61 total tackles as a redshirt junior in 2018.
McBorrough, at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, was a preseason second-team selection on the weak side, where he was one of the top pass rushers in the league last year. McBorrough was third in the MEAC with six sacks and 15th with nine total tackles for loss. The return of Kennedy and McBorrough should buoy a defense that led the MEAC in sacks and was third in rushing defense.
Morgan State has some holes to plug on the defensive line. Three seniors in the rotation up front are gone, but the Bears had a lot of youth playing there, too, with five freshmen in the top eight last year. Redshirt sophomore Devan Hebron did enough in five games last year to earn MEAC third-team preseason honors, while fellow redshirt sophomore Colby Warrior moved in as a starter last year and posted four tackles for a loss.
The secondary should be a primary strength for the Bears. The NFL had "Revis Island," but Morgan State has "Smallville," where junior cornerback Donte Small patrols. He had four interceptions and was fifth on the team in tackles last season, landing him on the conference's preseason second team. Junior strong safety Dominick Trigg Jr. was a third-team pick.
Sophomore kick returner Jordan Cofield is another weapon for Wheatley's squad. The Owings Mills, Md., product and New Town (Md.) track state champion was fourth in the MEAC with a 6.4-yard punt return average, and he averaged 22.0 yards on kickoff returns.
Sophomore punter Nicholas O'Shea (ninth in MEAC with 35.4-yard average) is back as well. He played a key role for the defense by pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line 20 times. O'Shea could become the placekicker, too, with the graduation of Alex Raya.
The Bears open the season Aug. 29 at Bowling Green, part of a rugged three-game road swing for Wheatley's debut. MSU then plays at James Madison and Army before hosting North Carolina Central Sept. 28. Delaware State (Oct. 12), Florida A&M (Oct. 26), North Carolina A&T State (Nov. 9) and Lynchburg (Nov. 16) will also visit refurbished Hughes Stadium this season.
The stakes get higher later in the season with defending HBCU national champion NC A&T State and Florida A&M among the MEAC favorites.
"It's going to be every game, it's going to be every week," Wheatley said. "There's a lot of parity in the league. You have to stay focused. One loss and you're out of this thing."
Asked what he liked most about his team, Wheatley didn't hesitate.
"Growth. I like the growth. These guys have grown exponentially from the time I got [here] until now. They're sponges soaking up all knowledge. They're hungry for growth, hungry for knowledge. That's what I like about this team. The second portion of it is I have a talented, young group, plus some stable seniors who provide leadership, so I like this team."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Morgan State Athletics
Issue 256: August 2019
Originally published Aug. 15, 2019