Midway through last season, Howard University football opponents realized the quickest way to reach the end zone was to pass.
The Bison, who finished a disappointing 5-5, were respectable against the run but were often burned through the air. They surrounded 136.7 yards per game and finished fifth in the seven-team Mid-Eastern Altantic Conference in pass defense.
With pass defense a main concern, Coach Doug Porter took full advantage of the extra week he had to prepare for Saturday afternoon's season opener at Maryland-Eastern Shore.
Porter has to be somewhat concerned that his young secondary may get a rude welcome against the much-improved Hawks.
"The jury is still out on our secondary. We've looked good against our own people, but it's hard to evaluate," said Porter. "I do know they (UMES) are a much improved team.And like most of the teams in the conference, they will throw a lot more than in the past."
Defensive backfield coach Dick Stebbins and senior cornerback Jack King are more optimistic than Porter. In fact, they are glad to hear teams are expected to be putting the ball in the air more.
"Based on our performance, especially near the end of the season, it's logical the teams we face will come out throwing against us," said Stebbins. "We will get better with each game. We've got good people back there.
King, 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds, and Fred Spence, a 6-2, 190-pound junior, will start at the corners with Robert Wingfield, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore at safety in the Bison three-deep secondary.
When Howard plays a four-deep secondary, linebacker Thomas Clark drops back and assumes the strong safety slot.
Theodore Robinson, a 5-7, 160-pound senior and one of the surest tacklers on the team, Richard Massey and Cedric Wilson are the top reserves.
"We had a good spring and we feel we're a little farther along at this point that we were last year," said King. "All of us played some, and the experience will help us."
Neither Stebbins nor King will predict how successful the secondary will be or how many interceptions they will make. The Bison picked off only nine errant throws last season, as compared with 14 two seasons ago. The Howard season record for interceptions is 22 (1956).
"You can pick off 30 passes and get bombed each week," said Stebbins. "All that means is that teams are rocking and firing, and you're bound to pick off some. We're more concerned with carrying out our assignment in terms of total defense. If you do that, the interceptions will come."
Porter is hopeful his team won't make too many first-game mistakes.
"We have to eliminate them as much as possible. Eastern Shore has already played two games. Plus, we're playing them at their place," said Porter.
The Hawks lost their fist two game: Morgan Statge, 13-10, and North Carolina A&T, 23-7.
"The first game, UMES had 11 penalties," said Porter. "Last week they had only three. And they were in the game in the fourth quarter until they made a couple of mistakes. They played well both games."
Howard will be without starting fullback Donald Canady, who is suffering from abruised thigh. He will be replaced by Cornelius Quarries.
Most of the players feel the extra week benefited them. "It keeps us on edge a little but we've been able to prepare a little more," said King. "We've got the best receiving corps in the conference. If we can stay with our guys, we can stay with anyone."