The Howard University Bison, with more muscle, more unity and a new head coach, will enter the 1979 campaign seeking their first winning season since 1975.
Coach Floyd Keith, a product of excellent coach apprentice systems at Miami of Ohio and Colorado, was brought in with five new full-time assistants to renovate a program grown stagnant through both on-and-off-field miscues.
After the Bison sputtered their way to a 4-6 mark last season -- including a 2-4 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record for the second straight year -- former Coach Doug Porter cited the school administration's lack of support for the football team as a continuing problem. Porter was fired and the 30-year-old Keith hired in January under glowing praise from Atletic Director Leo Miles.
Keith has not lacked support from the university. Howard spent $14,000 for new exercise equipment and has arranged to fill Keith's request that the entire team be housed under the same roof for the first time. The coaching staff also has new offices.
"We have meetings every night, getting everyone organized," Keith said.
"We want the players to know where they're supposed to be and when they're supposed to be there."
"Brian Thomas, senior quarterback, said of the changes, "Coach Keith says that he is the boss and things will be done his way. If you have a gripe, you can go see him. But things are done his way and we'll have to adjust."
Thomas, the probable starting quarterback, also promised that the Bison would be in the best shape in the country, thanks to Keith's off-season weight training program, another first at Howard.
While Keith has an idea who the regulars at some positions will be, Thomas and other Bison praise the coach's philosophy of giving equal opportunity to newcomers as well as returning players.
"The coach is a very competitive person," Thomas said. "He believes in giving everyone a fair shake if they work hard in practice."
Keith had time to recruit 29 players, emphasizing running backs for the option veer system he is installing.
But, he noted, "I didn't know then about the drastic deficiency we would have on the offensive line.
Two of the bigger Bison, all-conference tackle Fred Reed (6-foot-1, 256) and tackle Ed McCain (6-5, 200) fell victim to poor grades and will sit out this season. A third possible regular at tackle, last year's starting center and a probable starting nose guard likewise have to sit out 1979.
That leaves only one senior blocker, 1978 starting guard John Jenkins (6-0, 240). Junior 223-pounder Charles Richardson likely will get the nod at center. The other three positions are open for 145-pound Milton Hopkins, and 250-pound Kermit Wheeler.
Hill does not believe the transition to the veer will present the linemen with any problems.
"There are no really new techniques for us to learn," said Hill, a Hillcrest Heights native. "It's just more straight-ahead blocking. A lot of the guys played with option teams in high school."
Thomas agreed that he was looking forward to the option because he likes to run. Sharing time with two other quarterbacks last season, Thomas completed 27 of 72 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore Ronald Wilson, the team's leading passer in 1978 (507 yards) and freshman redshirt Brian Jordan provide quarterback depth.
Sophomore Greg Banes and senior Beeman Veasley are one-two, respectively, on the depth chart for tailback. Banes, playing in spots last year averaged four yards per carry, but impressed Keith in spring drills. Veasley, the heavier of the two at 190 pounds, rushed for 476 yards with a 5.3 average.
Ray Cryer and 205-pound Donald Canady are the leading prospects for fullback. Both saw limited action last fall.
Returning at tight end is 200-pound junior Fitz Fowler. He caught 13 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns last season and, in a spring scrimmage, completed scoring plays of 66 and 53 yards. Speedy 180-pound wide receiver Greg Scott can, along with Fowler, look for more aerials, since all-time leading Bison receiver Steve Wilson is gone.
Graduation left gaps in the defensive line and secondary. Senior Thomas Clark has been moved from linebacker to end and will join 245-pound junior tackle Ralph Grimes, tackle Gerald Kee and senior end Roderick Walton.
Scott Facyson, who led the team in tackles in his junior year; 215-pound sophomore Kenneth Pimpton, 217-pound junior Larry Hamilton and 220-pound senior Mark Thomas make the linebacking position the strongest spot on the team. Senior Corky McCorkie, the strongest Bison, helps provide depth.
The squad has a lot of new faces at key positions.But the team has absorbed Keith's confidence and, to the man, feels in better condition than last year. That alone should help Howard survive fourth quarters -- a sore point for last year's team.