A prominent sportscaster says that the best thing about freshmen football players is that they soon become sophomores.
That's why Howard University Coach Floyd Keith is noticeably more confident and relaxed going into Saturday's game against West Virginia State than he was before last year's opener when he had to rely on freshmen to fill many key positions.
"I feel so much better this opening game, if for no other reason than because when I look around practice now, I see the same faces I saw in spring practice," Keith told those gathered in Blackburn Center for the university's yearly football-soccer press conference.
"Last year in preseason I had to almost ask a kid to take off his helmet before I knew who he was. Everybody was a freshman," he continued.The Bison now have 23 sophomores who expect to lend experience and depth to a team trying to rebound from a 5-6 record.
One of the strongest aspects of this team is its experience -- especially the offensive unit. Each offensive starter for Saturday's game has started at least one game for Howard, with only the fullback position being inexperienced.
That slot on the team usually is reserved for someone who can block for the tailback, which is the integral part of Keith's veer offense. Greg Banes, the leading rusher in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last year, has cleared up summer school academic credit questions and been declared eligible.
But Keith said yesterday that "whether or not Banes will play or even make the trip to Charleston, I don't know yet. Today is the first time he'll be in pads since the last game of last season." If Banes is not in playing shape by Saturday, Cornelius Quarles (6 feet, 210 pounds) may start at tailback.
The biggest improvement over last season may be the Bison defense, which, except for a 55-point ambush by South Carolina State last year, played respectably.
"We gave up entirely too many yards passing in '79," said Keith. "But in all fairness we had four freshmen in the secondary and two pass rushing." Now with a season of starting or playing a lot under their belts, Keith expects those players to perform as veterans.
Cornerbacks Doug Jones and Alan Biggs shouldn't spend all afternoon watching opposing receivers race by them into the end zone. Their jobs will be made considerably easier if sophomore defensive linemen Ricky Tripplet and Courtney Brown can help upperclassmen James Garfield and academic all-American Ken Pimpton pressure the quarterback.
Even with more experience Keith insists that, "You're only as good as your quarterback is." The person who'll have to bear that pressure is former Anacostia High star Ron Wilson, who'll be throwing to end Tracy Singleton, flanker Robert Artisst and freshman tight end Oliver Bridges.
Wilson often has said he wishes Keith would allow the offense to pass more in first- and second-down situations. "We averaged 24 passes a game last year and usually that's enough," said Keith. "I'm not apt to use a game plan with 40 passes every Saturday.
"But I'm known for doing the unusual," he then added with a smile.
Howard defeated West Virginia State, 24-17, last year and a victory would give the team a much-needed shot of confidence after a disappointing season last year and all the "scandal" talk during the spring over alleged coaching abuses last season.
"I feel good about the players' morale and comfortable about my rapport with them," Keith said yesterday, alluding to the controversy which he politely refuses to talk about.
One of the surest bets for Bison fans will be the performance of all-MEAC placekicker and punter Howard Ward, who led the nation early last season in scoring.