Floyd Keith, Howard University's football coach, knew he had a quality receiver when he first saw Tracy Singleton as a freshman two years ago, so Keith decided to push hard on the former all-Met from McKinley High School. Keith almost pushed Singleton to another school.
But a good spring practice calmed Singleton's feelings about transferring following a freshman season in which he caught only one pass. Last year, Singleton caught 49 passes for 1,013 yards, tying a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference season record. His total yards broke the old league mark by 238 yards.
Singleton caught seven passes from quarterback Raymond Gray for 136 yards in Howard's opening 33-23 victory over Cheyney State, earning him MEAC recognition as offensive player of the week. His first reception of the year was for a 63-yard touchdown. He caught two passes for 44 yards in last week's 19-13 loss to Bethune-Cookman, bringing his season's average to an even 20 yards per catch.
Some scars from that first year still show in the relationship between Floyd and Singleton, but neither can argue with the results and there is more than a mutual respect between them now.
"I feel like he rode me harder than any freshman he ever recruited," said Singleton. "I guess he wanted to ride me hard because he felt I had a lot of talent."
Singleton, a humanities major, seems to understand now what Keith was trying to accomplish in 1979. But coming off a senior year at McKinley in which he caught 43 passes for 880 yards and 12 touchdowns, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder was considering changing schools after Keith made him work so hard but declined to let him play.
"I recognized he had ability," Keith said. "But sometimes you just have to peak them. In high school, he got by just on natural ability. And all you have to do is sit them on the bench (to force a player to improve).
"I know his freshman year he thought he should have been playing. But now I think he's just matured."
Among the things Keith made Singleton work on were blocking and his tendency to catch all passes by jumping for them.
"When he first came here, he jumped for everything," said Keith. "When you jump up in the air, it limits what you can do to adjust to catch the ball."
Singleton, who high-jumped 6-4 in high school, "with no technique," has tried to tone down his aerial feats, which he admits may have evolved from watching boyhood heroes Paul Warfield and Lynn Swann.
"I like catching in a crowd," said Singleton. "Coach Keith gets on me about jumping, but some of my best catches have been from getting up in the air."
Playing against Bethune-Cookman marked an anniversary of sorts for Singleton. It was in the second game of last season, a 13-13 tie with the Wildcats, that Singleton broke loose for seven receptions for 123 yards. He went on to break four school records, was named to the all-MEAC first team, and attracted inquiries from the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.
Singleton did not catch Bethune unaware this year. "He's one of the top receivers in the conference," said Wildcat defensive coordinator Jack McClairen. "He has good hands and good speed."
Before the season, Singleton set personal goals of at least 60 catches and 1,300 yards. He believed if he could achieve those figures, the Bison could have an 8-2 season or better. He did not foresee two problems.
A shoulder injury that is keeping Howard's fastest receiver, Robert Artisst, out of the lineup will allow opposing secondaries to concentrate on Singleton. And if Howard's offensive line continues to break down in pass blocking, as it did against Bethune, when Gray was sacked nine times, Singleton will have trouble getting the ball no matter how open he may be.
If the blocking improves and Artisst returns (he began working out last week), Singleton figures some MEAC foes will have to alter their normal coverages.
"Some of the bigger schools in the conference have more confidence in their secondaries and use man-to-man coverage," he said, "But I don't think there's any possible way a team could 'man' me up."