This year's poor start for Howard (0-2 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, 1-2 overall) is the result of a combination of turnovers, penalties, a breakdown of the offensive line and poor tackling.
And now, six members of the defense and two offensive linemen are listed as questionable for the game here Saturday with Florida A&M, which has beaten the Bison five straight times.
The slow start and the injuries have caused Coach Floyd Keith to go more with underclassmen he recruited. In the 34-6 loss to South Carolina State last Saturday, Keith twice pulled starting quarterback Raymond Gray, a senior. Freshman Brian Sloan and sophomore Sandy Nichols each had a chance to operate the offense. Keith said Nichols now "is even" with Gray on the depth chart and that the starter would be determined in practice this week.
If Nichols wins the job, the Bison will start only four seniors on offense (guard John Bilberry, center Keith Hill, tight end Derek Lloyd and wide receiver Rob Artisst) and only end Reggie Johnson on defense.
Keith has been unhappy with the Bison offense. He said he hoped a quarterback change would produce results, although the coach added that Gray and Nichols differ little in ability. But if they are still "even" by Friday night, the question is whether Keith will stick with Gray or start thinking about the future.
"There isn't anybody here that's hit the panic button," said Keith. "Last year, we started off the same way. We got better as the season went along. Each year, we've done that. We still have things we can accomplish."
Keith has gradually phased underclassmen into the lineup. Freshman Melvin Sutton (averaging 4.2 yards per carry) has replaced senior Bufus Outlaw at tailback. Sutton also is the chief punt and kick returner. Other freshmen starters are nose guard Tim Snyder and defensive back Charles Taylor. Freshman Perky Warner does the punting.
Freshmen Shirkey Gee, Calvin Epps and Ben Tynes have seen considerable action because of injuries to the defensive line.
The Bison also were forced to use junior Craig Cason at both offensive and defensive tackle for most of the final three quarters against S.C. State. Keith said it was the first time he can remember playing anyone both ways.
Of all the newcomers, Sloan may play the most prominent role in Howard's future. He seems ideally suited for an offense that made quarterback Ron Wilson the MEAC's leader in total offense last year. Keith would like nothing better than for Sloan to have immediate success so he will not have to worry about a quarterback for four years. But Sloan threw an incompletion and an interception in his two attempts Saturday and did not play another down.
"He's a young kid. He's going to be a good quarterback some day," Keith said. "I think it was unfair to put him in there, but he was the second-string quarterback."
As for defense, Keith said, "We've been burned by poor tackling."
Athletic Director Leo Miles said he is not worried about the start this year. He also does not believe a record worse than last year's 6-2-2 would mean the program is taking a step backward.
" . . . We want to build a program. You build a program with young people. It's a young season. We could win seven in a row and finish 8-2. We're not panicking or anything of that nature," he said.