Last September, Howard University Coach Floyd Keith had big problems. Both starting tackles had been declared academically ineligible and the reserves were inexperienced. Fortunately, the Bison opened against a mediocre Cheney State team and won by 10 points.
Howard opens this season's play today at 1:30 p.m. against a much stronger opponent, the University of Maine, at Alumni Stadium in Orono, but Keith isn't having the same anxiety attacks he had a year ago.
"We're definitely better now than we were 365 days ago," said Keith, in his fourth season as head coach. "Across the board, we've made a lot of improvements and I'm pleased with what we've done. The kids are tired of banging one another around and are ready to play. We're ready to line up."
Much of the Bison offense will be centered around split end Tracy Singleton, who has 94 career catches and needs only 10 more to become the top receiver in the history of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Singleton, a senior, caught 44 passes for 1,087 yards last year and was the offensive player of the year in the conference.
Junior quarterback Sandy Nichols started the last six games and was first in the MEAC in total yards and pass percentage. Melvin Sutton, the top rusher with 569 yards, and Richard Vickers, who will replace Jeff Owens (broken wrist), will start at running back.
The offensive line has been strengthened by the return of Fred Robinson and Steve Alsbrooks, who, along with all-MEAC guard John Bilberry, center Tim Robinson and tackle Craig Cason, give Howard good experience and size up front.
Keith also doesn't appear overly concerned about a defense that last year allowed 210 rushing yards and 25 points per game.
"We've put in everything we wanted to use, both on offense and defense, so we'll just have to see what happens," Keith said. "I'm not worried about any positions in particular. We've worked hard and put our best people out there."
Linebackers Martin Brown and Robert Sellers, the Bison's leaders in tackles in 1981, should get some help from bigger and stronger linemen Matt Jordan, Jeff Wise and Ron Kinnaird. The secondary is intact.
Stopping the run will be the key to the game. Maine, 3-7-1 last year compared to Howard's 6-4, runs out of the wing-T and backs Paul Phelan, Lorenzo Bouier and Matt Bennett are bruising types. Quarterback Rich LaBonte, selected the rookie of the year in the Yankee Conference last year, is an adequate passer and runner.
Like Howard, Maine had problems stopping opponents last season and second-year Coach Ron Rogerson spent much of the past five weeks trying to correct problems in his defense. Rogerson has put much of the responsiblity on linebacker Bob Lucy, who led the team in first hits, tackles Ray Sullivan and Ted Venechanos and nose guard Craig Reynolds.
"We may be a bit faster, but they are probably more power-oriented than we are," Keith said. "I know they're big and strong. I expect a good, hard-hitting game. We've done all our work. We'll put our best 22 on the field and go from there."
Elsewhere on the first Saturday of college football action, Miami will play at Florida. The Gators, ranked 16th in the Associated Press preseason poll, have a superb defense, led by five experienced linebackers and a more than adequate secondary.
They will be tested by Miami quarterback Jim Kelly, who rates behind Stanford's John Elway and Pitt's Dan Marino, but still is one of the best passers in the nation. Miami is ranked 15th, but 13 starters from last season have graduated.
In another game, Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson, beginning his 40th year, goes for his 298th victory against Morgan State at Yankee Stadium in New York.