After five weeks of practice, most coaches would be looking forward to the season opener. Not Willie Jeffries, Howard University's first-year coach.
Injuries to key players, academic trouble and an assortment of problems that usually come with installing a new system are three major reasons Jeffries is concerned about today's opener against Rhode Island at Meade Stadium at 1:30 p.m.
"We're hurting in a lot of areas," said Jeffries, who coached previously at South Carolina State and Wichita State. "Because of our injuries, we have to play a lot of people who haven't any experience. There's nothing we can do about it because we don't have any more players."
Jeffries may be forced to start five freshmen and an equal of number of inexperienced sophomores. Three sophomores -- Frankie Hall, Karl Kinney and Conrad Austin -- will start in the secondary, and if senior safety Chuck Taylor's bruised shoulder bothers him, freshman Jeffrey Lane will play. That inexperience could mean trouble since Rhode Island is strictly a passing team.
"We know they throw a lot. We have to hope they can't run the ball as well," Jeffries said. "Their quarterback (Tom Ehrhardt) has good velocity on his passes and we definitely have to play pass defense most of the game. If they can run, we'll be in trouble."
Rhode Island was 6-4 last season, losing three games by a total of four points. A dozen returning starters will be joined by Ehrhardt, a 6-foot-3, 206-pound junior who sat out last year after transferring from C.W. Post, where he threw for more than 3,600 yards his first two years. His primary target is receiver Dameon Reilly (32 catches for 588 yards and seven touchdowns). The offensive line is anchored by holdover guards Greg Sturgis and Mark Russo.
The Rams' defense also is strong. Among the six returning starters are all-Yankee Conference tackle Charlie Bounty (6-4, 274), cornerback Tony Hill (nine interceptions) and tackle Bob Dana.
"We definitely have to score some points, but with our banged-up offensive line, we may struggle," Jeffries said. "We have to try to control the ball as much as we can."
Rhode Island Coach Bob Griffin said he doesn't know much about Howard except that its conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic, has produced a number of outstanding Division I-AA teams. Griffin also was well aware of Jeffries' success at his former schools.
Jeffries will have a tough job trying to turn Howard into a winning team. The Bison lost their final seven games and finished 1-9 last season. They were also the worst defensive team in the conference, allowing 332 points.
"We think our defense is improved," said Howard senior linebacker Martin Brown. "We were a little frustrated last year because our defense was on the field so long. We think our offense will be better this year and that will help us."
Brian Sloan, who has had three roller-coaster seasons, starts at quarterback. He should be comfortable with Jeffries' run-oriented option offense. Kelly and Richard Vickers are the running backs and freshman Curtis Chappell and senior Oliver Bridges the wide receivers.
Bridges, an outstanding track performer, hasn't played since his freshman season, but Jeffries is hoping he can help with his 4.4-second speed in the 40.
"Ollie has looked good for us and Curtis isn't your ordinary freshman," said Jeffries. "I think our offense will be fine. We still have a lot of work to do, but we'll find out a lot today."