The test of whether Coach Willie Jeffries can improve the football fortunes of Howard University begins Saturday in Orono, Maine. If there is to be improvement from Jeffries' 2-8 first season, it quickly will be evident because the University of Maine's primary target probably will be Howard's weakest link of 1984, its secondary.
Jeffries was hired by Howard in March 1984. He took over relatively little talent, and the team's overall record reflected troubles adjusting to the dive-option offense he installed.
When the Bison take the field for this year's 1:30 p.m. nonleague opener at Alumni Stadium, Jeffries will have 15 returning starters, including eight on offense. With experienced players in the system, this season should be an indicator of whether Jeffries can do at Howard what he did at another Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school, South Carolina State. The Bulldogs went 1-9 in his first year as coach (1972) before going on to win five MEAC titles in six years.
"We feel both our offensive and defensive teams have improved from last year," Jeffries said. "It was really difficult last year with new coaches, a new system and new players. I can't say we are going to be awesome this year, but we will be representative."
Although the statistics in nearly every category were grim last year, the 144 passing yards per game Howard allowed against a schedule of opponents known primarily for their rushing made it seem as if the Bison secondary was missing in action. Howard was beaten for 16 touchdown passes and it allowed an average of 28 points per game.
All four starters in this year's secondary -- cornerbacks Conrad Austin and Chuck Taylor and safeties Doug Dickerson and Earl Kinney -- started last year. Jeffries is hopeful that the year of experience, plus an improved pass rush led by 6-foot-4, 255-pound tackle Reggie Miles (a junior college transfer), will remedy much of the problem.
"We were giving up a lot of yards passing, but a lot of the time, we weren't getting a lot of a pass rush, so it wasn't all the secondary's fault," said Jeffries. "You just can't cover somebody for 90 seconds. This year, we are going to try something new. We are going to put some heat on the quarterback and try to make him rush his passes."
Maine, a 27-23 come-from-behind winner at Howard last year, will test the Bison defensive backs. The Black Bears, coming off a 5-6 season, have a new coach, Eugene (Buddy) Teevans. At 28, Teevans is the youngest Division I-AA coach in the country. He is a former all-Ivy quarterback from Dartmouth and has instituted a multiple-I passing offense around 6-2 sophomore quarterback Bob Wilder.
"Last year, Maine was trying to run a power game, but they didn't have a power type of team," said Teevans. "Wilder is a big, strong kid and should fit in our scheme of things. We should be passing about 50 percent of the time."
Jeffries said he will welcome attempts to exploit Howard's secondary.
"I think our secondary will surprise some people who think they will be able to easily throw the football on us," said Jeffries. "Let them try."
Howard's scheduled home games against South Carolina State (Sept. 28), Morehouse College (Nov. 2) and Norfolk State (Nov. 9) might be played at Theodore Roosevelt High School.
Jeffries and Associate Athletic Director Sondra Norrell-Thomas said negotiations are continuing, but Roosevelt is the likely site to replace Howard Stadium as the Bison's home field this year. An artificial surface was scheduled to be installed at Howard Stadium in time for this fall's games, but administrative delays already have forced a scheduled Sept. 14 game to be switched to Rhode Island.