Despite a 40-14 defeat by North Carolina A&T last week that he called "the toughest loss this season," Howard University Coach Willie Jeffries remains confident the Bison football program is headed in the right direction.

Entering Saturday's 1 p.m. game at Howard Stadium against Norfolk State, which is 6-2 and ranked No. 13 in the NCAA's Division II, the Bison are 1-6. They have defeated only one Division I-AA opponent other than Morgan State in the past three seasons, and, over that span, they are 3-5 against Division II teams.

Jeffries, who went 1-9 in his first year at South Carolina State in 1972, then won five straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles, conceded he never thought rebuilding the Howard program would be as difficult as his two-year, 3-14 record indicates.

"I didn't think it was going to be this tough," said Jeffries. "I had been to Howard before, coached against Howard, had good friends of mine who coached here and had people tell me things about it. But it's like a hole in one in golf; you have to get one yourself to know what it's really all about."

Jeffries said the loss to A&T was especially hard for his program. The Bison had played three straight strong games, including a 17-7 victory over Virginia State. He even had visions of approaching .500.

"Last year (2-8), we couldn't have realistically expected to have a winning season, but this year, we should have been around .500," said Jeffries. "We have enough talent here right now to have a winning team. Maybe it's not enough for a dynasty, but we have enough personnel to have winning seasons."

This week's depth chart lists 14 sophomores and three freshmen among the 22 starters. With most starters returning, next year looks promising. But 18 starters returned from last year.

Marvin Jackson, a sophomore linebacker who leads the Bison with 70 tackles, described the loss to A&T as "an embarrassment" that has made many players take a hard look at the remainder of the season.

"After we got embarrassed, we had to look at ourselves and see if we really wanted to play football," said Jackson. "We just have never learned to play as a team offensively and defensively. It gets tougher every week. We don't have any seniors and we just have never found a leader on the team that everyone believes in. I'm not a very vocal person, but I'm trying to take a more outspoken role."

"Every day I try to find answers, and I think I've found some," said Jeffries. "We still have to weed out some players who are playing for themselves and are not committed to playing for the team.

"I know some players are disappointed with this season, but I think they all know the task we took on together. I think they'll stay around with me and help things get better because we've all been through too much together not to see it through."