Rayford Petty has taken over as Howard’s interim coach after Gary Harrell decided to take a leave of absence in April. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Following its highest win total in more than a decade, the Howard football team was brimming with optimism entering spring practice. Former Bison wide receiver Gary Harrell, who had returned to his alma mater two years earlier, directed an upswing in which the Bison contended for a MEAC championship last season and had designs on another push in 2013.

Then shortly before the team was to begin practice in April, Harrell announced he would be taking a one-year leave of absence for personal reasons. The revelation initially left players stunned and saddened, but following time to process the news, they emerged energized for training camp thanks in part to upperclassmen who preached elevated individual responsibility.

“Coach Flea, he’s been a big help to this program,” senior safety Julien David said, referring to Harrell’s nickname. “There’s definitely no replacing a guy like that. As men, we know we’ve just got to learn to be strong and be able play no matter what the situation is. We’ve got to be able to adjust even if we had gotten a brand new coach we’ve never even seen before.”

The transition, players said, has been as smooth as could be expected because Howard officials did not need to look outside of their campus for Harrell’s temporary replacement. They instead promoted defensive coordinator Rayford Petty to interim coach.

Petty served as Howard’s head coach from 2002 to ’06 before coming back to work with Harrell. The two have been well acquainted for decades since Petty was the Bison defensive coordinator from 1992 to ’99. During that time, Howard won two black national championships, including going 11-0 in 1993.

“It’s his way or no way,” starting quarterback Greg McGhee said of Petty. “He’s real old school with it.”

McGhee, selected to the MEAC all-freshman team two years ago, led Howard to the conference’s No. 2 ranking in total offense last season. The Bison averaged 365.4 yards per game and scored 25.5 points, ranking fourth in the MEAC.

Howard scored at least 30 points four times, all victories, including reaching its season high in a 56-9 triumph against Savannah State at Greene Stadium. In the season finale, the Bison scored their second-most points in a 41-34 comeback victory over visiting Delaware State to secure second place in the MEAC.

Picked to finish eighth in the conference last preseason, Howard erupted for 38 points after halftime and erased a 24-3 third-quarter deficit. The Bison were able to celebrate a 7-4 record only after cornerback Ademola Olatunji intercepted a pass in the closing stages, allowing Howard to run out the clock.

“We want to win. We want to keep the program on track to where it was when Coach Harrell was here,” Petty said. “We don’t want it to fall off any. [MEAC coaches and sports information directors] picked us to finish sixth in the conference this year. We feel like we could be a little better than that.”

Much of the Bison’s fortunes this season hinge on a handful of defensive upgrades, including the return of starting safety Cam Alston. The redshirt junior missed all of last season with an injury, and his pairing with David comprises one of the most talented safety tandems in the MEAC.

David was first-team all-conference last season and was named to the preseason first team this year. The senior led Howard last season in tackles (108) and pass breakups (eight).

Howard also added junior defensive end Godspower Offor, who transferred from Wake Forest, and has back Damon Gresham-Chisolm. The sophomore defensive end got into the starting lineup halfway through last season on the way to becoming the first player in program history to be named MEAC rookie of the year and first-team all-conference.

The Bison finished ninth in the MEAC in total defense last season and allowed the fourth most points per game (29.3).

“I expect a lot,” Gresham-Chisolm said. “The defense, we’ve been getting off right. [Being picked sixth in the preseason] really does motivate us. It stays in the back of our heads. We talk about it in meetings sometimes. We’re just ready to prove everybody wrong.”


Aug. 31: at Eastern Michigan, 6

Sept. 7: vs. Morehouse, 3:30

Sept. 14: at Old Dominion, 6

Sept. 26: at N.C. A&T, 7:30

Oct. 5: vs. N.C. Central, 1

Oct. 12: vs. Bethune-Cookman, 1

Oct. 19: at Florida A&M, 2

Oct. 26: vs. Morgan State, 1

Nov. 2: at Delaware State, 2

Nov. 9: vs. Savannah State, 1

Nov. 16: at Texas Southern, 3

Nov. 23: at Hampton, 1