CIAA football: Livingstone preview

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2011

By David Shaw
SALISBURY — Livingstone’s 2011 football season begins with an unavoidable question: Why is Elvin James smiling?
Is it because the second-year coach has four of his five starting offensive linemen from last season back on board? Or because a full complement of running backs returns intact, a year older and fiercer? Or because a handful of newcomers — including three highly touted assistants, four top-shelf local products and a bona fide, full-scholarship kicker — have injected the Blue Bears with a dose of inspiration?
All are poignant queries. But maybe, just maybe, the answers can be found in James’ old record collection.
“It was Sam Cooke who sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’” he said, channeling the man who invented soul. “And it’s coming to us. I see the progression here and, mark my words, change is coming.”
It’s never easy, nor wise, to hurry the hands of time when you’re trying to build a CIAA contender. A year ago — with a roster dominated by apple-cheeked freshmen and sophomores — James may have felt like he was running a daycare. The Blue Bears were greener than Mrs. Murphy on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Last year we young and more or less went though the motions,” fourth-year free safety Devonta Harmon said. “There were times when people didn’t put forth the effort, didn’t feel like playing. We just wanted to get the season over with.”
Predictably, LC struggled both with the ball (4.4 points, 123 total yards-per-game) and without it (44.9, 351). But James, with his jovial glass-is-half-full personality, clearly has the Blue Bears pointed in the right direction. Now comes the hard part — reversing the fortunes of a team that’s gone winless the past two autumns and opens this season lugging around a 25-game losing streak.
“I truly feel we have the potential to make things happen,” James said following a recent intra-squad scrimmage. “But by the same token, nobody’s going to give us anything. They all feel we’ve been the doormats of the CIAA. We’ve got to eradicate that by going out and playing solid football. We’ve got to tell people and show people, ‘Hey, it’s our time.’”
Livingstone’s show-and-tell begins anew Thursday night at Chowan. It will take the field with eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense. Improvement is not only possible, it is expected.
“Everyone has grown up,” said tight end Miles Harris. “We’ve got our minds on one thing — winning this year. We’re moving forward and not looking back.”
They’ll launch the season with a formidable OL, anchored by left tackle Harlee Fink (6-3, 300), a transfer from Division I-AA Hampton University. Left guard Allyne Hall (6-4, 345), right guard Josiah Simms (6-3, 330) and right tackle Chris Woodard (6-4, 280) are returning starters. The new-kid-in-town in center Raymond Phillips, a Mississippi-bred freshman. Throw in Harris — who has bulked up from 230 pounds to 260 — and you see why James is gushing. “They got beat up last year,” he said. “Now it’s their turn to hit back.”
Sophomore Jared Troutman is LC’s starting quarterback. A starter for St. Paul’s in 2009, he sat out last season and is one of several second-chance reclaimation projects on the roster. Soph Levon Stanley, who passed for 406 yards and two of the team’s seven touchdowns last fall, is the backup.
LC’s backfield includes a potential stud in Javon Williams, a transfer whose resume includes previous stops at N.C. Wesleyan and East Carolina. Armed with speed, strength and vision, James will give a feature role. “He’s got stuff you can’t teach,” the coach said.
The rest of the stable features lettermen Jamel Moore, Terrill Gourdine, Amad Garrison and Tevin Mishoe along with freshmen John Papillion — one of the state’s most prolific high school backs last year — and promising Salisbury High graduate Dario Hamilton.
The receiving corps is comprised of sophomore Anthony Williams, freshman Montoria Hood, JUCO transfer Carl James and Levelle “Redbone” Sears.
The new kicker is Hillman Tabi, recruited out of the Washington, DC area. He routinely made 40-yard field goals in high school and once narrowly missed a 59-yard attempt. “He’s got the leg,” James chirped.
The “Help Wanted” sign went up on the defensive side of the ball and former Livingstone head coach Greg Richardson was hired as D-coordinator. He’s assigned to resurrect a unit that yielded 494 points and failed to hold opponents on 44 of 55 red-zone opportunities.
“It’s got to get better,” said Harmon. “That’s all there is to it.”
It should. A defensive line that features senior tackle Michael Haygood (6-0, 275) could blow up an offense. Bobby Williams (6-5, 235), Dory Edwards (5-10, 280) and Devin Evans (6-3, 290) complete the line.
“They’re big and quick, so there’s no excuses,” James said. “That’s what Coach Richardson demands. He’s a perfectionist.”
The linebacking crew includes defensive captain Justin Johnson, junior Travis Holiday and sophomore Tyheim Pitt. All saw considerable action last year. LC’s secondary — which leaked like the Titanic in 2010 — features the re-focused Harmon, Jersey native Anthony Townsend and familiar faces Ibn Ali (Salisbury), Justin Avery (West Rowan) and Keith “B.J.” Grant (South Rowan).
“With Harmon, I’m looking for more leadership,” James said. “He has the experience.”
Tabi will also serve as the team’s punter while Holland, Williams, Ali and Moore have been cast as return men.
Livingstone’s schedule includes only three home games and the usual suspects — Shaw, Winston-Salem State, Fayetteville State and Elizabeth City State — are CIAA favorites. Where does that leave the Blue Bears?
“On the long road ahead,” James noted. “Only now we have the tools to get there. We’re here to stay. And we’re for real.”