Blue Bears shooting for turnaround
SALISBURY — With a new season dawning Saturday, Livingstone interim head football coach Daryl Williams talks softly but his demeanor and posture project confidence.
Williams even hands out a blue and white business card proclaiming “The Standard is The Standard.”
That’s the favorite motto of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, and it’s basically about playing the game at a consistently high level, being accountable and maintaining that high level of performance and accountability no matter what sort of adversity strikes.
The Steelers have been successful. The Livingstone Blue Bears haven’t.
Asked about that, Williams points at the “16 in 10” sign hanging outside his office.
The 16 references the Blue Bears’ last winning season in 1998 — a span of 16 seasons if you count 1998 and 2013. The 10 references the 10 upcoming weeks — five on the road and five at home — in which Livingstone has a chance to correct all those years of losing.
Livingstone was a modest 2-8 in 2012 (winning in OT against Virginia-Lynchburg and outscoring Lincoln), but it made tangible strides on offense. As offensive coordinator, Williams unleashed an up-tempo passing game that generated 24 points per game. That’s two touchdowns per game more the Blue Bears were grinding out in 2011.
Many quality players are back from last season, but the league is taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the Blue Bears. At CIAA Media Day, they were picked for 11th place among the league’s 12 teams and they were picked at the bottom of the six-team Southern Division.
“That’s motivation,” Williams said. “We’ll defy the odds.”
Williams won’t be trying to win with just slogans, blue smoke and mirrors.
CIAA Rookie of the Year Drew Powell was an exceptional quarterback a year ago, throwing for 2,322 yards and 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Avery Collins (51 catches, 498 yards) and Anthony Holland (38 catches, 641 yards) are key returning targets for the lefty QB.
“Drew is the catalyst for our offense, but he can still improve,” Williams said. “We’re looking for a higher completion rate and better decision-making.”
Williams was a college quarterback at Tennessee State. It makes sense that his forte is coaching the passing game, and his system has worked everywhere he’s been.
Still, he recognizes the necessity for a running game to keep pressure off Powell. As a team, the Blue Bears barely rushed for 1,000 net yards last season.
“The goal is to average 350 yards per game this time — 200 passing and 150 rushing,” Williams said.
Williams expects an improved offensive line to positively impact the running game. One of the projected starters on the o-line is 325-pound guard T.J. Jefferson, a true freshman from East Rowan.
As far as Livingstone’s defense, Williams doesn’t sugar-coat that the Blue Bears were unsatisfactory in 2012 despite some individual accolades. We gave up 512 yards per game,” Williams said. “We were last in the CIAA in defense and among the worst in Division II. There were games we met our offensive goals and still lost.”
Williams is confident staff changes and new personnel will upgrade the defense.
“I think we’ve beefed up our defensive line, our linebackers are better, and our defensive secondary is new,” Williams said.
Linebackers Kenneth White and Tyheim Pitt are the marquee names among the returners.
“But we’re counting on all 11 to make a contribution on every play,” Williams said. “We want to play sound football and we want to get eight or nine to the football every play. I expect a lot more passion from our defense.”
Livingstone’s other local player besides Jefferson is backup QB Zay Laster, who led West Rowan to a state runner-up finish in 2011.
“I think we haven’t gotten a lot of local kids because Livingstone hasn’t been winning,” Williams said. “As we start to win, we’ll attract more local kids who want to be part of defying the odds.”
Livingstone’s schedule looks different. Opening with Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte at 4 p.m. this Saturday brings more attention than usual to Livingstone’s opener. The Golden Bulls are a huge rival, and there’s a history lesson every time the two schools meet in football. Black college football has its roots in the 1892 game played in the snow in Salisbury by Biddle (now J.C. Smith) and Livingstone.
J.C. Smith annihilated Livingstone last November 57-6, so this is an early opportunity for the Blue Bears to measure themselves. They’ll see how far they have — or haven’t — come.
“We’re extremely excited,” Williams said. “We’ve had a total makeover of our program. We’ll be detailed, and I don’t believe we’ll beat ourselves.”