Looking for playmakers: Livingstone gears up for new season

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 26, 2023

By David Shaw

For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — So many questions, so few answers.

That’s the predicament third-year coach Sean Gilbert faces as Livingstone College kicks off another CIAA football season. The former NFL defensive tackle — with 42.5 career sacks and 18 surgeries to his credit — is searching for playmakers from a shallow pool of hopeful candidates.

“I’ll be honest,” he said during a midweek interview. “We’ve got an overhaul going on. We put about 25 guys in the (transfer) portal. Some left on their own because they just didn’t fit. Some wanted to transfer. And some we didn’t renew because we need to focus on setting a good foundation for next year and the next two or three years down the road.”

It won’t be easy. A year after improving from 1-9 to 4-6 overall, conference coaches and sports information directors have slotted the 2023 Blue Bears to finish fifth among six teams in the Southern Division and 11th overall.

“I don’t care,” Gilbert said with a dismissive hand gesture. “That has nothing to do with playing. For us, it’s a proving ground. It doesn’t matter what our ranking is, we still have to focus on playing good football every week, all the way until the end.”

Less than a week before opening its CIAA season against visiting Bluefield State, LC seems like a puzzle scattered on the dining room table, waiting to be put together. Questions abound, beginning with who will be the starting quarterback in Gilbert’s spread offense. A preliminary roster provided by the team lists 10 applicants. Only one — sophomore Emmanuel Mukuamu (6 for 12, 53 yards, 1 TD) — took a snap under center last season.

Another promising returnee is hybrid running back/receiver Tecorey Tutson, a senior who gained 276 yards rushing and 47 receiving in ’22. His 78-yard run against J.C. Smith was Livingstone’s longest play from scrimmage. He joins linebacker Greg Champion and DE Josh Brown as LC’s only seniors.

“We’re focused on establishing a running game,” Gilbert said. “That’s our main goal. We’ll throw some short stuff and try to get the ball in the hands of guys who can make people miss. We’re trying to make our drives more consistent and give our kickers a chance when we get close.”

Both proved challenging last year. Livingstone quarterbacks threw 19 interceptions, six in the red zone. Blue Bear punters had eight attempts blocked by opponents, including five that were returned for touchdowns. The kickers, meanwhile, went 0-for-3 on field goal tries.

“Can’t have that,” Gilbert noted. “Getting down to the red zone and throwing picks? That doesn’t help. Neither did the kicking game. We’ve got things to fix.”

Things like a defense that yielded 383 yards, 29.2 points and 21.4 first downs per game last fall. Good news arrives in the form of senior MLB Jaden Echols and junior outside linebacker Terrance McPherson. Echols sat out last season with an ACL tear after earning all-conference recognition in 2021. McPherson averaged 7.3 tackles per game a year ago. The Blue Bears will employ the same 4-2-5 defensive scheme Gilbert has used the past two seasons.

“It keeps guys from having to think too much,” the coach said. “It’s a basic, reactionary concept. I liked it two years ago, when we finished top-20 in Division II. I didn’t like it last year, when we were at the bottom.”

It’s never a good sign when your punter is the team MVP, but that might be the case for sophomore Nathan Roubik. A transfer from Findlay College — a Division III school in Ohio — he did not attempt a punt last season. “What we need is for him to get the ball to the other side of the field,” Gilbert chuckled. “Special teams was an Achilles heel for us last year. We hope he makes a difference.”

Roubik will be supported by kicker/punter Jason Zapata, a strong-legged freshman from Homestead, Fla., and James Boyer, a freshman from West Charlotte. Gilbert expects Tyler Priddy to be the Blue Bears’ primary kicker. A slender freshman out of Western Guilford High School, he’ll be counted on for kickoffs, field goals and PAT’s.

“If he starts making field goals,” Gilbert smiled, “we’ll get T-shirts that say ‘Priddy Good!’ Get it?”

The Who-Ya-Wit crowd certainly will. Livingstone begins navigating its 10-game obstacle course Saturday night before visiting crosstown rival Catawba on Sept. 9.

“We’re not asking to be compared to anyone,” Gilbert responded when asked for a realistic appraisal. “We’re ranked almost last, we’re growing our program, and we have our own high expectations. We’ve got to earn respect from this league. If you’re not getting it, you have to earn it on the field. Yeah, we think we can be better than last year. Now we have to prove it.”