It's only the most important spring practice Towson State has staged since the Tigers began playing scholarship football in 1979.
Last fall amounted to three long months of crisis management for coach Phil Albert. One of the youngest and most injury-prone teams he's ever had stumbled to a 2-9 record, the program's worst since Albert was a rookie coach in 1972. In their four seasons in Division I-AA, the Tigers had gone from bad to worse.
The future of the program was publicly debated. The university, which considered dropping football because of a budget deficit, decided in the end to leave the program intact. The school didn't pursue membership in football's Yankee Conference when that group expanded last month, and Dr. Hoke L. Smith, the Towson State president, is interested in Division I-AAA if the NCAA makes that non-scholarship concept a reality.
Albert can't control those off-the-field doings, but there are more than enough details in the day-to-day dealings of Towson State football to keep him busy. Albert said that in recent years Tigers players have been soft physically and mentally, and that has to change before the record does.
"This spring is critical, but the winter was, too," Albert said.
"We had won through the mid-1980s, but I read certain things happening within as a lack of discipline. A player late for a meeting here, a bus there. We were playing well, and had harmony, but younger guys see that happening and think they can slide.
"I had to do some things to make a statement. We needed to be a more disciplined team. Beginning Jan. 28, our players began an eight-week weightlifting program that occupied them for an hour and 15 minutes, five days a week. Now, that work is being done at 6:30 a.m., because we've got other things to take care of in the afternoons."
Albert officially began spring practice April 8, and his contact workouts have been harder than those of the past. No one transferred out and there are returning starters at more than 80 percent of the positions, but they must improve. The defense allowed a school-record 336 points and the Tigers averaged just 14.8 points a game last fall, so Albert isn't averse to changes on the depth chart.
There will be at least one new face -- at quarterback -- when the Tigers open Sept. 14 at Minnegan Stadium against Boston University. Candidates include Bob Campbell -- a sophomore from Clay, N.Y., who carried a clipboard last season, and redshirt freshman Bill McDuffee. Campbell's father is the head coach at Frederick High. Eric Kearney, a walk-on from Towson High, is also getting a look.
"Everyone is back on offense except at quarterback, and that's a big exception," Albert said. "We've got four starters back on the offensive line, and maturity there is going to make a difference. It also helps having a healthy John O'Neill."
A senior from Atholton, O'Neill went down in the 1990 opener, the first of six players to undergo knee surgery last fall. Albert is eager to see what he can do at fullback over the long haul, and O'Neill should take some heat off senior tailback Robbie Jackson, who needs 432 yards to become Towson State's all-time leading rusher.
To beef up a defense that was pushed around, Albert tried a new tack and brought in junior college transfers. Mike Curcio is a 265-pound lineman and Dan Smith is a linebacker. Smith is one reason senior Gary Worthington is being moved to strong safety. Leading tackler James Dutton also is back, but Albert wants increased production from him and everyone else.
"A guy like Dutton has to distinguish himself, starting now," Albert said. "He's going to be starting for the third year, and I don't think he's played up to his potential. Everyone has to pick it up."