If Morgan State is to fulfill the "Arise" theme of its 2006 season, players who have migrated from football programs elsewhere must provide noteworthy contributions.
Division I-A transfers are so prominent on the roster that as many as four could start on the rebuilt defense, a source of optimism after the Bears took a nose dive to a 2-9 record last year.
FOR THE RECORD - Three Morgan State football players were misidentified in a photo caption on Page 1E in Thursday's editions. The caption should have read (from left) Catlyn Clark, Everette Baker, Reginald Holmes and Darius Leak.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Recruitment of players whose careers didn't pan out at their original choices is nothing new during coach Donald Hill-Eley's regime, which has achieved significant success with transfers such as Bradshaw Littlejohn, Vincent Brown and Curtis Bradley, all of whom became All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference picks after performing at Hughes Stadium.
Conversely, others never make the transition well enough to become significant players at Morgan, with their various problems following them from their previous base. It is a chance Hill-Eley and his staff are frequently willing to risk.
"If they have issues with the other program, I don't even take them," Hill-Eley said. "The first thing I ask them is, `Why are you coming?' I don't want to hear that they didn't play enough or they had an issue with the coaches. If they want another opportunity to be a part of a I-AA program and protect its integrity, I'll give them a try."
The transfer rule that allows a player moving from Division I-A to a lower level to play immediately - without sitting out a season - is an attractive selling point. And, if the player had sufficient talent and promise to be recruited for a higher level, it is likely that he will receive considerable playing time at a I-AA venue.
The reasons for transfer can vary from the simple need for new scenery to more drastic issues like being dismissed from the previous school.
Reginald Holmes of Bowie was a prominent linebacker as a sophomore at Maryland, playing alongside the likes of D'Qwell Jackson, before "I got into a couple of altercations and got kicked out of the university. It was off-the-field problems, nothing to do with football. I was young and out of control. I had to sit out two years because I was ineligible to play at any level."
Now he is a mature senior and primary member of the linebacker rotation at Morgan after Hill-Eley contacted him.
The defensive star, Darius Leak, is another senior linebacker whose career has been resuscitated by a second chance. So much so that Leak posted 117 tackles, including 15 for losses, last season, ranked among the conference leaders, and is the Bears' only preseason choice to the All-MEAC first team.
At Connecticut, Leak said: "We just had a run-in with the coach after I violated team policies. I had to go somewhere else. Coach Hill called me and seemed like a good coach and good guy who cared about his players. I thought about it and didn't want to sit out, so I came here."
Senior defensive back Catlyn Clark came from Connecticut with Leak under different circumstances.
"I didn't have any particular reason for leaving there," he said. "I had no problems with coaches. Nothing was wrong. It was just a decision I made. Morgan looked like a good place to transfer and a program that needed to be rebuilt."
Another newcomer, junior defensive back Everette Baker, will move into the Bears' starting lineup after leaving Florida International.
"It was going all right there," Baker said. "There wasn't any bad blood. But sometimes change is best. This has brought me to a great coaching staff. I felt Coach Hill and Coach [Carl] Smith [secondary coach] were coming straight from the heart. That hit me."
Meshing transfers with a new environment, new teammates and new systems can be difficult. Now, Morgan also has a new defensive coordinator (Alonzo Lee) after a season in which it surrendered 375 points in 11 games. The players like him, a giant first step.
If improvement comes in the defense, the performance of transfers will be of paramount importance.
"It hasn't been all glory," Hill-Eley said of his policy on transfers. "But if they want to be a part of what we're doing, we welcome them."
>>>Season opener Morgan State@Towson, Saturday, 6 p.m., 88.9 FM, 89.7 FM
Bears At A Glance
Coach: Donald Hill-Eley (fifth season)
Last year: 2-9
Conference: Division I-AA Mid-Eastern Athletic
Radio: 88.9 FM
Stadium: Hughes Stadium (10,000)
Tickets: $20 reserved, $15 general admission, $12 faculty, staff, seniors and M Club, $10 students
Parking: To be determined (garage under construction)
Offense: Multiple pro
Outlook: Last season was a step backward for the Bears, who won one MEAC game and slipped to ninth place after becoming a title challenger in Hill-Eley's first year. A leaky defense was the primary problem as Morgan allowed 40 or more points five times and fewer than 24 only once. A new defensive coordinator and more speed in the back line should help correct that problem. Linebacker Darius Leak, an All-MEAC preseason pick who accounted for 117 tackles last season, is the leader. The team returns eight offensive starters, but suffered a blow when tackle Curtis Bradley, an all-league choice two years ago, was denied a medical waiver for another season by the NCAA. Quarterback Byron Selby has had a season to develop and could lead the league in passing yardage again.
[ Kent Baker]