NCF Nation: Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils

MEAC/SWAC Challenge tops in FCS Week 1

August, 28, 2013
The ninth annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney will feature Florida A&M and Mississippi Valley State on Sunday, Sept. 1 (11:45 a.m. ET on ESPN) at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla. This huge rivalry game between the two FCS historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) conferences will be the premier black college football game this weekend.

Although the MEAC certainly has the advantage in regards to wins in this series with a 6-2 record, the game always has some big-time players to watch. And this year is no exception. The MEAC/SWAC Challenge has arguably two of the best players in HBCU football in Florida A&M quarterback Damien Fleming and Mississippi Valley State defensive lineman Robert Simpson.

[+] EnlargeDamien Fleming
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesFAMU quarterback Damien Fleming threw for 2,157 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

Fleming has a bundle of talent. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound junior, was selected preseason MEAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year. A year ago, he displayed a strong passing arm throwing the ball down the field. Fleming completed 214 of 308 passes for 2,157 yards including 16 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

He shows a lot of poise in the pocket. In last season’s 24-22 victory over Delaware State, he connected on 30 of 37 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns. Fleming has a bright future.

Simpson has played some great football for the Delta Devils. The 6-3, 267-pound senior was named to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, an award annually given by The Sports Network to the best defensive player in FCS. Simpson has great quickness and strength up front.

Simpson finished second in FCS with 22.5 tackles for loss. The All-SWAC standout had 59 total and 29 solo tackles. He also finished fourth in the conference with seven sacks. His ability to play the run and rush the passer makes him a solid NFL prospect. He should get an invitation to the NFL combine next year.

In this HBCU classic, Fleming and Simpson give fans around the country a player to watch on both sides of the ball. Look for both players to be major playmakers in this game.

• Head coaches Earl Holmes of FAMU and Karl Morgan of MVSU will bring some NFL experience to the sidelines at the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. Holmes played his college football for the Rattlers. He was a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1996. He played 10 seasons in the NFL at linebacker for the Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.

Morgan played his college football at UCLA. He was a great nose guard for the Bruins. He played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1984 to 1986. Morgan played for the Houston Oilers, too.

• Fleming shared preseason conference player of the year honors with Isidore Jackson, Bethune-Cookman’s outstanding running back. The Wildcats are the favorites to win the MEAC this season. Jackson has a lot to do with that. He rushed for 1,069 yards on 191 carries while scoring 11 touchdowns. He averaged 5.6 yards a carry.

• Speaking of running backs, Isaiah Crowell is an exciting runner for Alabama State. Crowell rushed for 843 yards on 159 carries last season. The 5-11, 190-pound junior, scored a league-leading 15 TDs last season. He was the SWAC Newcomer of the Year.

FAMU RB James Owens set for fresh start

July, 16, 2013
OwensAP Photo/Phil SearsJames Owens' speed makes him a home run threat at running back for Florida A&M.
James Owens was looking forward to the 2011-12 season at Florida A&M, until a setback forced him to miss the entire year. Now a redshirt junior, the running back from Apopka, Fla., was ruled academically ineligible, which forced him to put his athletic goals -- and NFL dreams -- on hold.

“Everything was going good, then I was declared ineligible for one year due to grades, so I had to bounce back from that,” said the 21-year-old Owens, a criminal justice major whose career goals also include starting an after-school and summer program for young people.

Setbacks aren’t new territory for Owens. While poised to have a strong season for the Rattlers this year, he’s also focused on his other priority: 1-year-old son Jaden.

“It can be very difficult at times, but he’s a blessing to have … seeing his face every day,” Owens said. “He lets me know I have to grind harder and harder to make sure he had things that I couldn’t [have] growing up.”

At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Owens has been timed at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He models his game after speedy running backs like Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller and Jamaal Charles. It’s that kind of skill set that he hopes first-year coach Earl Holmes, who replaced legend Joe Taylor, will notice and make use of.

“Me and Coach Taylor had a pretty good relationship, but I feel Coach Holmes is a great fit for us because he’s a player’s coach,” Owens said. “He has set high expectations on us because he sees our potential as a team, and he wants to restore that pride in the program. I’m looking to be one of the leaders in the FCS in rushing, and I’m working hard to make sure I get there.”

Like Owens, FAMU is looking for a breakout year after going 4-7 last season. It all starts on Sept. 1, when FAMU faces Mississippi Valley State in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney. The game will be played at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, near Owens’ hometown.

Owens sees an opportunity to emerge as the unquestioned starter in the backfield this season. As a freshman in 2010, he rushed for 370 yards on just 65 carries. Despite limited touches, he also led the team in all-purpose yards, with 1,415 (including 904 yards as a kick returner).

Holmes knows what he has in Owens, and has high expectations.

“James played a lot for us [as a sophomore] and was very productive,” Holmes said. “A very crafty kid in space, [he] can make you miss, can win his one-on-ones and is one of the fastest guys on the team.”

Getting to this point has been a series of twists and turns for Owens, but he has no regrets.

“I was originally supposed to go to Florida International, but I came to Florida A&M and earned my spot as a walk-on,” Owens said. “I really didn’t know where I was going to go, but I decided to apply for FAMU, and when I got accepted I decided I would walk on and I made my name from there. So I guess it’s a funny story of how I got here.”

Owens is ready to shine and always points to his first game at FAMU as his inspiration.

“It was my first college start against Hampton,” he recalls. “They were projected to be division winners that year. I came in with the mindset to leave everything I had on the field. I finished with 11 carries, 295 all-purpose yards and three TDs.”

Jason Joseph is a junior at Florida A&M University, majoring in broadcast journalism.

Julian Stafford, Delta Devils have matured

July, 2, 2013
Julian Stafford has Sept. 1 circled on his calendar.

The 5-foot-9, 185-pound redshirt sophomore expects to be lined up at wide receiver for Mississippi Valley State when the Delta Devils open the football season by taking on Florida A&M University in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney. The Memphis, Tenn., native is coming off a stellar season where he caught 52 passes for 800 yards and four touchdowns -- an impressive feat when you consider he had 57 yards as a freshman.

[+] EnlargeJulian Stafford
Courtesy of Mississippi Valley State UniversityJulian Stafford wasn't highly recruited out of high school in Memphis, but had a breakout season for Mississippi Valley State last year.
"Once he gets going, a player of his caliber is hard to slow down," says Coach Karl Morgan, who recalled the game against Grambling State last October, when Stafford amassed 262 all-purpose yards and two kick return touchdowns.

"That game was my coming-out party," says Stafford. "Everybody finally found out who I was."

Stafford's growth has been a welcome surprise for Delta Devils fans.

He wasn't highly recruited out of Sheffield High School in Memphis.

"I was a little disappointed that I didn't get the offers from big schools. Mississippi Valley State University was the school that gave me a chance to play Division I college football, and I'm really thankful for that."

Yet, he was far from the focal point of the offense when he first arrived on campus.

"There were times when I got frustrated [as a freshman], because I really wanted to help the team," he said. "But I knew if I stayed patient and worked hard my time would eventually come."

Stafford saved his best performance for the final game of the season against Texas Southern University last November. That's when he registered a career-high 282 all-purpose yards as MVSU cruised in a 34-3 rout.

Stafford credits a change in offensive coordinators (from his freshman to sophomore year) and his own increased dedication to his early success. "I've really stepped up my work ethic this past season by giving everything I do on the field 110 percent -- lifting weights more, studying more film and training hard every day," he says.

As expressive as his game is, Stafford is anything but. "I still don't like to go out much; I'm more of a homebody," admits Stafford, who pledged Kappa Alpha Psi last spring. "[Pledging] was something I've always wanted to do and I'm proud to be a part of."

While Stafford isn't looking beyond the MEAC/SWAC Challenge game, he does expect his team to have a breakout season. With a defense that finished third in the FCS standings and dynamic newcomers (including wide receiver Richard Drake and standout defensive end Robert Simpson), the Delta Devils could be a force.

"This could be a big year for us," Stafford said. "I think we will be very successful this year because the team has matured. No one on our roster is self-centered. We have a lot of veterans on the team who lead by example and really want to win."

Stafford can certainly count himself in that group.

Malcolm R. Miller is a junior at Mississippi Valley State majoring in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.