Basketball is still king in the CIAA, but with the resurgence of Winston-Salem State in football, the round ball’s crown has gotten a bit smaller. The Rams (13-1) rumbled through the conference undefeated and advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinals before losing to Wayne (Mich.) State 14-7. The Rams are preseason No. 9 nationally and favored to win their division, and their rise has elevated the entire league and expectations for 2012.
As the season gets under way Thursday, five area players not named Tyron Laughinghouse could be the difference makers between their team hoisting the championship trophy or watching from the stands.
1. QB Kameron Smith, Winston-Salem State: The Rams are coming off their best season. Smith, a Garner High graduate, led a potent offense that averaged 39.6 points per game and 421.4 yards of total offense. While senior running back Nicholas Cooper – now with the Green Bay Packers – was terrorizing opponents on the ground, Smith was picking them apart through the air for a school record 2,706 yards and 33 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. He is 21-3 as a starter, and his 147.7 passer rating was the best in the conference.
“He doesn’t sweat,” center Markus Lawrence told The Winston-Salem Journal. “He’s like James Bond back there.”
Smith will need that coolness as Cooper’s departure and an inexperienced backfield will put even more pressure on the redshirt senior to produce if the Rams want to repeat as CIAA champs.
2. QB Teddy Bacote, St. Augustine’s: Two years ago, Bacote was sitting on the bench as a redshirt freshman. But when his time came, he was ready. With wide receivers Laughinghouse and Brian Richards garnering most of the publicity last season, Bacote quietly went about taking care of business.
His 2,282 yards and 22 TDs set a modern-day school record for the Falcons who reinstated football in 2002. Even his coach was caught off guard.
“It was a surprise because most of the time you’re too busy trying to win games to notice anything else,” said coach Michael Costa, the Falcons’ only coach in the modern era. “He came in and just played. He wasn’t concerned about the accolades or anything, he was just trying to win.”
3. CB Darnell Evans, Shaw: Don’t let Evans’ 5-foot-9 – and that’s a stretch – size fool you. He’s a beast on the field and a menace for quarterbacks. The 2010 CIAA Defensive Rookie of the Year recorded 35 tackles and six pass breakups last season. His six interceptions tied for 12th in Division II. Not bad for a walk-on who wanted to play receiver.
“In my first game at Shaw, I will never forget what coach (Robert) Massey told me,” said Evans who was named a preseason All-American by USA Football News. “He said if I stay with my technique and work hard, I could be one of the best cornerbacks in the conference. That meant a lot coming from a former NFL professional.”
4. QB James Stallons, Shaw: Stallons has yet to play for the Bears, but the hype has surrounded him ever since he arrived on campus last season. The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College transfer has a rocket of an arm and the size (6-foot-6) to go with it. He threw for 2,061 yards and 19 TDs against just four interceptions in his last playing season in 2010. Despite a year layoff, Stallons has caught the attention of NFL scouts who he worked out for in the spring on St. Aug’s campus.
“They said he could play,” Massey said. “He came to Shaw because of opportunity, not for any trouble he was in. But he still has to compete for the starting job.”
5. QB Chauncey Concepcion, Fayetteville State: When the 2011 season began, the true freshman thought he would be spending most of his time holding the clipboard for junior college transfer Brandon Blumears-Cliff. But the Broncos 0-4 start prompted a change, and Concepcion turned out to be a pleasant surprise. His 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame was a dual threat, as he passed for 800 yards and five TDs, and rushed for 336 yards – second-highest on the team. His 50 percent passing efficiency earned him a spot on the CIAA All-Rookie team.
“He’s an exciting football player, a scared football player to defenses and a scared football player to the head football coach,” coach Kenny Phillips said. “When you’re playing young guys like that, you don’t know what they’re going to do. But he’s got a chance to be a very good football player in the league if he continues to work.”