Simmons has no question about Rattlers’ commitment

Receiver Xavier Smith (left) and coach Willie Simmons respond to questions by reporters at a media day event last week.
FAMU athletics photo by Devin P. Grimes
Freshman quarterback Junior Muratovic had a few snaps on the first day of practice inside Bragg Stadium.
FAMU athletics photo by Devin P. Grimes

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Long before the FAMU football team started fall practice last week, coach Willie Simmons got a sense of how committed his players will be as they head into their first season in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

It was last spring when the decision was made to forego playing their last season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference that Simmons saw the character of his players. The pandemic forced FAMU to opt out of the season.

“Guys could have easily quit,” Simmons said. “They could have shut down, rebelled against the program but they didn’t. They decided to come together (and) worked extremely hard. I think they understand what’s at stake because we knew we would be on the field again.”

They are right now. Practice began last Saturday and by the time the Rattlers get to the opening game against Jackson State on Sept. 5, they would have had 25 practices. They’ll also participate in two scrimmages.

During a team media day last week, Simmons told reporters that his players have improved despite not playing a game since Nov. 23, 2019. He credits strength and conditioning coach Cole Forney for using the offseason to develop the players’ physicality.

“Our football players look totally different than they did this time last year,” Simmons said. “We are a much bigger, much faster, much stronger football team. We are healthier going  into training camp than we’ve ever been.”

Simmons appeared at the media event with pre-season All-American receiver Xavier Smith and defensive back Markquese Bell along with linebacker Derrick Mayweather. All three players expressed some eagerness to get back on the field.

“We are really just ready to get back on the field and compete at a high level,” said Smith. “Practice hard and just get to it.

“I’ve gotten chills a few times, but I’m ready and we are ready.”

 The first home game at Bragg Stadium is one that Mayweather is especially excited about.

“It’s something to look forward to,” Mayweather said. “I know that first home game is going to be different.” 

In part, that difference could be attributed to lingering concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is no tentativeness as preparation for the season is underway, said Bell.

“It’s football,” he said. “COVID only holds so much over you. Once you get there, it’s football.”

He said he and his teammates maintained their enthusiasm about the season because of their love of the game. The shutdown last season left the team without a game in more than 600 days.

But they kept working in the weight room and doing unsupervised workouts.

 “If anything we gained a lot,” Bell said. “We have more knowledge about the game and freshmen coming in are more developed because of the time that we had off. We’re going to be a better team than we were in 2019.”

The team started practice with some new assistant coaches on the field. The biggest change was at the defensive coordinator post that was held by Ralph Street. He left during the offseason to take an assistant position with his alma mater Marshall University. 

 Milton Patterson, a former player in the SWAC who also has coaching experience in the conference, has taken over the defensive coordinator position.

Simmons also filled two other assistant positions – at running back and offensive line. Other positions include support staff.

“This will be the first year that we will have a full coaching staff, support staff and administrative team,” Simmons said.

Although the Rattlers didn’t play last season, they participated in spring practices. During the spring game, quarterback Rasean McKay established himself as the leading candidate to replace record-setter Ryan Stanley. 

Through the first days of fall practice, he impressed Simmons.

“Rasean showed really good command of the offense,” Simmons said in a statement following the team’s first practice. “He takes charge, but that’s what you would expect from a guy that’s been in the program for four years, whose played in games and won them at quarterback.”

McKay was expected to be seriously challenged for the starting job under center by Kansas Transfer John Holcombe. However, he’s been dismissed from the program.

But McKay has solid backups in LeJohn Howard, Junior Muratovic and Ja’Cory Jordan.

Replacing Stanley’s efficiency is no small task, but Simmons expressed confidence in the current quarterbacks.

“Ryan did such a phenomenal job for this program and you can never replace a guy of Ryan’s status,” he said. “But we have five young men who are looking to do their best job to take the program to the next level.”