Waiting for a decision

Simmons confident additional players will rejoin football team

Linebacker Isaiah Major wraps up Tar Heels running back Caleb Hood.
Photo by Kyrease Desseau

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Report

A FAMU football team that needed some persuading to follow through with its season-opening date with the University of North Carolina made quite an impression against the Power 5 team.

In the end at Kenan Stadium last Saturday night, it was as if the Rattlers stared the nation in the face and asked, “Any questions?”

For the first 30 minutes, the Rattlers didn’t look like a team that decided to play after the intervention of a minister and considering what they could accomplish this season. The toll of having an undermanned squad against a full-strength, bigger opponent eventually caught up with the Rattlers in a 56-24 loss.

“We showed the nation this past weekend what kind of football team we are,” coach Willie Simmons said during his Monday press conference. “I think we opened a lot of eyes to things that we do here; our players, our quality of coaches, of our resolve. We showed a lot of people why we have had the success we’ve had over the last few years.”

Simmons went on to talk about the keys to victory for his football team against Jackson State in the Orange Blossom Classic on Sunday afternoon. That was after he spent almost half of his 40-minute meeting with the media answering questions about the certification of players.

He expressed optimism that an ongoing effort between the university, the NCAA and the SWAC would lead to many of his 26 ineligible players returning. He specifically praised the SWAC commissioner for getting involved.

“I tip my hat to Dr. Charles McClelland for seeing the need because we sorely need it,” Simmons said.

Eligibility was the primary reason that the team’s leading defensive player Isaiah Land, cornerback BJ Bohler and right tackle Cameron Covin missed the UNC game. Not having a full team prompted the players to balk at going through with the UNC game.

The players eventually decided to go through with the game, which had a $450,000 guarantee for FAMU athletics, after Rev. RB Holmes prayed with them. Holmes said he told the team he will commit to finding a permanent resolve to the compliance issues that raised their ire.

Holmes said that he called on Mayor John Dailey and City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox to provide ground transport for the team to make its charter flight from Tallahassee airport.

“If this game hadn’t been played it would have been a national shame and embarrassment for FAMU in particular, and HBCUs in general,” Holmes wrote. “This should never have happened.”

Meanwhile, fallout continued late Monday when ABC local affiliate WTXL  reported that 89 players signed a letter to president Larry Robinson concerning what they called “student-athlete experience at FAMU.”

The television report indicated that the athletes’ concerns centered on academic support, compliance and summer school. The players also noted that they were responding to having to play without 26 of their teammates who weren’t certified for the UNC game.

Simmons set the record straight, explaining that only “a couple” of players are academically ineligible. The others were uncertified because of “university structure,” Simmons said.

“We don’t have young men that aren’t intelligent,” Simmons told reporters. “We don’t have young men that can’t advocate for themselves. We have young men that pour everything into this university (and) into their academic endeavors that they can.”

Leading them is quarterback Jeremy Moussa, who was named starter for Sunday’s game against Jackson State. He didn’t appear with Simmons on Monday, but he spoke about issues that he and his teammates have endured.

Most of those issues, said Moussa, a Vanderbilt transfer, are things he didn’t experience while at the Power Five school.

“We’ve faced a lot since coming here in January,” Moussa said, following last Saturday’s game. “Coming from a power five institution, we don’t even think about that but we’ve had to think about those things here.”

Simmons said Moussa proved he deserves the start against the Tigers with his performance at UNC. An interception just before halftime isn’t enough to overshadow Moussa’s worthiness, Simmons said, especially when he has the support of Rasean McKay. He led the Rattlers to a 9-3 season and an appearance in the NCAA playoffs.

Apart from the missing defensive starters who didn’t play last weekend, the Rattlers are short on the offensive line. Two of the original seven players who left with the team will miss the rest of the season. Cesar Reyes suffered a left knee injury, while Bryan Crawford is out with a peck strain.

The injuries presented an obviously challenging situation last Saturday night.

“You lose your starting right tackle the day before the game, you have to move your left guard over to right tackle,” Simmons said after Saturday’s game. “Then you lose your left guard during the game, you have to shuffle some other things around. Then you lose the right tackle who’s supposed to be at left guard and now you find yourself playing freshmen. It was extremely difficult. But, again, that’s part of the concern we had when we decided to play the game.”

However, Simmons was optimistic that the Rattlers will take Sunday’s game by correcting mistakes they made in a one-point loss to the Tigers last season in Miami. Stopping Tigers’ quarter back Shedeur Sanders was one of them.

It still is a must-do assignment for the Rattlers, Simmons said, explaining why.

 “He will carve you up. He has shown that all last season,” Simmons said. “If you give him time to sit back there and go through his progressions he is very accurate with the ball.”

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