Alcorn gearing up for SWAC title defense

Published 9:22 am Thursday, July 23, 2015

Alcorn State’s Delance Turner lifts weights during a team workout Wednesday afternoon in Lorman. (Ernest Bowker/The Vicksburg Post)

Alcorn State’s Delance Turner lifts weights during a team workout Wednesday afternoon in Lorman. (Ernest Bowker/The Vicksburg Post)

LORMAN — In the bowels of the university’s Whitney Athletics Complex, the defense of Alcorn State’s Southwestern Athletic Conference football championship has already begun.

Players thundered through the empty ground floor corridors like runaway horses before disappearing into the weight room for an hourlong workout Wednesday afternoon. Afterward, they shifted to the practice fields — far away from the eyes of coaches who aren’t allowed to supervise — to throw the ball around and run plays as mid-afternoon temperatures approached 100 degrees.

It’s still two weeks away from the official start of practice and about six from the season opener at Georgia Tech. Success, though, does not come to those willing to rest on their laurels, and the Braves are not about to give up their crown without a fight.

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“We’re definitely trying to bring everything back,” said senior tight end Jordan Payne, who earlier this month was named to the STATS FCS All-America team. “Pick up where we left off and keep everything going, not be too complacent. Keep pushing, keep striving, and realize that we are the ones that everybody’s gunning for. We’re going to get everybody’s A-game, so we’ve got to make sure we bring ours.”

After enduring six consecutive losing seasons, Alcorn has gone 19-6 over the last two and in 2014 broke a 20-year SWAC championship drought. Fifteen starters are back from that team, including Payne and quarterback John Gibbs, Jr., and expectations are high — not just from fans, but from within.

Returning starters and senior players means leadership, and Payne said this group of upperclassmen has taken it as their mission to keep everyone on track. It was evident on Wednesday.

In the weight room, players zipped from one station to the next. Strength and conditioning coach William Prince, a Vicksburg native, blew a whistle to signal the end of each rep but otherwise gave little instruction. When the players headed out to the practice field, head coach Jay Hopson watched from a doorway about 50 yards away. He wasn’t allowed to be on the field with them or give instruction, per NCAA rules, but the players were running crisp drills on their own.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors on our team, so we all try to hold each other accountable,” Payne said. “We make sure if we see somebody slacking — from senior to junior, sophomore, freshman — we try to push them and keep them going.”

Hopson, obviously, was happy with the makeup of his team. The key is staying focused on 2015, however, and not looking back too much on the success of 2014.

“I like the fact we have some experience coming back. We have 15 starters coming back. That’s better than three back. But that’s only good if we take advantage of it,” said Hopson, a Vicksburg native. “We have a nucleus, but they have to understand it’s a new year. The potential is there. But potential is 0-11. We know we have to go get ready to work and to play every week.”

Although some players have been on campus for summer school, they’ll officially report to campus on Aug. 5. The first practice is the following day, and the season starts on a Thursday night, Sept. 3 in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.

The Braves will be heavy underdogs. Georgia Tech routed Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl to finish last season 11-3 and ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press poll. It’ll likely start this season ranked in the Top 10.

It’s a challenge the Braves are looking forward to, however. It’s a showcase game on national television, against a marquee opponent, which means not only a chance to shock the world but great exposure for the program as well.

“It’s definitely exciting. It’s definitely a chance to put our school on the map, to show the country what we can do,” Payne said. “There’s going to be thousands of people watching the game, thousands of people at the game, so it’s a good opportunity for everybody to see what we can do.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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