TSU Football players having a huddle on the field.
TSU Football players having a huddle on the field. Credit: Texas Southern University

Durley Stadium was barely illuminated by some far-off campus lights on a recent Saturday night, but the energy on Texas Southern’s practice field could be felt if not heard.

Players were flying around making plays and talking it up on both sides of the football. It’s quite obvious these Tigers are ready to make a statement.

They are ready to make history by bringing home the SWAC championship for the first time since 1968 and for the first time since the storied conference split into two divisions.

“Go’on and get your popcorn,” said defensive end Michael Atkins. “It’s about to be a movie.”

For the first time in over a decade, there seems to be a buzz around the Tigers’ program as expectations have started to trend in a winning direction. TSU has been picked to finish third in SWAC West behind Southern and Alcorn State, which is a huge jump from the usual sixth-place spot the Tigers normally occupy in the six-team division when it comes to preseason predictions.

TSU coach Clarence McKinney isn’t moved at all by the increased expectations surrounding his program this season.

“It really has no bearing or effect on how we see ourselves because we know when we were being picked at the bottom of the barrel, we know we weren’t the worst team in the league because we know the work that we put in,” said McKinney, who is entering his fifth season at the helm. “They picked us third in the West and we feel like we are better than third in the West.

“So, expectations outside of the program may be new but the expectations within the program have always been to win the West and give ourselves an opportunity to win the SWAC and play in the Celebration Bowl and maybe win that, too. Those are our goals every year.”

The increased outside expectations are a result of the number of proven talent the Tigers have returning, including junior quarterback Andrew Body, who is entering his third year as a starter and is considered one of the premiere quarterbacks in the SWAC.

The Tigers also changed the narrative after the way they finished last season, winning four of the final six games and entered the final week of the season with a chance to win the SWAC West and earn in berth into the conference championship game before falling to Alabama A&M, 24-20, in the regular-season finale.

While McKinney says he and his coaching staff have never discussed last season in the context of showing how close the Tigers are to competing for a championship, Atkins says the way the season ended has definitely been in the back of the players’ minds.

“It has been a motivator for us. We dropped in the last eight minutes to the SWAC Championship and we had prepared for that and we were fighting for it, trying to make school history,” said Atkins, who was named to the Preseason All-SWAC Second Team. “We did make school history, but we didn’t do enough. We want the SWAC Championship and even more. We want the Celebration Bowl. We want all of it.

“Just coming up short last year, it was a hard pill to swallow. But it just added fuel to the fire for us to come back this year and go at it.”

There is no denying that the Tigers are more talented and experienced than they’ve been during McKinney’s tenure. Offensively, there are players like wide receiver Derek Morton, running back Jacorey Howard and offensive lineman Mehdi Torrence surrounding Body. Former four-star receiver Quadarius Davis, who was offered scholarships by the likes of Texas and USC before choosing Kansas coming out of Skyline in Dallas, has been added to the mix after spending last season at Jackson State.

Defensively, Everett Todd has come aboard as defensive coordinator after eight stellar seasons at Grambling State. The Tigers have added bodies to plug holes with experienced defensive tackles Elinus Noel III and Thurman Rayborn coming in to provide some strength up front. And Xavier Player could be a big addition to the secondary after spending time at Oklahoma State and UTSA.

“Ain’t no doubt about it,” McKinney said when asked if this is the team he has been building towards. “The day I got here, I wanted to build it with high school guys and develop them. I think we’ve done that as a staff. We’ve recruited pretty well, brought in some talented guys and we’ve developed them within our system. Guys have grown. This is just what we envisioned a few years ago.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....