It has been quite a journey for Prairie View A&M senior safety Drake Cheatum, who as a member of Eric Dooley’s first recruiting class has seen the Panthers go from a struggling program to one that will compete for the SWAC Championship on Saturday, Dec. 4.
Cheatum and the Panthers have put together quite a season, winning seven straight at one point and breaking in the FCS Top 25 poll en route to winning the SWAC West Division title. But following last week’s deflating, if inconsequential, 24-19 loss to Mississippi Valley State left the Panthers (7-4, 6-2 SWAC) with a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, all Cheatum can think about is correcting what is wrong right now.
“It’s been a pretty good season. Yeah, I’ve been playing pretty well, but I grade myself on wins and losses,” said Cheatum, who was named to the All-SWAC First Team this week for the second straight time. “Right now we are 7-4, that’s about .500 but we have dropped the past three, so that’s an issue.”
It’s an issue Cheatum is determined to resolve before the Panthers take on Deion Sanders’ Jackson State Tigers in the SWAC Championship Game in Jackson, Miss. on Saturday at 3 p.m. (ESPN2). The Tigers (10-1, 8-0 SWAC) have been dominant all season and bring an eight-game winning streak into the conference championship game.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are dealing with the frustrations of an ill-timed losing streak that includes defeats against Alcorn State, the SEC’s Texas A&M Aggies and the Delta Devils. But Cheatum, as one of the leaders of the team, is determined to turn it around this week.
“We’re really excited to play for the SWAC Championship,” said Cheatum, who is 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. “We worked hard all year, day in and day out to get to the SWAC Championship. Now we are going to try to win.
“We are going to get it fixed, we are going to do our corrections so we can bounce back.”
The Panthers are even in the position to be able to bounce back because of a defense that has proven tenacious and hard-hitting for much of the season. There have been several players to step up like defensive end Jason Dumas, cornerback Darius Campbell and linebacker Tre’Shaud Smith, but none has been more impactful than Cheatum.
He leads the Panthers with 82 tackles and his five interceptions lead the SWAC and ranked seventh in all of the FCS. Cheatum also showed he can play with the big boys as one of the few bright spots during the Panthers’ 52-3 blowout loss at Texas A&M where he finished with a team-high 12 tackles and one interception.
“Talk about a young man who has been playing extremely well this whole season, a guy that excels in the classroom, a guy that excels on the football field,” said Dooley. “He is a part of my first signing class. He means a lot to us. He is a very bright young man who understands football. He is a key to that secondary and he understands what Coach [Henry] Miller wants him to do. So he is a big part of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Not only was Cheatum a member of Dooley’s first recruiting class at PVAMU, but Dooley had also successfully recruited him to Grambling State when he was an assistant and then convinced Cheatum to change his commitment. So it has been particularly gratifying for him to watch Cheatum grow from a wide-eyed true freshman starter in the secondary to one a player who is essentially a coach on the field four seasons later.
“The young man has grown each day, I won’t even say each season, and he looks to get better,” Dooley said. “He is like a coach on the football field for us.
“He is a guy that is going to come in and going to put the work in. I don’t have to look to see how much he is watching film. He is going to watch film probably just as much as he is going to study. He is also accomplished in the classroom, you are talking about a young man who is going to graduate in engineering next semester. So he has been doing a great job for us. He is a big part of what we’ve been doing here.”