Over a two-year span, Winston-Salem State has gone about as far as a team can go in the Division II football playoffs without winning a national championship.
The upcoming season, however, figures to be an uphill climb for a program that lost 22 seniors from last year’s team that lost to Valdosta State (Ga.) in the national championship game. Two seasons ago, the Rams lost to Wayne State (Mich.) in the semifinal round.
WSSU is 27-2 over the past two seasons, and even though there were heavy losses, the Rams have a reputation for reloading. So, there’s no question that Coach Connell Maynor will have his team primed to make another deep run in the postseason.
Based on the preseason national polls, it’s evident that the prognosticators view WSSU as a solid choice to earn a bid to the 16-team playoff field. The Rams are ranked sixth (Lindy’s Football) and 11th (Sporting News) in the Division II polls.
“Every year our goals are to go undefeated in the CIAA, go to the playoffs and win the national championship,” said Maynor. “So the question is whether we can achieve that or not. We have a lot of work ahead of us and there’s so much to replace on offense. But we’ll find a way. I’m the head coach and offensive coordinator, so it’s up to me to figure it out.”
Making sustained playoff runs is not an automatic – not even for the perennial national title contenders. In 2011, Winston-Salem State, Wayne State, Pittsburg State (Kan.) and Delta State (Miss.) made it to the Final Four of Division II football. A year ago, WSSU was the only team to make it back to the national semis. The other Final Four schools from two years ago didn’t even qualify for the 2012 playoffs.
Looking ahead to 2013, the Rams have major gaps to fill. Kameron Smith, the best quarterback in WSSU school history is gone, and so is All-American center Markus Lawrence. It doesn’t help matters that three big-play receivers (Jameze Massey, Jahuann Butler and Jamal Williams) also finished their careers last year. Those three combined for 3,343 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns.
Anthony Carrothers, who served as Smith’s backup, is set to take charge. Carrothers turned in stellar relief performances late last season when Smith suffered a shoulder injury during the first half of the CIAA championship game. In Smith’s absence, Carrothers threw for 714 yards and seven touchdowns.
While Carrothers has the inside track on the starting job, it’s hardly a lock. Redshirt junior DeShean Townsend could push for playing time.
“Anthony played well last season and he has an edge with his experience,” said Maynor. “But he’ll have to earn it. We don’t give starting jobs away. When practice starts, all jobs are up for grabs.”
The defense, spearheaded by All-American linebacker Carlos Fields (117 tackles) has the potential to maintain its status as one of the most formidable in the country. All-American safety Malcolm Rowe will be sorely missed, along with fellow departing seniors Dominique Tate, Darryl Pulliam and Justin Wilkerson.
“Expectations are always high for us and our fans,” said Maynor. “We give our best effort to live up to it and try to make it happen (reach the national championship game). It’s a major challenge, but we’re not afraid of challenges. That’s why we coach.”