Grind City Football: Reloaded Tennessee State Tigers seeking transfer of power in OVC

By Maurice Patton
Grind City Media Correspondent

NASHVILLE – It’s a dynamic as old as – or even older than – FCS football: The dropdown transfer from the FBS major college level, who arrives on campus with instant eligibility and immediate expectations.

Coaches landing those transfers are aware of the challenges that come with taking on such talents, knowing they’re not always a recipe for success. But that the right mix can take a team from good to great. That’s the hope for longtime Tennessee State coach Rod Reed, who since the end of the Tigers’ 7-4 campaign a year ago has welcomed eight FBS transfers.
The group is focused on elevating TSU to an elusive Ohio Valley Conference championship – a feat last achieved by the program in 1999 – and nailing down the team’s first FCS playoff berth since 2013.

“Look at the people that are competing at the playoff level and getting deep in the playoffs,” said Reed, in his eighth year at the helm of his alma mater after spending seven seasons as a defensive assistant. “When you look at those rosters, they have some fill-in positions where they have some people that can come in and make a major impact.”

Led by Treon Harris, a former quarterback at the University of Florida, six of the eight dropdowns are on the offensive side of the ball for TSU. But not all are set to be in the starting lineup for the Big Blue as they finalize preparations for Thursday’s season opener in Atlanta against FBS-level Georgia State.

“The thing with those FBS transfers is, they get here and they realize, ‘they’ve got some pretty good players here’,” Reed said. “Every one that’s here, they’re not starters. We’ve got a couple that have come in that are going to be backups for us, or they’re going to rotate in.”

Harris was officially named the starter for the season opener after the Tigers final camp scrimmage last week. It’s a familiar role for the redshirt junior, who started 15 of his 21 games at Florida and passed for 2,695 yards and 18 touchdowns. Harris also ran for 570 yards and three scores with the Gators.

But the team’s overall inconsistent play prompted the coaching staff to eventually move Harris to receiver in the spring of 2016. He decided to transfer soon after and arrived in Nashville in January.

“I came in on my visit, met with coach Reed and (offensive coordinator Jeff) Parker and (Kevin) Mashack, and I felt like I was home again,” said Harris, a Miami native. “We built a great bond with each other, and I made that move. This is a great program. TSU is the best team in this league.”

That sentiment is shared by Christian Morris and Chidi Okeke, two offensive linemen who also arrived from SEC campuses – Ole Miss and Louisiana State, respectively – as well as tight end Justin Hurston (Georgia), lineman Mike Smith (South Florida) and defensive tackle Jeremy Patterson (Wisconsin).

Tennessee State All-American receiver Patrick Smith, a former Whitehaven High standout, discusses the Tigers potential to contend for an OVC championship this season.

“We have a lot of depth and we have a lot of guys coming out here that are dedicated and competing,” said senior receiver and Memphis native Patrick Smith, the OVC preseason offensive player of the year. “Some of these guys have played and have a lot more experience. They’re a lot more prepared. Having them come in will help this team.”

Though this would constitute the biggest one-year haul from the FBS ranks for the Tigers, that pipeline has almost always been a productive one during Reed’s coaching tenure.

“We try not to take guys just to be taking them,” Reed said. “They’ve got to be able to come in and help our program. They’ve got to be a good fit. We’ve turned guys away from FBS programs and they’ve gone to other places because they just didn’t fit what we do, either athletically or socially or academically.”

In Harris’ case, Reed and his staff are confident the problems at Florida are behind the once highly-regarded prep prospect. Harris was twice suspended while with the Gators for off-the-field issues.

“Sometimes you get some good ones, sometimes you get some bad ones, but I think we’ve done a really good job in the screening process, in the selection process of the guys that we are taking,” Reed said. “I think they can come in and help us immediately, and that’s one thing when you get an FBS guy – you want them to be able to come in and make an immediate impact.”

That has certainly been the case with senior defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko, who spent two years at Clemson before transferring to TSU for the 2015 season. As a redshirt sophomore, “E-Bo” earned first-team all-OVC honors and was the league’s preseason defensive player of the year prior to the 2016 season. In 17 games over two years, Ogundeko has notched 10.5 sacks.

Reed expects a similar impact from both Okeke and Morris.

“We knew we needed to fill in some spots on our offensive line,” Reed said. “Okeke was a five-star (recruit) at LSU that was unhappy there, was looking for a place to go, and we were able to get him. Christian was a graduate student at Ole Miss, but he still had two years of eligibility left, and we were able to get him. Any time you can fortify your offensive line like that, you’re doing some good things.”

And in theory, Harris will still be working behind SEC-quality protection up front.

Since arriving, he’s taken nothing for granted.

Tennessee State’s Patrick Smith (No. 17) caught 61 passes for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

“Football is football – wherever you go, you’ve got to compete,” Harris said. “I came in, I’ve watched film, I take notes, I listen to (coaches) on the correct reads. We compete every day to make each other better. We compete on every play. Practice feels like a game.”

Mixing those transfers with a talented nucleus that includes Smith and Steven Newbold at receiver, Earl Harrison and Sabree Curtis at running back, senior linebackers Chris Collins and Justin North and All-American kicker Lane Clark, Reed believes these Tigers have the skill and depth to finish atop the OVC standings this time around. But that will also require surviving a uniquely challenging schedule in which the Tigers play only two games on campus. They have another two games at nearby Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, and the remaining seven on the road.

TSU appears stocked with the resilience and roster to endure.

“This is going to be the first time we’ve had a whole lot of depth,” Reed said. “It takes time to build that. It’s going to take us to have tunnel vision, focus one game at a time – we’ve got to have laser focus. But we’ll take them one game at a time, and hopefully get into November and that last game will mean something when we go down to Jacksonville State (the preseason league favorite, on Nov. 16).”

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