Earnest Wilson III is about to enter rare territory for recent Savannah State University football coaches.
Wilson is weeks away from embarking on his third season, something that hasn’t happened for a Tigers coach in more than two decades. But he does get to welcome back the bulk of his coaching staff — including Effingham County High School grad and current associate head coach and defensive coordinator Michael Wallace — and 56 letterwinners.
And there are just 11 seniors on the roster, giving Wilson and his staff a relatively young team to work with and mold.
“I think we’re always evolving, always changing,” he said. “Even though it’s an old program, it’s a new program. The thing is, if you look at the team, we were mainly freshmen and sophomores last year. They’re still growing. Every day I find something new that can really enhance my program. That’s what we’re looking to do and I think we’re making that move to go to the top.”
The top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision may seem a long way off for the Tigers, who went 0-12 in 2014. The Tigers have won just once in the last two seasons. Their last victory came Sept. 14, 2013, when the Tigers downed former SIAC rival Fort Valley State 27-20.
There have been close calls — the Tigers dropped consecutive two-point losses to Delaware State and Norfolk State not long after beating Fort Valley. They also lost by seven to Norfolk State last year and by 10 in 2014 to Florida A&M.
The Tigers bring back their top two quarterbacks, their top receivers and their leading rusher from last season. Wallace’s defense returns four of the top five tacklers in 2014.
Wilson and the staff have bolstered the ranks with six transfers and a class of 23 signees, 11 of whom are from Georgia. The Tigers, though, are spreading their reach far and wide to bring in players — the remaining 12 signees hail from eight different states.
“You try to get into every high school in the state of Georgia,” Wilson said. “They recently gave us an opportunity to make South Carolina, Alabama and Florida in-state students, so that is going to help my recruiting tremendously.”
SSU has not had a coach enter his third year since the end of the late Bill Davis’ first stint in 1992, and they have not had a winning season since 1998, when Daryl C. McNeill led them to a 7-4 mark.
The Tigers have famously — or perhaps, infamously — tackled several FBS opponents in the last few years. Three years ago, they started the season with back-to-back games against Florida State and Oklahoma State, getting outscored 139-0 collectively in the process. They lost by a combined 143-10 to Troy and Miami, after opening the 2013 schedule with a 77-9 loss to transitioning Georgia Southern.
Savannah State opened last season with a 61-7 loss to Middle Tennessee State and then fell 83-9 to Georgia Southern before closing the campaign with a 64-0 defeat at BYU.
This year’s slate includes two FBS programs — Colorado State and Akron —two teams coming from what are known as Group of 5 conferences. Colorado State, now coached by former University of Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, went 10-3 last season, losing to Utah in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Akron compiled a 5-7 mark in 2014.
“We play BCS teams,” Wilson said. “I want to start getting those recruits in that are BCS players because we are going to play BCS teams. We’re not running from anybody.”
There were two off-season developments that ordinarily are viewed as hindrances to developing a program, especially one that has had winning become an infrequent occurrence. The Tigers haven’t been able to use their weight room for workouts this summer — it’s undergoing work — and players had to conduct spring practice on their own.
Offseason workouts, though, continue, from directions given by the Tigers staff, and Wilson is buoyed by how the players went through the spring drills.
“The crazy thing is really didn’t get to have spring and our weight room was shut down this summer,” he said. “We created the workouts and they went out and did it on their own. So if you see them, they’re all bigger, stronger and faster. It’s going to be real exciting to see what we can do.
“It makes me know that I’m doing things what young men believe in.”
Sophomore receiver Tyler Hagan, the former South Effingham High School standout, concurred that the players’ efforts show their commitment and belief.
“We’ve got a bunch of leaders like that,” he said. “We follow by the coach’s rules and once we do that, we can accomplish anything.”
The program has its selling points, Wilson says, including T.A. Wright Stadium. An $8 million renovation boosted capacity to 8,500 and added new locker rooms, and the playing surface is now field turf.
“The stadium is great,” Wilson said. “We want to fill the stadium and the only way to do that is by winning. “This is a Division I product. Everyone from Savannah ought to come out to see a Division I team.”
The Tigers moved up to FCS, then I-AA, in 2000 and were granted full membership in 2002. They joined the MEAC in 2010. SSU’s only two wins in conference games came in 2010 and 2011 against North Carolina Central, which joined the league at the same time.
Fall camp for the 2015 season starts July 28, and the Tigers appear to eager to start reversing their trend.
“We’re real antsy,” Wilson said.
Said Hagan: “Once we get our chemistry together, I think we’ll have a pretty good season. We’re going to shock a lot of people.”