Towson's defense entered last season with many more questions than it has going into tomorrow's opener at Fordham.
A year ago, the unit was fairly young and inexperienced, and smarting from the 30 points a game it gave up in 1998.
Now, after a solid season in 1999, the defense stands on firmer ground. Eight starters return, three after earning all-Patriot League honors and two - Andrew Hollingsworth and Ricky Crestwell - picking up All-America honors.
"Last year, there was still a question as to whether we'd be a good Patriot League team," defensive coordinator Rich Bader said. "Now, they're playing with a lot of confidence. They know that they're a pretty good [defense]."
What Towson does when it doesn't have the ball is the major reason for optimism after a 7-4 season. The Tigers are ranked as high as 21st in Division I-AA by some publications, and some pick them to win the same league in which they were tabbed to finish last 12 months ago.
The plaudits rain in despite the graduation of the team's two highest-profile players: tailback Jason Corle (719 rushing yards, 864 receiving yards) and quarterback Joe Lee (4,168 passing yards). The offensive line and wide receivers are solid, but junior Noah Read has only 82 carries in two seasons and sophomore Kris Blake has yet to throw a pass for the varsity.
"After last year, people realize that we have an opportunity to win every time we step on the field," Towson coach Gordy Combs said. "What we need to do now is be in a position to compete every year for the championship."
With Blake and Read depending on the linemen and receivers for guidance, the defense is expected to carry a large share of the load in the opening month. The team doesn't face its first major test until Colgate comes to town Sept. 30.
"Fortunately, we do have that defense, so it's a bit of an airbag for us," Towson receiver Adam Overbey said. "We're expecting the defense to lighten the load for us a little bit."
The statistics don't necessarily bear that out, and as Hollingsworth noted, "We can get much better; there were games when we gave up 40 points."
Opponents scored nearly three touchdowns a game against Towson, five of the last six scoring 27 points or more. But Bader says those numbers are misleading, in part because several of those points came on turnovers and broken plays.
Bader says he believes this to be Towson's most athletic defensive team. In particular, he raves about defensive backs Madieu Williams, Crestwell, Dennis Cliggett and Donald Wood.
They can run, he says, and so can the linebackers - Rusty McKinney, Tyrone Bell and Sean Hendricks - and linemen - Hollingsworth, Jim O'Neil, John Devoti and Nick Bailey.
Along with that ability, the group walks what Combs called "a fine line between cockiness and confidence," a path that those around Towson Center hope will bring a conference title.
"Looking at us from top to bottom, this is the best team I've been on," Hollingsworth said.
Date Opponent Time
Sept. 2 at Fordham 1
Sept. 9 at Lafayette 1:30
Sept. 16 Morgan State 1
Sept. 23 at Holy Cross 1
Sept. 30 Colgate 1
Oct. 7 Lehigh 1
Oct. 14 Howard 1
Oct. 28 at Monmouth 1
Nov. 4 at St. Mary's (Calif.) 4
Nov. 11 Bucknell 12:30
Nov. 18 at Drake 12
Towson at a glance
Coach: Gordy Combs (9th season)
Last year: 7-4
Conference: Division I-AA Patriot League
Radio: WTMD (89.7 FM)
Stadium: Minnegan (5,000)
Offense: Pro I
Top returning players: DE Andrew Hollingsworth, WR Jamal White, DB Ricky Crestwell, RT Brian Wronski, LG Adam Nepp, DT John Devoti
Top newcomers: WR-KR Jason Galloway, LB Jude Calin (transfer from Valley Forge Military Academy), OT Stew Alcorn, DB Tre Wills
Strengths: Towson's coaching staff is very confident about the defense, which has eight starters returning from a group that showed great improvement from 1998. On offense, three seniors anchor the line and All-American Jamal White leads a receiving corps that combined for nearly 2,500 yards last season.
Weaknesses: There is no incumbent at quarterback, and Kris Blake takes the starting job without the institutional memory that helped Joe Lee last season. Noah Read (3.5 yards a carry) has a tough job replacing Jason Corle.
Strongest opponent: Colgate has been cruel to Towson in Patriot League play, winning by a combined 107-31 the past three seasons. RB Randall Joseph is the preseason league Player of the Year.