Probably no one on the Towson football team is more looking forward to the coming season than Tony Lumpkin.
The senior safety missed all of the fun last autumn when the Tigers rebounded from a losing season to go 6-5 and win three games in their second year in the rugged Atlantic 10, thereby salvaging veteran coach Gordy Combs' job.
"It really hurt because I didn't have a chance to help," said Lumpkin, who wrecked the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a spring practice workout in 2005 and has been rehabilitating ever since.
"But, at the same time, it felt good because the team made a monumental change and got a nice, new look."
When Towson launches fall practice today, Lumpkin will be in the middle of things, fully recovered from the injury, although he might have to wear a light brace during games. He is itching to help Towson continue its upswing in a league that has produced two of the past three NCAA Division I-AA national champions, Delaware in 2003 and James Madison in 2004.
"Mickey Matthews [James Madison's coach] put it best," Combs said. "There are no bottom-feeders in this league."
Lumpkin passed his first real test during spring ball, running through most of the contact without incident, and he looks prepared to add to his career total of 107 tackles.
"He's fully rehabbed," Combs said. "Spring practice told us that. He may even play without the brace."
Lumpkin's presence will be a welcome addition to a defensive unit that ranked as the most generous in the league, allowing 33.8 points a game, and must replace All-Atlantic 10 cornerback Allante Harrison and Davon Telp, the school's all-time leader in interception return yardage.
"Initially, we thought Tony was going to be a corner, but he's such a physical player we decided to move him to strong safety," Combs said. "He gives you a physicality that you need back there."
"He brings a lot of leadership to the team," senior nose tackle George Mitchell said. "A lot of aggressiveness and hard hitting. He should be one of the standouts in the secondary."
A three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Parkdale High in Prince George's County, Lumpkin also played defensive back, leading the Panthers in tackles as a senior. He once scored six touchdowns in a high school game but has played exclusively on defense in college.
He will be playing only his third year after being redshirted as a freshman and missing last season, but he has spanned Towson's climb from the lesser regarded Patriot League to the A-10, which next season will become known as Colonial Athletic Association football.
"I was kind of surprised at first when we moved [to the Atlantic 10]," recalled Lumpkin. "We struggled with some teams in the Patriot [notably powers Lehigh and Colgate], but I was eager to play teams like Delaware and UMass."
That first year - when Towson got a rude introduction to the new league, going 0-8 in the league and 3-8 overall - was definitely a big change, the difference in speed and athleticism.
"In the Patriot League, teams might have a couple of standout players, but you really need a lot of depth when you're going against teams with 63 scholarships. The A-10 is even ranked ahead of some I-A leagues. There are no weeks off. We have started to earn us some respect, and I can help us continue."
A player who has volunteered his time at a local soup kitchen and for the Special Olympics, Lumpkin is a criminal justice-sociology major who wants to work in private investigation. "I have an internship coming up, but that's all I can tell you about it," he said with a smile.
He went to all of Towson's games last fall, but it is never the same as being on the field, said Lumpkin, whose 6-foot, 190-pound frame and style draw comparisons to former Tiger P.D. Moore, a three-time all-league player who roved all over the defensive sets.
He reasons that, like Moore, he must take charge in the secondary after being elected as a co-captain.
"Not so much vocally as physically," he said. "I was kind of surprised I was voted in because I didn't play last year, but I'm ready for it."