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College Football

Morgan State football coach Damon Wilson is trying to change the program’s culture. Players are buying in.

For four years, linebacker Lawrence Richardson III passed photos at Hill Field House of the four Morgan State players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and didn’t give them much thought.

That changed this summer when new coach Damon Wilson tasked a select group of Bears players with researching offensive tackle Roosevelt Brown, defensive end Len Ford, running back Leroy Kelly, middle linebacker Willie Lanier and legendary coaches Eddie P. Hurt and Earl C. Banks and making presentations about them to the rest of the team. The discussions — which included memorizing the school song “The Alma Mater” — were educational and inspiring for Richardson.

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“Being a senior, I would see the Hall of Famers on the wall, but I never knew anything about them,” he said. “So just knowing that a [historically] Black college has had four Hall of Famers is just great to see. … They went big-time. That’s showing us that we can go big-time, too. So if we just do what they did and stay focused and work hard, it’s showing that [college football] isn’t just it for us.”

Learning about the Morgan State football program’s history is one of several changes Wilson has enacted since being named the school’s 23rd head coach on May 26. In his first preseason camp with his new team, Wilson’s pedigree as a successful coach at Division II Bowie State, emphasis on discipline and strategies to strengthening relationships have been embraced by his players.

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From sideline sprints to the installation of ping-pong tables in the locker room to a team trip to watch a Ravens preseason game, Damon Wilson has made several changes in his first year as the Morgan State football coach.

“It was basically a reset,” senior cornerback Jae’Veyon Morton said of Wilson’s hiring after predecessor Tyrone Wheatley left in February to be the running backs coach for the Denver Broncos. “We’re buying into the coaching staff, and they’re doing their best to help us.”

Wilson, 45, has inherited a Bears program — which opens the season Saturday at Georgia Southern — that has won fewer than four games in four of its last five full seasons. The school has not enjoyed a winning record since 2014, when that squad under Lee Hull went 7-6, captured the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference crown and lost to Richmond in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

In 13 years, Wilson helped Bowie State win three straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles and make five NCAA Division II tournament appearances. He said getting the Morgan State players to believe in themselves has been a top priority this summer.

“If you haven’t had success, you don’t know how it feels,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re learning as a football team. We haven’t had success here. So now this is new to us. You’re talking about a senior class that has maybe won four or five games in four years. That’s different. So from a mental standpoint, that’s part of our approach and training to make sure that these guys are on the same page.”

Morgan State linebacker Xavier Shell, a sophomore from Mervo, jumps for joy during a recent practice. New coach Damon Wilson, who spent 13 successful years at Division II Bowie State, is trying to change the culture at Morgan State, which hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2014.

Richardson said Wilson’s track record has earned respect from him and his teammates.

“If you look at Coach Wilson’s background, he’s had success,” he said. “So he knows what he’s doing. So bringing him here, we have all the confidence that he’s going to bring us to that place also.”

In just three months, Wilson has shepherded several changes at Morgan State. After only 47 players participated in spring ball, he now has 105 players in preseason camp. Last Saturday, defensive back Jordan Toles, a former four-star prospect from St. Frances, announced he’s transferring from LSU to Morgan State. With 11 full-time coaches on his staff compared with only three at Bowie State, Wilson has been able to delegate some responsibilities to his assistants while taking deeper dives in football-related areas such as compliance, equipment and film production.

For the first time as a head coach, Wilson is running practices in the mornings. With coaches beginning their days at 6 a.m., he has insisted that his staff members leave the office by 4 p.m. to spend time with their families and friends.

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Wilson, who played tight end in 1997 and 1998 for Bowie State, is also trying to foster more team chemistry. He installed televisions and pingpong tables in the locker room to encourage the players to spend more time together after they have finished their studies. He has also arranged for more team-bonding exercises, such as a trip to watch the Ravens host the Washington Commanders in last Saturday’s preseason finale at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I think it really builds morale and camaraderie as guys are more willing to stay in the locker room and be together and find kinship in things that aren’t necessarily football-related,” graduate student left guard Chris Anthony said. “I think it builds communication, and once you see it on the field, there’s going to be more communication and more cohesiveness, especially on the offensive line where it’s definitely needed.”

Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s in social work and a master’s in organizational communication from Bowie State, is perhaps the loudest voice on the practice field. He is also a stickler for avoiding mental mistakes.

Case in point: at a Thursday morning practice, the punt team sprinted down the field to cover a kick before Wilson whistled the play dead. He then counted 12 players on the field and ordered every member of the team to run a sprint from one sideline to the other four times.

Morgan State wide receiver Tyler Wilkins makes a contested catch against defensive back Josh Graham during a recent practice.

Morton, the cornerback who was named to the All-MEAC preseason first team, said he has no objections to the punishment.

“If one messes up, we all mess up,” he said. “It’s just like on defense. If we blow a coverage, the whole defense blew a coverage. … We embrace it. We’ve all got to buy in as one team.”

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Player accountability is filtering through the ranks. Wilson said he and his staff recently arrived at a 6:30 a.m. special teams meeting to see two players doing pushups outside the meeting room because they were late. The discipline was ordered by their teammates.

“That’s something we want to see,” he said. “We want to see the players hold each other accountable because that tells me that we’re going in the right direction.”

With as many as 17 new starters on offense and defense, the learning curve for this season’s Bears team could be long and difficult. Wilson said he is bracing for mistakes, but also said he won’t lower his expectations.

“We’re demanding a lot of these guys,” he said. “We’re not looking at this as a slow process. We want to win right now, and we know what we have to do. We have to change the mindset, and that’s something they’re learning right now. They’re doing a good job, and they’re fighting through it.”

Wilson has the backing of his players. Morton said he thinks the squad is capable of a winning record, while Richardson has his eyes trained on a MEAC championship.

“It would be disappointing in my eyes,” he said of the possibility that Morgan State falls short of that benchmark. “We still want to shoot for the stars. We don’t want to shoot too low. We’re like, ‘Why not? Let’s just keep the faith, and let’s go.’”

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Season opener

MORGAN STATE@GEORGIA SOUTHERN

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Stream: ESPN3

Radio: 88.9 FM


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