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Morgan State football gets little preseason respect after trip to FCS playoffs

The Morgan State football team's unanticipated rise to the top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference hasn't earned the program much respect from its peers.

A season after going from being picked to finish last to capturing a share of the MEAC championship for the first time since 1979 and representing the league in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Bears were predicted to finish fifth in the MEAC this season.

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The slight didn't escape the attention of players like junior running back Herb Walker Jr.

"It's insulting, but I really try not to think about it," he said during Thursday's Morgan State football media day at Hughes Stadium in Baltimore. "I really try to focus on our brotherhood and getting the team better. I try not to focus on that, but that got a chip on our shoulders and makes us want to work even harder."

Senior quarterback Moses Skillon said coaches and players have printed multiple copies of the MEAC preseason poll and posted them on the walls inside the locker room and weight room.

"Of course it is [offensive], but we can't worry about all the naysayers," said Skillon, who taped a copy to the wall of his bedroom. "We know what we're capable of. Respect is not given, it's earned. So basically this year, we're going to come out and earn it. … We know that everyone in the MEAC is doubting us right now, but we're going to show."

Even second-year coach Lee Hull, who is one of the more unflappable figures on the sideline, admitted that he is taking the snub "personally." But he also pointed out that the preseason poll should be another reminder that the program can't afford to dwell in the afterglow of last year's success.

"We're not worried about what happened in the past," said Hull, the former Maryland wide receivers coach who was named the MEAC Coach of the Year last season. "That's what I keep telling the guys. That was 2014, this is 2015. We've got worry about this team. It's a great accomplishment. We talked about it yesterday when we reported, about the great season that we had, but I told them that was the last time I was going to talk about last year. This is this year, and we've got a new team. We only have nine seniors. So we're a very, very young team, and we've got a lot of work to do."

Much of the work could center on a defense that surrendered an average of 203.2 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns to opponents last season. The unit graduated four players who started in the 46-24 loss to Richmond in the opening round of the FCS playoffs, including the team's top two tacklers — inside linebacker Cody Acker (113 tackles) and strong safety Paul Eatman Jr. (95 tackles) — and the program's career and single-season leader in sacks — outside linebacker Christopher Robinson (28½ and 15).

"We really lost three starters, but those three starters made all of the plays," Hull said. "Chris Robinson is the all-time sack leader, Cody Acker led us in tackles and Paul Eatman, our safety, was our second-leading tackler, and all of those guys made all-conference. So that's a lot of production that is going to be missing. We've got a lot of young guys that played last year, but they were all backups. Now it's their turn to step up and be the guys to make the plays. That's really the emphasis on defense, trying to find who are going to be our playmakers to replace those three guys."

Skillon enters camp as the incumbent, but redshirt senior Seth Higgins, who split starts in 2013 before sitting out last year because of offseason surgery on his right shoulder, could push him. Walker led the MEAC in rushing yards (1,408) and was tied for third in rushing touchdowns (13). But redshirt junior Lamont Brown III, who paced the offense in rushing in 2013 with 708 yards and five touchdowns before tearing an ACL in last year's 31-28 season-opening loss to Eastern Michigan on Aug. 30, could make a bid for playing time.

Perhaps the biggest question mark revolves around the offensive line, which graduated three starters including left tackle and MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year Darren Pinnock.

But Hull said Morgan State shouldn't expect much compassion from conference rivals eager to match what the program achieved last fall.

"I still want them to have that feeling of how it felt to win the championship, but understand that this is a new season and we've got a lot of work because right now we're the hunted," he said. "Last year, no one knew about us. I was the new coach in a new program with a new system, but now no one's going to be sleeping on us. They know we're coming."

Skillon estimated that close to 60 Bears players remained in Baltimore during the summer to work out together and strengthen their chemistry, and he hopes that will drive the team.

"We knew what we did last year, but that's all in the past," he said. "That's last year. We know that for us to repeat, we really have to put the work in. We have to come in here and grind it out every day. Most of the players on the team — the captains, the seniors — they stayed up here and put in the work. I love my team. We're trying to do it all again."

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