Someday when the history of Allen University football’s 2018 revival is written, Johntavious Hill’s name will be in the first paragraph. Maybe the first sentence.
The slight-looking defensive back from Atlanta — all of 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds but “pound-for-pound, maybe the toughest guy we’ve got,” said defensive coordinator Tommy Brown — produced THE play in the Yellow Jackets’ 47-3 season-opening win on Sept. 1 vs. Columbus (Ga.) State’s club team.
It was, well, somewhat surprising. After all, it was Allen’s first game since 2005.
Hill, a freshman, was in pass coverage early in the second quarter, eyeing CSU receiver Carson Parker. “Once I saw him running a skinny post (pattern), I jumped the route,” Hill said, his voice almost drowned out later in the raucous Allen locker room.
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After picking off the CSU pass at Allen’s 15-yard line, Hill spun around and was immediately bulldogged by a Cougars player — but didn’t go down. “He slung me, and I just stayed up and I just took off,” Hill said. Eighty-five yards later, he and his teammates celebrated in the end zone.
As Hill raced past Brown standing on the sideline, the former Orangeburg-Wilkinson High coach threw a roundhouse right in celebration. It would not be his last. Allen’s defense scored twice more in the second half, on linebacker Anthony Menchaca’s fumble return and an interception return by defensive back Ricky Carter.
“Sometimes, you’d rather be lucky than good,” Brown said, grinning.
Thus did Allen and head coach Teddy Keaton begin what promises to be a rollicking season. The Yellow Jackets faced a tougher opponent, Livingstone (N.C.) College, on Saturday, and fell 19-0.
A resurrection eight months in the making — Keaton, 42, began his duties in January — Allen plays five more games this season and figures to be underdog in most. Keaton’s squad consists of mostly freshmen whom he recruited since arriving in Columbia; his staff has two paid assistants (Brown and strength coach Kerry Thompson) and an eager crew of volunteers.
Winning the opener “exceeded my expectations,” Keaton said afterward. “We’ve got some areas on special teams we’ve got to work on, and areas on offense and in the secondary … but we played exceptionally well. and I’m very proud of those guys.”
Eight months is not much time to build a football program from scratch. Ask Erskine College, which recently announced it will revive its program — in 2020. But Allen has come a long way in a short time.
This is the story of the Yellow Jackets’ and Keaton’s first game week.
5:30 Monday morning
Allen practices on a field across Taylor Street from its campus, a field the coaches sodded themselves in the spring. To build team spirit — and to avoid the summer heat — most practices are held before dawn, when only the players (and, apparently, much of Columbia’s gnat population) are awake.
As early commuters drove by, a couple of late players sprinted toward the field. Keaton and two assistants wore sun hats, even though sunrise was hours away. “I’ve worn my hat since 2007. I’d feel ‘nekkid’ without it,” Keaton said.
Allen’s 75 or so players went through assignments for Saturday. Three quarterbacks, including starter Gary Tyner from Riverdale, Ga., and backup Ashton Duncan from Talledega, Ala., threw to each other, under the eye of offensive coordinator Nick Trist.
“We’ve still got little things to clean up,” Trist, 29, said. “They’re all freshmen, so we don’t want to throw a ton of stuff at them right away.”
A former college basketball player, Trist coached football at Middle Georgia State and Palmetto Prep before connecting with Keaton via Twitter and “taking a pay cut” to work for free. “I saw this as a chance to start something,” he said. “Expectations here are pretty low, so if we win, it’ll look good on my resume. And I’m learning a lot.”
He expected jitters before the game. “It’s easy to see when the offense messes up,” he said. “One day we’re killers, the next day the Bad News Bears. But we welcome the pressure. I think we’re prepared.”
Across the field, Brown ran his defense through drills, players shouting out calls — “Double tight! Double tight!” — but not quickly enough for the coach.
“You think they’re going to wait for you to get set?” the 63-year-old shouted. “Y’all talk to each other. It’s not that complicated!”
“It’s been an adventure,” Keaton said. “We started with maybe 100 players (during June workouts) but weeded out the guys who aren’t college players. Now I can see improvement every day.”
Players see it, too. Mitchell Hixon, an offensive lineman from Greenville, said he felts “a big sense of accomplishment that we’ve gotten this far. Most programs would’ve taken a year off” to get ready. “Not this program. We’re ready.”
Bamberg native and defensive end De’Juan Sease, who already had an academic scholarship to Allen when Keaton reached out, agreed. “What strikes me the most is how quickly we bonded together as a team,” he said. “Our main goal is to succeed and win this (first) game, and we all know what it takes.”
Practice ended, players gathered around Keaton — who decided they hadn’t done that quickly enough, and sent them back to sidelines. The second time, everyone sprinted to midfield.
He told players to drink plenty of water — temperatures would be in the 90s on Saturday — and reminded them to “stow your equipment right, or I’ll tell (student assistants) to throw it in the garbage.” That’s a mindset he insisted on, now and for the game. “You’re going to hold each other accountable,” he said.
Players huddled, hands clustered in the middle: “Brothers on three … 1-2-3, brothers!”
Keaton and his staff of nine gathered in their small meeting room, eyes glued to a TV screen on the wall, as they discussed … player numbers.
Uniforms from Alabama-based Future1s came in a range of sizes; matching players and their sizes, and preferred numbers, took 45 minutes. “That number’s probably too big for him.” “He’ll be the first cornerback to play in No. 90.”
Much of the morning was consumed with mundane but essential chores. Afternoon’s walk-through practice was discussed, and some scant information on Columbus State shared.
The meeting broke up with Keaton’s directive: “After lunch, we’ve got to put the (Yellow Jacket) decals on helmets.”
Brown, offensive line coach Stanley Wright and secondary coach Kenyata Smith sat in the locker room later, struggling with the helmets, joined soon by H-backs coach Van Ross. Brown settled into a routine; the others still struggled.
For Smith, this season is déjà vu. The Aiken native played safety his freshman season in 2003, for one of the last Allen football teams, before transferring to Benedict College.
He left Allen, he said, because “there was too much going on: fights, players not going to class, living arrangements not good. We called it ‘Slum City.’
“We had about 70 players, and one day only 10 showed up. Coaches were asking, ‘Where are they?’ And someone said, ‘They’re all at their P.O.’s’ — parole officers.”
Keaton feels confident those days are in the past, but he has other concerns. “It’s the psychology of 18-year-olds,” he said. “They can’t retain information as well … and some of them are unhappy if they’re not starting.”
He hoped players such as Tyner, linebacker Richard Hayes and defensive tackle Jeremiah Bozeman would take leadership roles. “When they speak,” Keaton said, “the team listens.”
Pep Rally Friday
Under a scalding sun, Allen’s newly formed “Band of Gold” and majorettes, gold-clad dancers and cheerleaders — 53 students in all — played in front of J.S. Flipper Library as several hundred spectators gathered to meet the team, and the band.
“Allen University, let’s show love and support for our Allen football team!” a student shouted into a microphone. “Tomorrow starts a journey we’ve all been longing for!” Chants of “A-U!” “A-U!” greeted Keaton and his team.
Eddie Ellis, 70, became Allen’s director of bands last Nov. 1, following 11 years at South Carolina State. He also spent seven years at Morris Brown, where his band was the inspiration for the 2002 movie “Drumline.”
Allen president Ernest McNealey “shared his vision for the band and increased enrollment,” Ellis said, “and I bought in. I’m thankful for him having confidence in me.”
Like Keaton, Ellis had to recruit and create the band from scratch. He sold members on the idea “this was a historical moment, part of a renaissance” for Allen. Based on the pep rally and Saturday’s game, the Band of Gold is in midseason form.
Alicia Horton, a Blythewood resident who has two children in the band, agreed. “It’s exciting,” she said. “I believe it will definitely boost the morale at the school.” Her son Kershawn plays the tuba; daughter Endiya is part of the dance team.
Nimai Garrett, Allen’s director of alumni affairs and a 2007 graduate, remembered the previous Yellow Jackets band and football team. “I’m excited, especially for the alumni,” she said. “I think this is the key to resurgence for the school.
“A lot of fans will come to see the band. The football team — that’s the cherry on top.”
Players gathered Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in the school cafeteria for sandwiches, soup and salads. Keaton didn’t eat. “I’m not nervous,” he said. “I’ve been doing this too long.” At 12:15 p.m., Brown shouted, “Definitely check your equipment before you get on the bus!” They were headed to Irmo’s W.C. Hawkins Stadium.
“When I was (coaching) at Miles College, I had a freshman who left his whole equipment bag behind,” Keaton said. Offense boarded the first bus, defense the second. “I don’t care which bus you’re on, just get on one!” Keaton shouted at stragglers.
Strength coach Kerry Thompson, who worked at UAB, Samford and Alabama, clapped his hands as players boarded. “Finally!” he shouted. He joined Allen for “the opportunity to build a program. This is a blank canvas,” he said. He’s been pleased with Allen’s players’ work ethic. Now, he gets to see the final product.
“We want to shock the world,” he said.
At the stadium, players after warm-ups took shelter under tents to escape the heat, with trainer Melissa Smith handing out water and checking for problems. At 3:30 p.m., Allen kicked off, and both teams then struggled to generate offense for most of the first quarter.
But on fourth-and-13 from its own eight, CSU lined up to punt. Sease blasted through to block the kick, which the Cougars covered for a safety, and Allen led, 2-0.
That seemed to inspire the Yellow Jackets, who drove 52 yards to score on Adrian Ladson’s 1-yard run. Then came Johntavious Hill’s interception, and Allen led, 17-0. The Yellow Jackets added a 2-yard touchdown by Jermaine Alston before halftime.
“Focus on what we’re doing,” Keaton told his team. “Let’s secure the victory.” They did, adding a Casey Salter field goal and the two defensive scores, before Tyner ended the day with a 12-yard touchdown run. Columbus State spoiled the shutout with a field goal as time expired.
“I thought they were disciplined and well coached,” said CSU coach Michael Speight. “We didn’t know what to expect because they have a lot of freshmen. … You see what happened.”
Keaton praised his team, then reminded them of Livingstone. “They’ve lost 33 straight games (actually, 14),” the coach said. “Don’t let them come and end that streak here.”
Later, Keaton was more upbeat. “All this is a confidence boost for those guys,” he said. “They needed that, and I think it’s going to carry over into next week.”
Perhaps the best news for Allen’s players came when Keaton announced, “Practice at 4 p.m. Monday.” The cheer was huge. No 5:30 a.m. practice. Not this week.
Allen 2018 football schedule
Sep. 1: Allen 47, Columbus State 3
Sep. 8: Livingstone 19, Allen 0
Sep. 15 at Brevard, 1 p.m.
Sep. 22 Middle Georgia, 3 p.m.
Sep. 29 at Clark Atlanta, 4 p.m.
Oct. 13 at Lane, 2 p.m.
Nov. 10 Virginia Univ. of Lynchburg, 1:30 p.m.