2017 was not going well for the Hornets. Alabama State opened the season with five straight losses which lead to the firing of former head coach Brian Jenkins. Donald Hill-Eley was promoted to interim and given the task of just finding a way to give the Hornets a serviceable finish.
He did more than that.
No team finished the season hotter in the SWAC than Alabama State who won five of their last six games and finished 2nd in the SWAC East division. I don’t care what level of football you are playing, having your head coach fired midseason after losing five straight then winning five of your last six is durn impressive. Alabama State saw enough to officially give Hill-Eley the job. So far so good in 2018 as his Hornets’ squad knocked off Tuskegee in overtime to open the season last week, their first win over the Golden Tigers since 2011.
For this Hornets offense, it all starts with sophomore quarterback DJ Pearson. Once Arkansas State’s 3rd string QB, Pearson was dismissed from the Red Wolves program after being arrested for a DWI. He transferred to Alabama State where he eventually earned the starting job. Last season, the 6’3” 202 lb signal caller completed 53 passes on 122 attempts, good for a 43% completion percentage, 481 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw three picks.
As you can probably guess from those numbers, Pearson is not a great passer. He is, however, a great athlete. He finished 3rd on the team in rushing last season with 311 yards on 58 carries along with two touchdowns. While his arm might be kindly called “erratic”, he’s got the quickness and speed to be a problem on the ground. He was at his best last year when scrambling from the pocket.
The Hornets will use as many as three to four running backs Saturday. Ezra Gray is listed as the starter but will share time with last year’s leading rusher George Golden and last year’s 4th leading rusher Alex Anderson. All three backs would probably be best described as “scat backs”. Anderson brings a little more power considering he’s the only tailback north of 200 lbs but this is not a power running game. It’s built more around quickness and trying to get speed in space.
Given the struggles of Pearson as a passer, it’s hard to really evaluate this wide receiving corps. Tyrek Allen had a big debut snagging a 68 yd TD but overall this group hasn’t had a chance to do much. Their leading receiver last year caught only 24 passes for 287 yards and a TD. Jamir Hannah is the Hornets’ leading returning receiver from 2017 catching 16 passes for 123 yards. Probably wouldn’t hurt the Tigers to rest Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis while allowing youngsters Christian Tutt and Roger McCreary to see a lot of game action.
The strength of this Hornets team is probably their offensive line. Former Tulane starter Leeward Brown joins 2nd team pre season All-SWAC right tackle Tytus Howard and 2018 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team nominee Carl Thompson as the leaders up front. This group did not surrender a sack last week against Tuskegee and helped pave the way for 128 yards on the ground. However, they will have their hands full this Saturday with one of the best defensive lines in college football.
Alabama State is probably best described as a Spread Option team. They typically operate out of the Shotgun and will use a variety of formations and personnel groupings. But they want to run the football given the skillset of their QB and their talent at running back. Don’t be surprised to see some 30 personnel on the field Saturday.
However, they will still attempt to throw the football plenty. Pearson attempted 24 passes last week against the Golden Tigers completing fifteen of them for 164 yards. That 164 yards through the air is Pearson’s career high. From what I can tell, the Hornets don’t often ask Pearson to throw it deep, sticking more to the short and intermediate passing game. You will see some RPO action but a lot of what they do are straight drop backs. Again, this should be a good chance for some young DBs to get some nice reps in
I know many Auburn fans have nightmares about Jacksonville State in 2015 and Mercer last season but I will be honest. If Alabama State scores a touchdown, I will be disappointed. Jacksonville State was loaded with former SEC prospects and Mercer was able to hang around due to turnovers. This squad is nowhere near as talented as Jacksonville State was three years ago and I think they are a step below the Bears as well.
It’s impressive what Hill-Eley has done so far to turn this program around but I just don’t see how they are going to move the football. If there’s one thing this Auburn defense can do it’s shut down the run game. Pearson should provide Auburn’s front 7 a chance to practice containing a mobile QB but it’s going to be tough sledding for this Hornets offense. Auburn should have a chance to work in a lot of reserves quickly and can probably hold out a few key players if they need to nurse some injuries. After last week’s heart attack inducing finish, it should be nice to enjoy a pleasant evening of Auburn’s defensive lineman crushing poor ball carriers.