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10-0 Bowie State, behind QB Ja’rome Johnson, going after second straight CIAA title and NCAA bid

Johnson, just named CIAA offensive player of the year, leads potent offense

It was a gratifying moment for Clyde Doughty Jr., Bowie State athletic director, as the clock wound down at Roebuck Stadium in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Nov. 9.

That joy was shared by the hundreds of Bulldogs fans, players and coaches. Bowie State, ranked No. 11 in this week’s AFCA Coaches poll, had just completed an unbeaten regular season by trouncing the Elizabeth City Vikings 60-21, for the school’s first 10-0 record.

“Going undefeated is a major accomplishment for our university and students. It also affords us with the opportunity to compete for the championship which is our goal every year,” said Bowie State head coach Damon Wilson. “Our players are extremely excited to have a chance to compete in Salem [Virginia] this week for the championship.”

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Now, the focus shifts to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship game Nov. 16 in a rematch against Fayetteville State. This will be the Bulldogs’ second consecutive appearance in the title game and fourth in the last five seasons. They’ve won only once, 30-10 over Fayetteville State in last year’s showdown.

“This is something I envisioned years ago when I first came here. Not many people had the same vision or thought it could happen, but I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of coaches around me displayed here in this program,” said Wilson.

“I’m blessed to have coaches who bought into the vision, and those guys now are leading, whether it’s coach [Tyrae] Reid leading the offense or coach [Antone’] Sewell leading the defense. Those guys are doing a great job of getting their guys prepared for the competition,” Wilson said.

Last year, then-Bulldogs quarterback Amir Hall earned MVP honors by completing 15 of 26 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. Hall also rushed for 139 yards and three scores, which tied a CIAA championship record.

Now the reins belong to Ja’rome Johnson, a junior transfer to Bowie State after being a two-year starter at the University of Virginia at Wise. “I wanted my mom to be able to come to watch me play,” said Johnson, who is from Washington. “Being seven hours away, she wasn’t able to watch me play. But now she’s at every home game.”

When Johnson arrived last semester, the projected starter was junior Gaston Cooper, a transfer from Duquesne University, who did not participate in spring football, allowing Johnson to receive most of the reps. “He played well in the spring,” said offensive coordinator Tyrae Reid. “Coming into the season, he was competing more so for the No. 2 than the No. 1 because Gaston was our guy.”

For the past two seasons, Cooper learned the system as Hall’s backup. In the opener at American International College, he struggled, completing only 5 of 16 passes for 38 yards with two interceptions. Late in the second quarter, Wilson had Johnson take over. He finished the game with 230 total yards of offense (58 passing and 172 rushing) in a 34-20 comeback victory.

Then on the road again at Shaw University, a similar situation occurred. Cooper suffered an ankle injury in the game and Johnson replaced him. When Cooper was ready to return, the coaching staff decided to stick with Johnson’s hot hand.

“A guy rolled up on my ankle,” Cooper said. “Come to find out I was playing for the rest of the game with a sprained ankle. I really couldn’t walk for a majority of the week. So Ja’Rome really stepped up. He hit the ground rolling. So what he’s been doing so far, he’s being recognized by the conference, the national scale. There’s nothing I can be mad about and no ill will, feelings or anything like that. We’re winning and undefeated.”

Johnson stepped in and stepped up

Johnson’s development since the beginning of the season is noticeable. Though he was playing well when he got the unexpected opportunities, it took time to learn and fully understand the offensive system.

“I’ve seen so much growth in his ability and just the way he prepares and how serious he takes it,” Reid said. “He made a check last night, where he saw a blitz coming from our defense and ended up making a good check as far as getting us into slot protection. And I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s ready.’ So I think we’re at the point now where it doesn’t matter what you throw at him, he’s going to be prepared.”

His production bears that out. Johnson was named CIAA Offensive Player of the Year, after throwing for 1,507 yards, 21 touchdowns and rushing for 691 yards with 19 touchdowns. Johnson’s completion percentage is similar to Hall’s 2016 season, 62.3%.

“What makes Ja’Rome special is his ability to improvise,” Reid said. “He can extend plays. He can make throws, but he’s very dangerous in the run game, so that that makes us harder to defend. Defenses have to account for him, just like he’s a running back, but he can also beat you over the top by making good throws. So having him in there makes us very, very dangerous offensively.”

The offense is averaging 44.4 points a game, first in the CIAA, with 428.3 total yards and 215.8 passing yards a game. With the Elizabeth City 60-21 result, the offense has generated 60-plus points in back-to-back games.

“There’s no difference in the offense this year compared to last year,” Hall said. “In my opinion, the mentality is the same: Score a lot of points, don’t turn the ball over, get different people involved throughout the game, and frustrate the defense.”

a championship attitude

The journey to this day began in 2009 when Wilson was hired. On the field, he sought coaches who could assist him in recruiting high-caliber players and maximizing their potential. Off the field, his primary focus was on building a championship-caliber team through structure and holding players accountable.

“If you’re late to a meeting, skip class, have missed assignments, you gotta run hills, 15 for each mess-up,” said Johnson.

“In the cafeteria, we always sit in a specific section, and it’s on us to keep it clean,” said defensive lineman Joshua Pryor. “He has contacts with everyone. All it takes is for someone to say, ‘Yeah, the football players kept the cafe dirty today.’ ”

Committing mental errors, such as offside or personal-foul penalties, during a practice or game, also result in running hills or sprints.

Bowie State defensive lineman Joshua Pryor (right).

Bowie State University

The players grimace when asked about it.

“It’s just an accountability tool,” Wilson said, chuckling. “Most of the time, you only have a guy experience it once or twice. And they’ll learn the importance of doing things the Bowie State way.”

Wilson doesn’t require a particular GPA to be on the squad, but last semester 40 players had a 3.0 GPA, and this semester, his goal is to have at least 50 with a 3.0 or higher. Four players on the roster have a 4.0 this semester, and now the next target is the have six players reach that goal. The coach believes to be successful on the field, achievement in the classroom is necessary.

“You can’t win championships with a whole lot of freshmen on the football field,” Wilson said. “You need to have guys that are juniors and seniors, and that will only happen by excelling in classes.”

What fueled the turnaround?

The team practices four times a week. Weight-room sessions twice a week are mandatory but on an individual’s schedule. On Wednesday, the team practices from 4-6:30 p.m., then holds an optional 30-minute Bible study from 7:30-8 p.m., led by Joseph Spears, an associate professor at Bowie State.

Video sessions are Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesday. On Fridays, if the team is traveling for an upcoming game, they will watch video at the hotel. But if it’s a home game, coaches will quiz them on things they’ve noted and what their responsibilities are in certain situations.

All-CIAA cornerback Demetri Morsell.

Bowie State University

The video sessions can be intense, especially under defensive coordinator Antone’ Sewell, who will repeatedly expose a mistake on the screen to make everyone understand his point.

“We go over our little details like technique and everything,” said sophomore cornerback Demetri Morsell, who leads the CIAA in interceptions. “It doesn’t matter who you are. He will call you out.”

“This is when you put your big boy pants on and leave your feelings at the door, because we’re going to be real and give some reality checks in here,” said Sewell. “And if you listen to the message and not the method, then you’ll be better for it. If you’re a guy that only listens to how somebody talks to you versus what they are saying, then you’re probably not going to be very successful.”

Offensive coordinator Reid meets with quarterbacks Johnson and Cooper at 10 a.m. each weekday. “The biggest thing coach Reid hates is when I ask a question to something I already know the answer to,” Johnson said.

Learning from defeat

Last year, Bowie State defeated West Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Division II Super Region 2 playoffs. In the second round, Valdosta State University, which ended up capturing the national championship, beat Bowie State 66-16, the worst playoff defeat in school history.

“I learned that I never want to see 60 points on the scoreboard again,” Sewell said. “Sitting there watching them score touchdown after touchdown, I mean, it hurt. But when you get a chance to face the team that eventually wins a national championship, you see where you measure up. Like, OK, if this is what a national champion looks like, how far away are we from that? That loss fueled and motivated me throughout the offseason.”

One thing from the loss was clear: The defense needed more depth — a great starting unit and four to five players whom coaches could rely on throughout the game. Sewell learned that putting all of his focus onto star players would not result in success. Last summer, he had numerous sessions with the defense as they watched video and went over plays.

There also came the responsibility of working with two new defensive coaches added to the staff last year: cornerbacks coach Muhammad Abdul-Rahim and defensive line coach Avery Williams.

Heading into the season, Sewell emphasized creating turnovers, stopping opponents in the red zone, and getting off the field on third down. Last year, the defense played well late in the season but was giving up around 27 points a game. They weren’t getting turnovers or defending third downs and the red zone at a high rate.

Led by Pryor, defensive linemen Jason Rogers and Jonathan Ross, and Morsell, Bowie State now ranks first in points allowed per game (16.3), second in rushing yards allowed per game (100.6), second in sacks (31) and first in interceptions (22).

Ross won CIAA defensive rookie of the year and Morsell defensive player of the year. Pryor was selected a first teamer as was punter Kenny Amaya. Bowie State led the way with 10 All-CIAA selections.

One other offensive player besides Johnson, tight end DuShon David, made the CIAA first team.

Bowie State defensive lineman Jason Rogers (right).

Bowie State University

“There’s a bunch of dogs on that front line,” Morsell said. “Then, in our secondary, we got Tevin Singleton and me on the outside. Along with our safeties, you don’t want to throw it in the middle. So there’s nothing offenses can do for real.”

But there was a process to reach that level.

Entering the season, Bowie State had 34 transfers and seven redshirt freshmen. Some did not play a single minute of football last season, and others were moving into new positions. Two potent playmakers graduated, in Derek Taylor, who had the opportunity to attend training camp with the Atlanta Falcons, and Roger Richardson, the defensive captain who played his best in the biggest of games.

“That was an adjustment and feeling-out period for everyone,” Sewell said. “I think we hit our stride as we gained more success throughout the games. Our guys’ confidence started to grow, and now we’re playing at a high level.”

Then came the season-ending injury to all-conference senior linebacker Anthony Howard, the emotional leader of the team, who fractured his fibula on homecoming night against Chowan University.

“We had to move some people around and built a rotation,” Sewell said. “We had a couple of young guys that weren’t necessarily in our plans to play that moved up from basically scout team and special-teams guys to being in the rotation defensively. These last couple of games, we’ve been able to get some big leads and get some guys some more experience that wouldn’t have regularly played.

“I think everyone realized like, ‘Hey, we all have to pick up the slack.’ And if you notice, anytime you see those guys posting anything on social media, they always hashtag it #dirty30. That’s their way of making a tribute to him.”

After a perfect regular season, the focus turns to capturing the CIAA championship. Then the team will turn its sights on bringing a national championship to Bowie State.

Kevin is a junior mass communications and print journalism major from Baltimore. He's a reporter for The Spectrum student newspaper and is a big fan of the Washington Wizards.