TALLAHASSEE (AP) — Coach Joe Taylor heads into his third season at Florida A&M counting on a veteran tailback to regain his freshman form and an improved defense to help the Rattlers challenge for their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship since 2001.
“I think it's time to take the next step”' said Taylor, who took over the program after the Rattlers suffered through a 3-8 season in 2007. “The ship has been righted.”
Albeit with some loss of key personnel from last year's team.
Florida A&M (8-3, 6-2) lost the MEAC player of the year, quarterback Curtis Pulley, and its exceptional return specialist, Leroy Vann, who returned five punts for touchdowns in 2009.
Taylor, who is 17-6 in his first two seasons at the school, said the offense will revolve around running back Philip Sylvester, who has rushed for 2,130 yards and 22 TD's in his career.
“We're really going to feature him a lot more this year,” said Taylor, who also wants Sylvester to take direct snaps. “Last year the offense went through Pulley. This year it's going through Sylvester.”
A 5-9, 185-pound speedster from neighboring Marianna, Sylvester had his best season in 2007 when he was the MEAC's rookie of the year. He's also slated to assume Vann's punt return duties.
Sophomore Martin Ukpai gets the assignment of replacing Pulley in FAMU's Sept. 2 opener at Miami.
Ukpai responded favorably last season when he was forced into action after Pulley and backup Eddie Battle suffered injuries. Ukpai completed 8 of 11 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown and ran for another when the Rattlers routed intrastate rival Bethune-Cookman 42-6 in their season finale.
“It was a learning experience and I'm going to try to keep growing,” Ukpai said. “That game really helped my progression.”
He'll have the top three receivers from last year returning in Kevin Elliott, Isaac West and Adrian Smith. The trio combined to grab 104 catches for 1,413 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Rattler coaching staff also worked during the offseason on improving a defense that was solid overall but faltered in its two MEAC losses, a 35-20 setback to conference champion South Carolina State and a 25-0 loss to Hampton.
“If you are serious about trying to win a championship and be successful, you have to play strong defense” Taylor said. “That was the focus and it looks like we’re going to be a lot more athletic.”'
But he spent most of the interview discussing the Haitian Diaspora, concentrated mainly in Miami, New York, Paris and Montreal.
People in Haiti have long relied on family and friends abroad to make ends meet. Remittances are the main source of income in the country of more than 9 million people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed and 90 percent of whom live in poverty.
According to a survey for the Inter-American Development Bank, 33 percent of Haitians receive cash from abroad and nearly 75 percent of the money is spent on food, housing, utilities and clothing. Food and other gifts are also sent.