April 7, 2011
FAYETTEVILLE, NC - Before Larry McDonald is done with his football career, there's a good chance he will have started more games than any other player under Fayetteville State head coach Kenny Phillips.
He may hold the record for participation in the most practices, too. And that includes the ones during the spring.
McDonald, an All-CIAA offensive lineman who will play either guard or center during the 2011 football season, will begin that season penciled in to start from Day 1 for the fourth straight year when the Broncos host UNC Pembroke on Sept. 3 in the third Two Rivers Classic at Luther "Nick" Jeralds Stadium.
In a sense, though, the new season has already begun.
The Mebane, NC, native has already played in 32 games in his Fayetteville State career and was a key component on a line that helped the Broncos win the 2009 CIAA championship.
But before Fayetteville State could embark on that triumphant season, the team laid the foundation months before the games got under way, using a series of workouts in early spring to implement new strategies, fill new roles and assess talent.
It's been no different for McDonald, who has worked through another set of spring practices, and the Broncos in 2011, who are coming off a 2010 season in which they finished 5-5 overall, winning four of their last five games.
"It's a period of instruction and time to work on and put new stuff in," McDonald says. "The new guys are learning the system and their roles in it, and they're beginning to experience what Broncos Football is all about. Guys are also realizing what being a student-athlete is all about, that we're here to play college football, and everybody is working to get better with each practice."
Teams are allowed 15 spring practices over the course of a five-week period during the second semester to engage in practices, workouts, drills and evaluation. The Broncos have had 13 full practices during the spring evenings and will use the remainder of the time students are on campus - through April - to focus on strength training.
"We need to get stronger as a football team, and that's what we're going to work on for the last month," says Phillips, who has led the Broncos to a .500 or better record in eight of his 11 seasons as the head coach. "We got a lot accomplished on the field, but there's no reason now for us to keep going out there and beating each other to death."
While junior college transfer Brandon Cluff (So., Phoenix, AZ) is one of the newest faces charged with picking up the Broncos' system quickly after the departure of 2010 quarterback Robert Benjamin, his maturation hit the fast track during spring workouts because of the improved play of the offensive line.
A year ago, despite having two Preseason All-CIAA selections on the line, the Broncos' front was built and rebuilt on the fly following a series of fall injuries that pressed several first-year players into duty, some of whom were moved into new positions. By the end of the season, the line had gelled to allow Fayetteville State to close the year with three emphatic victories.
McDonald, always the anchor, returns with a line that has gone from suspect to open 2010 to perhaps the team's biggest strength on the cusp of the 2011 season. Joining him is Alexander Anthony, who returns from a redshirt season after suffering an injury before the 2010 season. Anthony started on the line as a true freshman during the 2009 championship season.
The line will be fortified by second-year starter William Hunt (So., Plymouth, NC) and the emerging Marcus Uzzell (Jr., Goldsboro, NC) as well junior college transfer Erik Howard, who comes from San Francisco Community College.
McDonald is seeing the rapid improvement in the line, thanks to the spring workouts.
"We've grown up," he says. "The guys aren't feeling as much pressure as they were a year ago, and instead we're playing to our full potential. We've come together as a unit, as a family.
"The line of scrimmage was moving forward in Spring Ball," McDonald adds. "We're having fun out there and competing. We're playing together and moving the ball."
Phillips likes what he's seen as well.
"Offensive line will be our strength going into the fall," he says. "They're working hard."
Cluff has been the featured quarterback thus far as he replaces the effective Benjamin, who completed his eligibility last season. Cluff played in five games and threw six touchdown passes a year ago at Scottsdale Community College, the same school that Jeremy Cunningham, the CIAA's leading tackler a year ago, and returning wideout Warren Johnson (Jr., Phoenix, AZ) attended before coming to Fayetteville State.
"He's got a great arm, but for me, I like the intangibles he brings to the team," McDonald says of Cluff, who came to Fayetteville State in January as a transfer. "As a center, I've gotten to work a lot with him, and he's very calming out there. He can change plays at the line of scrimmage and really sees the field well. He's having to learn a lot quickly, but he's picking up the system well."
The Broncos also recruited four prep quarterbacks in February who will join the team next season.
"I think Cluff can be a really good football player for us," says Phillips.
The Broncos have also looked solid at running back with the returns of Michael Staton (So., Charlotte, NC) and C.J. Bailey (Fr., Manteo, NC), two players who saw significant time each in the backfield backing up departing senior Richard Medlin.
But while depth may be a concern at some positions - nothing new during spring practice - Phillips knows how to get a team prepared. Part of that is to understand how to approach any given spring.
"Last year, (wide receiver) B.J. Washington got hurt in spring practice," says Phillips, "and he missed three games to start the season. You have to keep that kind of thing in mind.
"You never know when somebody might get hurt, but if you handle things right, you can give guys a chance to heal up and get stronger before you need them again.
"That's what we're doing now as we close out Spring Ball."
McDonald has been around for a while. And he knows the Broncos are in good hands with Phillips leading the way.
"Being 5-5 last year, that's a little unusual for FSU football," says McDonald. "But we've put 5-5 behind us and we're moving forward. We've had a good season of Spring Ball. Everybody is doing something better than they did the last practice."
It's a start.