It’s been a big week for the Edward Waters College football team, and not just because the NAIA Division Tigers are playing a marquee opponent in Southern.
A season that got off to a tumultuous start returned to normal allowing the team to hold regular practices leading up to a game 6 p.m. Saturday against the Jaguars at A.W. Mumford Stadium.
The school, located in Jacksonville, Florida, was forced to evacuate Aug. 29 because of Hurricane Dorian, and did not return until the following Thursday, two days before its season opener against Morehouse College.
Prior to the evacuation, the team was limited to practicing indoors eight times in 10 days because of heavy rains. Yet, the Tigers battled Morehouse before falling 26-20.
“Our kids showed a lot of heart, a lot of effort for not being able to practice more than a week,” second-year coach Greg Ruffin said. “We had two practices in eight days.
“We’ll try to hang in there against Southern and see what our competitive juices can bring us. I’ve got a young ballclub and I want to see them fight. We fought to the end of the game last week. We want to duplicate those efforts.”
A private institution, Edward Waters was established in 1866 and began playing football in 1916. The football program was disbanded in 1967 and restarted in 2001.
Ruffin has the Tigers on the rise. He was hired after an 0-10 finish in 2017, and with 59 freshmen on the roster went 4-7 and lost a pair of close games that could have lifted them to 6-5. He’s got 58 players that are either freshmen or sophomores with only 26 upperclassmen.
The team plays its home games at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, but plans are in motion to move into their own stadium next season. The program also will move into Division II in 2020. It will join the rotation as a member of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Ruffin has a feel for what he’s doing. He coached from 2006-11 at Jackson State under Rick Comegy and spent one season at Texas Southern under current Southern Lab coach Darrell Asberry.
“Coach Dawson Odums and I have been knowing each other for years, Coach (Chennis) Berry, too,” Ruffin said. “It’s a chance for me to put my kids on a bigger stage and see how they perform. They’re going to fight every play.”
One Tiger player is especially happy to make the trip. Starting cornerback Christian Hughes was born in Lafayette and lived there until he was 11 before Hurricane Katrina forced his evacuation to Lubbock, Texas. Hughes said he’s champing at the bit to come back to his home state.
“It’s personal for me,” he said. “I was born and raised in Lafayette until Hurricane Katrina kicked us out. I’ve known about Southern all my life. It’s always been a dream to play in the atmosphere, that stadium. I know about the battle of the bands with them and Grambling. I’m looking forward to going back there.
“I’ve got about 35-plus family members that are coming. I’m going to have to use some of my teammates’ tickets.”
Waters struggled last week, allowing five sacks and suffering three turnovers while being outgained 324-269. The Tigers will be without All-Conference quarterback Derrick Jones because of a lingering eligibility issue. Ruffin said Jayshawn Francis will start ahead of Roshard Branch this week.
“We’re a spread team but we" use multiple schemes, he said. “We’ll motion and run power, come downhill. On defense, we run a 3-4 set. Last week we contained Morehouse most of the day after giving up a big play early.”
Francis and Branch combined to complete 14 of 24 passes for 237 yards. Wide receiver Tyberious Horne caught five passes for 144 yards.
The defense is led by 303-pound freshman nose tackle Willis Glover. EWC starts four freshmen each on offense and defense.
Hayes said he believes in Ruffin’s approach and that the program is on the way up.
“He brings that toughness out of everybody,” Hayes said. “He’ll get in your face and get it up out of you. He makes you grind and do things that make you uncomfortable and see how you adjust. He needs a whole bunch of tough guys.
“It’s been a whole lot of change and change for the better. We’re headed in the right direction. He’s brought in a whole bunch of guys who are ready to buy in and play ball. That’s all we need right now. We’re going to give them boys (Southern) a battle.”