Column: The best is yet to come on The Hill

The Rattlers football team at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
Photo submitted by Ahmon Lott

ORLANDO — Some might say the Florida A&M football team finished its season in a disappointing fashion, which in context could be true. After all, the Rattlers dropped three straight conference games to end their season and wipe away their chances at a MEAC title and a berth in the  Celebration Bowl.

But in reality we must realize that in just year one of his tenure, coach Willie Simmons has shifted the culture of the FAMU program.  Finishing at 6-4, Simmons delivered the Rattlers’ first winning season in seven years. For the first time in a long time the Rattlers were in position to win a MEAC conference title — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished on The Hill since 2011.

“I'm thankful for the unwavering support that we've gotten from FAMU Nation.

The excitement that we brought back to this program is what I grew up accustomed to.

And we're just beginning. You know, we're in the embryonic stages of something special here at FAMU,” Simmons said in the post-game press conference at the Florida Classic.

In the preseason polls the Rattlers were projected to finish fifth, so off expectations alone this team is already ahead of schedule. In less than a year Simmons and his staff were able to implement a new system and win games with players they didn’t recruit. That speaks volumes on behalf of the coaching staff; they got the players to buy in to the system and trust the process of team building while playing for each other.

“There's another coach coming in, new playbook, new philosophy, and they could have really shut down. But what these guys did was they came together, probably like no team I'd ever been around, and for that I'm thankful for them,” Simmons said.

The future appears bright on The Hill, with 7 to 8 returning starters on both sides of the ball. The camaraderie will only get stronger. Simmons and his staff will now have a full off-season at their disposal to recruit new players and install new formations.

The Rattlers will look for quarterback Ryan Stanley to take the final step in his senior season. Stanley has shown flashes of greatness while under center as last season he set the school completion percentage record at 64.4 percent. This year he battled injuries but still managed to complete 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,519 yards, 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Next season the Rattlers will need Stanley to take better care of the ball, but he can't do so without a clean pocket. The offensive line must do a better job of protecting him, Stanley was sacked 16 times this year, and if we are going to be critical of the quarterback you must give him time.

The Rattlers may have the best returning skill position groups in the MEAC. At wideout the explosive group is led by sophomore Chad Hunter and redshirt freshman Xavier Smith. Hunter posted 43 catches for 560 yards and 6 touchdowns, while Smith stretched the field from the slot formation, tallying 48 catches for 664 yards and 4 touchdowns.

The backfield will be loaded again next year, Simmons showed this year that he would feature multiple backs in his spread system. Three of the four leading rushers will return to the team. Junior Deshawn Smith absorbed most of the carries, racking up 640 yards on 96 touches. Elusive sophomore running back Bishop Bonnet may have the most upside in the group, averaging 7.2 yards a carry. Bonnet has shown the game-breaker ability.

The coaching carousel at FAMU now appears to be over, Willie Simmons and his staff will finally have a chance to bring stability to this program for years to come.

“There's no other place I'd rather be, there's no other group of guys I'd rather coach, and I’m just thankful to God that I was called home to be the head coach of Florida A&M University” Simmons told the media late Saturday afternoon.