NORFOLK, Va. (Release via NSU Athletics) – Norfolk State head football coach Dawson Odums heads into his second year leading the Spartans with plenty of optimism.

The feeling stems not just from the 12 starters returning, a large recruiting class or the team’s winning record last fall – the program’s first since 2007 – but more from the fact that he’s had a full year to instill his system within the program.

“Our culture has changed significantly,” said Odums, who didn’t get a full recruiting cycle or spring practice prior to being hired in late April of last year. “I like the direction we’re going. Discipline is the key to our process, and that’s hard to establish in a short period of time. Now, you see a lot of guys smiling who are happy to be Spartans.”

The results were certainly promising at times in his first year. The team went 6-5 and boasted a six-game winning streak, tied for the second-longest in school history. The Spartans placed a school-record 18 players on the All-MEAC teams and set several school Division I era offensive records. But a three-game losing streak to end the year left the team wondering what could have been.

Now, 38 returning letterwinners and a deep recruiting class will set out to chart their own course in 2022.

The biggest question most pundits have had for Odums heading into the year is who will replace quarterback Juwan Carter, a four-year starter and record-setting quarterback who was the 2021 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year. Odums welcomes in two transfers, Otto Kuhns from Eastern Illinois and Jaylan Adams from The Citadel, who have ample starting experience at the Division I level. They are joined by a bevy of freshmen in the quarterback room under the tutelage of Ryan Meyers, who is in his second year as QB coach and first as offensive coordinator.

“I like the leadership of the guys we have at quarterback,” Odums said. “That position carries a lot of weight on their shoulders. But we’re not asking those guys to be heroes, just take what the defense gives you and move the ball down the field.”

Odums describe the quarterback room as very competitive.

“When you have talented individuals, it raises the level of competition. Otto and Jaylan have done a great job and we feel those two give us a chance to be successful,” he said.

Whoever takes the snap will have the luxury of a strong backfield to hand off to, led by preseason MEAC Offensive Player of the Year J.J. Davis. All Davis did as a freshman was lead the MEAC with 887 rushing yards and an eye-popping 7.2-yards-per-carry average that led all of Division I FCS. He scored 11 touchdowns.

“J.J. has had an outstanding camp. He is one of the more electrifying players in the country,” Odums said. “He can run and catch and has improved his blocking. We have to find ways to get the ball in his hands.”

Sophomore Lex Henry, who rushed for 281 yards last year, also returns. NSU also returns Jaylen white, who missed most of the year with an injury, and brings in Liberty transfer Frank Boyd III and local acclaimed freshman Jordin Lennon and Kevon King.

At receiver, sophomore Da’Quan Felton is back after tallying 492 receiving yards and two touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season. Tremayne Talbert (20 catches), Chris Butler and Collis Pride are also back at wideout. The 6-7 Ademola Faleye returns at tight end after showing plenty of promise as a true freshman last year.

Senior Colby Byrd (center) and sophomore Jeff Woods (left tackle) are back to anchor the offensive line. Byrd was a first-team All-MEAC pick in 2021, while Woods started all 11 games. Transfers Jeremiah Bolling-Farrar (Wagner) and Evan Gregory (Maryland) are new faces to know in the trenches, while six redshirt freshmen and several true freshmen will bolster the unit this year and into the future.

The Spartans welcome back starters at eight defensive positions, including the entire back seven. The returners include both starting linebackers in Tyler Long and Marquis Hall. Long ranked fourth in the MEAC with 78 tackles (3.5 for loss) last year, while Hall had 49 stops (four for loss). Both were selected to the All-MEAC team last year and are preseason picks this year. Long’s younger brother, Daylan, and redshirt freshman Javoni Hales are also in the mix at linebacker.

The defensive backfield is full of experience. Brandon Savage is entering his third year as a starter at one corner. He earned All-MEAC first-team honors last year after posting three interceptions and 10 passes defended. Fellow corner Justin Toler also picked off three passes a year ago. Rover R.J. Coles was second on the team with 56 tackles, safety Stuart Anderson earned third-team All-MEAC honors, and Tayvion Land had 32 tackles and five passes defended from his nickel position.

The depth doesn’t stop there in the secondary. Shaviaea Williams is an experienced fifth-year member of the unit, Christian Ruffin started four times at safety last year, Ricky Harleston and Devon Allen played in almost every game, and U.Va. transfer Joseph White has four years under his belt at the Division I level.

“We have a deep group back there,” Odums said. “It helps with communication. Some of these guys are going on their fourth defensive coordinator, and you have to build a relationship to be successful. It’s tough learning a defense over the summer (like last year), but we’ve got a lot of guys coming back who have played big roles for us and have a better understanding of our system now.”

NSU did lose the services of All-MEAC first-team defensive ends De’Shaan Dixon and Chris Myers from last year’s team. They finished 1-2 in the MEAC in sacks. But Sage Beuchert-IrvineImani Bey and Shamar Hill all gained valuable experience as reserve ends last year.

The lone returning starter on the line is Anthony Blume, who amassed 33 tackles at tackle last year and was named one of the defense’s three co-captains along with Hall and Anderson. Levontae JacobsAmadeu Vital and D.J. Djonkam all contributed last year and will get the chance to assume larger roles. UNC transfer T.J. Stevenson is one of several talented newcomers along the defensive front.

“It all starts with the trenches,” Odums said. “We have a deep group on both lines and we brought in some talented freshmen, too. I think we have two really good lines, and if both can stay healthy, I like our chances.”

The Spartans will have a new look on special teams this year. Odums signed two new kickers in Grandin Willcox and Carson Wilt, a pair of Florida natives, and two long snappers in Marvin Dozier and Toby Willis.

The year gets off to a fast start, with games against strong FBS competition in Marshall this Saturday and James Madison on September 10. Odums knows the team’s early-season success will rely as much on the mental element as the physical.

“Watching the games (across the country) last weekend, you saw a lot of blown coverages and assignments,” Odums said. “Everybody is working on the physicality of the game, but guys have to understand the preparation that is needed to be successful.

“Our team has a good understanding of what our culture is about and what our expectations are. They know that you’ve got to do things a certain way to get the results in the end.”