High expectations at Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman

When asked what teams he expects to be the toughest in the MEAC, Florida A&M linebacker Bobby Jackson named just one — Bethune-Cookman.

By virtue of alphabetical order B-CU and FAMU both start every season in the top three of the MEAC standings.

Recently they have done a good job of finishing there too, with both schools finishing at least third for three times out of the past four years.

With both programs experiencing a period of success, it has only served to strengthen the rivalry between the two Florida schools.

If either of theses teams is going to make the leap back to winning at least a piece of the MEAC title — they both shared the title with South Carolina State in 2010 — it could come down to defense.

Defense was a strength for the 2011 Wildcats, a team that went 8-3 (6-2) and finished tied for second in their conference. The defense was second and fourth in the 11-team MEAC in passing and rushing defense, respectively.

But three of the Wildcats’ four leading tacklers have graduated — including defensive end Ryan Davis, last year’s MEAC Defensive Player of the Year.

The Wildcats are hoping to be impressed by a new group of defensive leaders, including Miami native Dion Hanks.

Hanks highlighted the team’s run defense as the area with the most room for improvement.

“We just need to improve on swarming to the ball,” he said.

Hanks, who attended Edison High School, had 21 tackles and an interception last season.

That pick, which Hanks said has been his career highlight thus far, came in the end zone against Norfolk State and denied the Spartans a chance to tie the score in the closing seconds of the game. It was Norfolk State’s only MEAC loss of the season.

A new career highlight could be in the making for Hanks if the team is able to improve on last year’s 45-14 loss to Miami, the team Hanks said he grew up wanting to play for.

This year, Hanks and his teammates will get a second chance to prove themselves against the storied program — and this time they should have the help of star running back Isidore Jackson, who missed last year’s game.

Jackson, now a junior, led B-CU the Wildcats’ potent rushing offense with 866 yards last year. The team as a whole averaged 259 yards per game on the ground.

If the offense can get started on a similar note this year, it can only spell good news for the defense, Hanks said.

“Our offense and defense generate off each other,” he said. “If our offense is getting going, then our defense steps up.”

Florida A&M anticipates its rival to be tough, but it also expects to be ready for the Wildcats when the two square off in the final game of the regular season.

The Rattlers have defeated the Wildcats three out of the past four years, most notably in 2010 when FAMU upset B-CU to prevent its rivals from an outright MEAC title. With the win, FAMU also gained a share of the conference crown.

Bobby Jackson called that 38-27 victory the most memorable game of his career.

“We knew that Bethune was giving it their all, but we never gave up,” he said. “When we won all of the fans were so happy. I feel like we changed a lot of lives that day.”

Jackson, a junior linebacker who attended Miami Jackson High School, had 29 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks last season.

After 2010’s success, 2011 marked a step back for the program.

Although FAMU had an exciting 27-24 win over South Carolina State, they lost 29-28 to Howard, in addition to six-point and 10-point defeats to Hampton and B-CU, respectively. Those losses put the team in a tie for fourth place.

Last year, the defense was one of the main concerns for the Rattlers. While they were second in pass offense, they were eighth in total defense, allowing 341 yards a game.

Jackson said that this year he and his teammates on the defense are demanding more from themselves. Six of the defense’s starters are returning this year.

“The team this year has more talent,” Jackson said. “We’re more focused on what we’ve got to do. We have to learn from our mistakes last year by playing a full 60 minute game.”

FAMU opens its season on Sept. 1 at Tennessee State, while B-CU starts the night after in Orlando against Alabama St. The rivals will meet in the final game of the regular season Nov. 17.

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