Earl Holmes took over at Florida A&M hoping to just lay the foundation for things to come.
Entering Year 2, Holmes is looking for the Rattlers to take steps toward reclaiming their place among the Football Championship Subdivision’s prominent programs.
“It’s starting to come together,” said Holmes, a FAMU linebacker from 1992-95. “Last year was kind of a pick-it-up-and-hit-it type of deal where we didn’t really get a chance to recruit.”
The on-field results illustrated that point as FAMU tumbled to a 3-9 record and a 10th-place finish in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
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A year later, Holmes has reasons for optimism.
For starters, he and his staff placed an emphasis on bringing in junior college transfers, a staple of FAMU’s recruiting philosophy when the program was rolling.
And he has seen some nice gains in the weight room, where his offensive and defensive lines — bolstered by some physically mature JUCO transfers — have bulked up from a year ago.
“We’re bigger, we’re faster, we’re stronger,” Holmes said. “But we also have to be smarter.“
Those strength gains will be necessary if the Rattlers are to flourish in Holmes’ ideal offensive system.
He said FAMU will use a pro-style, two-back offense that focuses on downhill running and straightforward passing.
“We don’t try to fool anybody,” Holmes said. “We just want to line up and play. I know a lot of people are into the zone-read and all that kind of stuff, which is fine. But the brand we like [is] to line up and play old-school football.”
Quarterback Damien Fleming returns to guide the offense after losing much of last season to a foot injury. Fleming has put up mixed results — he threw 16 TDs and five interceptions in 2012, then regressed to six TDs and 13 interceptions last season — but Holmes said that’s due in part to an inexperienced supporting cast.
Fleming is also still on the mend from a foot injury that required offseason surgery.
“You can tell he has something to prove,” Holmes said. “He wants to set the record straight. It’s about putting Damien in better situations, put some talent around Damien, better offensive linemen around Damien.”
Defensively, Holmes said the Rattlers will employ a 3-4 front similar to the one Holmes played in as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That system requires a stout nose guard, and Holmes believes he has a good one in junior Michael Lovejoy. The 6-4, 265-pound junior had 31 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks a year ago.
“This kid has really come on,” Holme said. “He truly not only understands it, but he works his butt off day in and day out. We have gotten better on the defensive side of the ball because of Michael Lovejoy.“
The Rattlers in 2014 will seek to avoid a little history. After finishing 4-7 in 2012 and 3-9 last year, another sub-.500 campaign would give FAMU three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1986 and only the second time since 1930.
Avoiding that dubious distinction while showing signs of progress will have to be FAMU’s major motivator. The Rattlers are banned from postseason play following a substandard showing on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report.
Still, Holmes believes that brighter days are ahead and that the disappointment of years past will pave the way to the future.
“My goal is to win as many championships as possible to put Florida A&M back on the map,” Holmes said. “Sometimes it’s good to taste that bitterness so when it becomes sweet you really know how sweet it is.”