Reginald Ruffin's first fall camp as the Tuskegee University head football coach included just 32 players who carried over from an abbreviated spring practice. Everyone else on the roster was new to the program.
"We only got six days of spring ball in," Ruffin said. "It wasn't a lot of 11-on-11. It was more 3-on-3 or half-line type stuff and one-on-ones. We did the best we could with what we had. We don't make any excuses. These guys understood that with the guys we brought in, we had to grow up fast."
Tuskegee's official roster includes 31 freshmen, 16 sophomores and seven redshirt sophomores. It also includes five redshirt seniors, six seniors and two graduate players.
Put all that together, and it's not exactly the ideal way to begin a season.
"When we started this thing off, especially getting ready for Fort Valley, I felt like we were in spring ball, even though we were in fall camp," said Ruffin, who is preparing his team for Saturday's Morehouse-Tuskegee Rivalry with kickoff slated for 7 p.m. at Legion Field. "Now, we got a chance to be in fall camp after those first couple of weeks."
Predictably, the Golden Tigers got off to a slow start, losing by a combined 63-16 to Fort Valley State and Hampton University. Equally as predictable, Ruffin found a way to turn things around quickly. Ruffin is a proven winner, going 65-44 in 10 seasons at Miles College with four SIAC championships and another SIAC championship game appearance. He was a three-time SIAC Coach of the Year.
He also had experience in starting with a roster filled with young players. In his first year at Miles College, Ruffin said, he had 75 newcomers and 28 returning players. That team lost three of their first four games before settling in and winning the SIAC championship and playing in the Pioneer Bowl.
So, it's hard to be surprised that a 13-10 victory over West Alabama quickly turned into a three-game winning streak after victories over Allen University (35-27) and Clark Atlanta (45-43).
"I always tell these guys, 'You're only one play or two plays away from going (backwards),'" Ruffin said. "We're trying to change the culture and to change the culture, you have to change the mind. Our kids do a good job with that. Everything I do is premeditated. When I run, the kids say, 'Hey Coach, you're running us. We just won a ball game.' I'm like, 'Yeah, we could have lost a ball game. I want to get you tough, and I want to get you physical and prepared.' We want no complacency. We're resilient. We're working our tails off. We are a disciplined football team."
Ruffin said it took five games before his team fumbled for the first time. The Golden Tigers had a pair of botched exchanges, losing one of the fumbles and recovering the other, in the win over Clark Atlanta.
The Golden Tigers had to shuffle three quarterbacks, Malik Davis, Ryan Nettles and Bryson Williams, during the first five games, which Ruffin admits is worrisome. All three have had successful moments, but Ruffin hopes one settles in as the starter. Senior Taurean Taylor has a team-best 352 yards and four rushing touchdowns in three games, including 218 yards in the win over Clark Atlanta. Donte Edwards, a 6-foot, 225-pound transfer from Miles College, had 118 yards and a touchdown in the win over Clark Atlanta. The offensive line is playing well, and the defense is doing its job.
"It's an exciting time here," said Ruffin, a successful defensive coordinator at Tuskegee before taking the Miles College job. "I'm just trying to get this thing back on a roll, back to where it used to be, and get us back to the promised land that Tuskegee has always been. We won our 700th football game (in the win over West Alabama). That was a big milestone. We were the first HBCU to win that many games and No. 2 in Division II to win that many games behind Pittsburg State. That's a testament to this institution, that's a testament to this program and the commitment from our administration. We're just so fired up and trying to make every day count."
The next one might count for a little bit more.
"When I was here as a defensive coordinator, they always told me, 'You lose to Morehouse, you lose homecoming, and you lose Alabama State, you'll get fired,'" Ruffin said.
It will be the 86th meeting between Morehouse and Tuskegee. Last year, Morehouse was 0-5 heading into the game and 1-5 after a 31-15 win over the Golden Tigers. Morehouse then won three of the next four. This season, Morehouse is 0-5 heading into Saturday's game.
"They got their mind set on doing the same thing," Ruffin said. "We're out here ready to play a rivalry. Throw out the records because they don't count. Coach (Rich) Freeman is going to have those guys ready to play. This is the Morehouse-Tuskegee rivalry game. It's at historic Legion Field. It's good for the institution. It's good for our team. It's good for the city of Birmingham."
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