ORANGEBURG, SC (WIS) - South Carolina State head coach Buddy Pough put his arms around a few of his players watching drills during the first day of practice.
As he and his players stood on Willie E. Jeffries Field at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium, he smiled as he instructed the young men on the nuances of the scheme that was being run. It was almost like Christmas for the longtime head coach of the Bulldogs.
"It's always fun," Pough said about the first day of practice. "The best part about the whole deal is you recruit these guys and you actually get a chance to see them run around and see if they're any good or not. That was a treat."
It's one of the sweeter moments for Pough and he's hoping things don't go sour this season. Last year, the Bulldogs went 5-6 and missed the Celebration Bowl. To make matters worse, it was the second second year SC State had not come away with at least a share of the conference title.
"We've got a lot of guys who were on that team last year," said Bulldogs senior linebacker and FCS All-America selection Darius Leonard. "We've (the seniors) never had a losing record. We never went 5-6. We don't want that taste in our mouth anymore. We know what it feels like to win. We've won two championships and we want to go back and win another one for our last go-round."
The Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the MEAC by the coaches and sports information directors this year behind defending champion North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T. It's something that Pough hopes will be another motivating factor for his team.
"I actually picked us fourth," Pough admitted. "Trying to find some motivation for getting this team to really get out there and try to figure out how to improve and be better. Perceptually, it's obvious that our guys are not as highly thought of as they once were. We didn't have as many all-conference guys. We've got all kinds of little chips on our shoulders to try to see if we can go out and have something to prove. Hopefully, we'll get out there and do something better than third."
The Bulldogs open the season representing their conference in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge against Southern. The next two weeks following that game will see SC State host Charleston Southern and Johnson C. Smith. While it's not the gauntlet they faced a year ago, Pough said it's still a challenge.
"The three teams we do have, two of them especially, are real, real good football teams," Pough noted. "Down in Southern, everybody talks about how hot it's going to be. It's kind of hot in South Carolina, too. But at the same time, we've really got to get ready for those guys.
"Everybody knows about Charleston Southern and how good they are. Everybody saw them last year out in North Dakota State and they won the Big South the last couple of years. They're beating up on The Citadel, all of those different guys, Coastal. So, they are a real good football team. We expect to have our work cut out that way, too."
South Carolina's season opener can be seen on Sept. 3 on ESPN2.