Last season, Benedict College finished atop an inaugural HBCU Division II Coaches Poll, receiving all but one first-place vote.
This season, the Tigers are seeking a unanimous decision. They used the Carolinas Classic to make an emphatic opening statement.
“It was finally good to get out here and play a game,” Benedict head coach Chennis Berry said Saturday after a 52-0 rout against Shaw University. “With all the talk about the offseason and the expectations, we had an opportunity now to get out and get our first game and come away with a win. I thought we played well in all three phases – offense, defense, and special teams. And if you do that, you have an opportunity to win football games.”
Benedict, 11-0 in the regular season last year, picked up where it left off. Not counting the playoff loss against Wingate, the Tigers have scored at least 49 points in their last four games. That includes the 58-21 win against Tuskegee for Benedict’s first-ever Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship. Expectations have remained high. Benedict was No.1 in the SIAC preseason rankings, and it didn’t disappoint in the season opener.
Defensive back Ja’ron Kilpatrick forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive lineman Jayden Broughton on the second play from scrimmage. That led to an 11-yard touchdown run by Naire Zaire Scotland just 90 seconds into the game. Scotland later added a pair of scoring runs and even threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Billy Pierre.
One question about Benedict entering the game was quarterback, a vacancy created when last season’s starter (Eric Phoenix) transferred to Murray State and fellow QB John Lamply graduated. Berry found a replacement in Aeneas Dennis, a grad student who passed for 33 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards at Shorter University.
Against Shaw, Dennis completed 18 of 27 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, including a 70-yarder to freshman Caden High. The Tigers showcased a balanced attack while generating 480 yards of total offense, gaining 196 on the ground.
“I thought (Dennis) ran the operation of our offense well,” Berry said. “We know there’s going to be some growing pains, but we thought he did a fairly good job. He took care of the football; he didn’t turn it over. And he showed his ability to be a good dual-threat quarterback because he was able to make some plays with his arm as well as his legs.”
Benedict’s defense ranked among the best in Division II last season and appeared to remain a strength Saturday, limiting Shaw to 169 yards and 10 first downs. Five Tigers on that side of the ball were tabbed preseason All-SIAC members. That includes the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Loobert Denelus, Benedict’s first-ever player to earn first team All-American honors from the American Football Coaches Association.
“I think we have a chance to have a better defense than we had last year,” Berry said after Benedict recorded four sacks and eight tackles for a loss. “Guys play hard together and our whole defensive staff remains intact. We added some pieces to the puzzle and brought back a lot of the guys who played on last year’s defense.”
Shaw star halfback Sidney Gibbs, who entered the season needing 346 yards to set his school’s career rushing record, ran for 75 yards against Benedict. The Bears trailed, 28-0, halftime and their defense yielded touchdowns on three consecutive possessions after intermission.
“Last year, a lot of people who were in the room believed,” Denelus told The State last month. “It was about getting people outside to see what we have in here. It’s kind of the same thing this year. We know what we have. We’re not worried about what other people are saying. We want to be our best.”
As the defending HBCU Division II champion, Benedict will get every opponent’s best shot. But Berry has a different view about the schedule.
“We are still the hunters,” he told WIS-TV during football camp. We don’t have a ‘being hunted’ mentality. “I tell them there’s hunters versus hunted. We’re Benedict College Tigers, and tigers hunt. Those guys are hungry.
“They know this is a new team and a new season, but with the same mission.”
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