McNair heads up spring practice with new coaching staff

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

NATCHEZ — First-year Alcorn State football coach Fred McNair keeps the 2015 Southwestern Conference Championship trophy in his office, the office of former coach Jay Hopson.

The trophy is not in a trophy case, it’s on his coffee table. It is a bulky monster of an accolade, not for the weak to attempt to lift.

A third straight title in 2016, McNair said, is not for the weak, either.

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“The guys talk about three-peat,” McNair said. “They have to understand to win one is tough, to win two is really tough. If you talk about three, you’re talking about how much dedication there has to be and what it’s going to take to do that.”

Alcorn State began spring practice in March, and McNair said there isn’t much player evaluation at this point in the process. McNair said spring practice is mostly to keep the players in shape during the offseason and to sharpen fundamentals and technique. He said he keeps up a high-intensity practice three days a week, even when he calls players out at 6 a.m.

This season, the Braves have a new look. McNair is at the Braves’ helm, coaching the team he played for in the 1990s. The defense, which allowed the fewest passing yards in the SWAC, 1,575, and tied for the most interceptions (10), graduated six of its starting 11. At least three new starters will compete in the trenches — two offensive inemen have returned for their senior seasons. Running back Darryan Ragsdale, who led the Braves rushing attack last season with 1,183 yards, held his pro day on March 24 and left yet another hole for McNair and his staff to fill.

The Braves, however, have some returning players at key positions, most notably under center. Last season’s breakout quarterback, Lenorris Footman, returns for his junior season.

Footman said the start of a SWAC title three-peat starts in the spring.

“We know (a third straight title) is the goal, but right now we have to go out and give it our all,” Footman said. “Just like we’re playing in the Celebration Bowl or the SWAC Championship.”

Footman said not a lot has changed under McNair’s regime, as he is Footman’s former quarterback coach. Footman said the same goes for the team as a whole.

In addition to rebuilding his roster, McNair has spent the first two months of his new job promoting and hiring new coaches. The one McNair, perhaps, raved about the most is the man he promoted to defensive coordinator, Cedric Thomas. Thomas was Alcorn’s defensive back coach last season when the Braves led the conference in pass defense. Thomas will still handle duties with the defensive backs, in addition to the new role as defensive coordinator

“Some (decisions) weren’t difficult, for example, filling the position of defensive coordinator,” McNair said. “Coach Cedric Thomas has been here since Day 1 and knows the defense inside and out.”

McNair said as a head coach, it’s inevitable for coaches to find new jobs, and he accepts the responsibility of filling those roles. Alcorn’s latest promotion was of graduate assistant Kendry Tolbert to linebacker coach. Tolbert will work closely with new hire Cedric Thornton, who comes to Alcorn with experience as a defensive coordinator at Texas Southern. McNair hired Kye Stewart to coach the defensive line, his first position coaching job after serving as a graduate assistant for the University of Memphis.

McNair is operating as the head coach he wants to be. He said he is not a micromanager when it comes to each coach’s responsibility during practice. His oversight will enter when formulating the schemes for the offense and defense.

“I’m a firm believer as you sit back as an assistant and watch the way the program ran with other coaches, you learn the things to do and the thing not to do,” McNair said. “You weigh it out and make sure you don’t repeat the same stuff that didn’t work … when I was named head coach, those were some of the things I took mental notes on.”

McNair said a lot of teams have lost key players within the conference, and at the start of each season the staff surveys the outlook of SWAC football as a whole.

The two-time defending champions, with targets on their backs, look for targets to aim for within the division on the road to an elusive three-peat.

“Any time you’re talking about winning back-to-back and winning again, of course you look at what staff (SWAC teams) are going to have,” McNair said. “The biggest thing is, when you talk about the East (Division) … you look at that schedule first, you have to win every game in the east and then of course you’re one in the West. All of those count.”

Alcorn State’s spring game is scheduled for April 23.