Gilliland expects big things from Tigers

LIVINGSTON, Ala. – Brett Gilliland is beginning his fourth season as head coach at his alma mater, and by his own measure, believes that the time is now for his West Alabama Tigers to contend for a Gulf South Conference title and an NCAA postseason spot.
“This team will be the best one we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Gilliland said. “It’s the deepest we have had throughout, but especially on the defensive line and at the skill positions on offense.
“I believe fair expectations for this team are to go after a conference title and make a playoff run,” Gilliland said. “That’s what we expect as coaches, and what our guys expect to do as players.”
West Alabama returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense, along with the long snapper, punter and place kicker. Four Tigers, receiver Donta Armstrong, defensive end Darius Ellis, linebacker Terry Samuel and kicker Jordan Bennett, were selected as preseason All-conference players.
GSC coaches picked the Tigers to finish no better than fifth, but Gilliland’s zeal for his 2017 team isn’t diminished following the preseason vote.
“I am excited because we have so many guys back. Have a lot of talented returning players who have played a lot of football for us,” Gilliland said. “The Gulf South Conference is the toughest conference in Division II and preseason rankings are difficult because there are several teams that could win it every year.”
One of two positions where a starter doesn’t return on offense is quarterback. Austin Grammer graduated after passing for 2,940 yards and 21 touchdowns last season with a passer rating of 136.97. Harry Satterwhite emerged from spring as the leader at the position, but will be challenged by Gabe Tiller, along with newcomers Austin Bray and Jacob Murphree.
“The biggest competition throughout fall camp will be at quarterback. Harry came out of spring as the top guy,” Gilliland said. “We are excited to see them all in action.”
Over the last two seasons, Satterwhite has played in 13 games, passing for 1,364 yards and 16 touchdowns, completing 56 percent of his throws.
A pair of all-conference receivers return in Armstrong and Corey Davis. Armstrong was an All-America choice after catching 91 passes last season and David lead the team with eight TD receptions despite missing games with nagging injuries. Seniors Tra Fletcher, Broc Malcom and Barnard McGhee make the receiver spot one of the deepest on the team.
Lakendric Thomas and Rashaad Lee, the top two rushers in 2016 are both back, plus junior college transfer Tevin Moore and four starters return on the offensive line. Tennessee transfer Dontavius Blair will help solidify a group that returns all-conference center Call Dyer.
“Along with receivers, the defensive front is one of our strongest spots with Michael Williams and all those guys,” Gilliland said. “Terrance Jones came in from Itawamba Community College, plus Jordan Jones is back healthy and Darius Ellis is back after leading the league last year in tackles for loss.”
Ellis registered 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks on the way to All-GSC and All-NCAA South Region honors last year. Williams is a seasoned veteran who is very valuable as a run stopper.
Devante Davis, Ladarius Johnson and Samuels have all logged considerable playing time at linebacker. Arkansas transfer Khalia Hackett will begin drills at safety, but could also get a look at linebacker as well.
“We feel good about their knowledge of what (defensive coordinator Steve) Coach Sisa is trying to do,” Gilliland said.
The secondary will be without all-conference cornerback Dee Virgin, who is in NFL training camp with the Houston Texans, but Texas Tech transfer Tevin Madison steps in with returners Se’Quan Steele, Greg Bell and Jamal Blackwell.
Montell Dent is back from injury at safety and the addition of Hackett to veterans Ken Hibbler and Tavarius Hutchinson at safety has Gilliland saying the secondary competition “will make for a fun fall camp.”
As for special teams, long snapper Jared Adair, punters Zach Gaines and Reed James, along with Bennett, all return. Bennett was all-conference after hitting 10-of-14 field goals last year and is a preseason pick in 2017.
West Alabama opens the season with a pair of Thursday night games on the road, first at Lenoir Rhyne on Aug. 31 and then at FSC member Samford on Sept. 7. The Tigers home opener is Sept. 16 against Mississippi College to open GSC play.