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MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2007
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STATE COLLEGE COUNTDOWN
UNA Lions look to take final step

Seventh in a series

By John Zenor
Associated Press Writer

North Alabama’s impressive four-year run keeps getting stalled short of the ultimate finish line.

The Lions have had two perfect regular seasons, won a pair of Gulf South Conference titles, produced a Harlon Hill Trophy winner and twice made the Division II semifinals. That last step’s a killer, though.

“In the last four years, we’ve accomplished everything that we can accomplish except win a national championship,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We want to be No. 1 at the beginning and at the end of the season.”

The defending GSC champions will have to replace a sizable group of stars and have a few transfers come up big to have a shot at that goal. North Alabama, which hasn’t won a national title since capturing its third straight in 1995, is favored to win the league again after going 11-1 last season and making the D-2 quarterfinals.

Gone are two All-Americans — receiver/kick returner Anthony Merritt and center JoJo Bates — along with six other first-team all-conference players.

The good news for the Lions includes a six-game home schedule for the first time in Hudspeth’s tenure.

Quarterback A.J. Milwee returns after missing most of spring practice with a shoulder injury, but he’ll be throwing to a mostly new group of receivers.

Besides Merritt, the Lions lost alltime leading receiver Marcus Lewis, along with backups Patrick Wilson and Lonnell Dewalt.

Jason Messing returns after posting 1,383 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two years.

“This is really his year to be the go-to guy,” said Hudspeth, who is hoping for an immediate impact from signees.

That group includes junior college transfer Ed Gant, a former Tennessee-Chattanooga signee.

Hudspeth said the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Milwee is fully recovered and “probably in the best shape he’s been in.”

“He’s put on some weight which hopefully will help protect him, because he’s not very big,” the coach said. “But he’s awful tough and a great field leader. The thing about A.J. is he led us to 11 wins in his first year as our starting quarterback.”

The only returning running back is Tim Hicks, who rushed for 484 yards and seven touchdowns last season as a freshman. Hudspeth also brought in Nicholls State transfer Mike McClendon.

The line has more experience and depth, led by tackles Tez Thigpen and Michael Hathorn.

“We’ll have the most depth and the biggest front that we’ve had,” Hudspeth said.

The nation’s No. 9 scoring defense returns only six starters but should get a boost from two former Division I signees.

Defensive end Tranaine Sills had four sacks for Miami-Ohio last season before transferring. Fellow end Antron Dillon is a junior college transfer who originally signed with Vanderbilt.

Another big addition for the defense is tackle Tim Hunt, who was academically ineligible last season. Hudspeth calls him “the best player we’ve had at UNA.”

At linebacker, leading tackler Michael Johnson is among the returnees.

Defensive backs Bobby Brooks and Craig Fox combined for seven interceptions last season.

UNA is pretty much set in the kicking game. Punter Lyle Atkinson was a first-team All-GSC pick last season, while place-kicker Yuta Fukuda was a second-teamer.

North Alabama football
at a glance

  • Coach: Mark Hudspeth, sixth year (44-17)

  • Last year: 11-1 overall, 8-0 Gulf South Conference (first).

  • Offense: QB A.J. Milwee returns, but WR Jason Messing is only proven receiver back. Lions are looking for immediate help from signees at WR and RB, where Tim Hicks is the only returnee. The line is big, strong and deep.

  • Defense: DEs Antron Dillon and Tranaine Sills are both former Division I-A signees. ... DT Tim Hunt returns after missing last season due to academics. ... LB Michael Johnson led team in tackles last season, while secondary returns three starters.

  • Special teams: PK Yuta Fakuta and P Lyle Atkinson return.

  • Key losses: WR/KR Anthony Merritt, WR Marcus Lewis, OL JoJo Bates, DB Derrell Ashford, LB Ryan Brick, LB Brian McNair.

  • Opener: Sep. 8 Tusculum

  • Pivotal game: Oct. 28, at Valdosta State

  • Outlook: The Lions are favored to repeat as GSC champions, but a group of incoming transfers, including some former Division I signees, will be key to success. UNA needs some new receivers to step up to complement Messing, a big-play threat who was overshadowed by Merritt. A defense that ranked ninth in Division II in points allowed should be strong, especially up front.

    The Associated Press

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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