QBs Hickbottom, Witt, WR McClain stand out in Legacy Bowl

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NEW ORLEANS – Tennessee State’s Geremy Hickbottom began his final college football season by learning a new system with a new team and ended it by being named the top offensive player at the first All-Star game organized for players at historically Black colleges and universities.

Hickbottom accounted for 97 yards and a touchdown from scrimmage in three possessions, helping Team Gaither beat Team Robinson 22-6 in the inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl on Saturday.

Hickbottom’s approach centered on “taking what they give me, not trying to overdo it,” he said. “That’s when you get yourself in trouble. But just take what they give me a find a way to execute it.”

Hickbottom passed for 72 yards and rushed for 25, including a 3-yard touchdown dash around the right end.

Bowie State running back Calil Wilkins turned a short pass from Chowan’s Bryce Witt into a 12-yard touchdown and Norfolk State quarterback Juwan Carter added a 7-yard touchdown run for Team Gaither.

The teams were named for two of the most prominent former head coaches at historically Black colleges and universities: Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither.

Southern receiver Marquis McClain caught seven passes for 84 yards for Team Gaither.

Florida A&M’s Antwan Collier, who played for Team Robinson, was named the game’s top defensive player after making nine tackles, including 1 1/2 tackles for loss.

“Throughout this week I just came in and told myself, `Learn the system fast, fit into the scheme and do your job,’ and that’s exactly what I did – and came out and competed every day,” said Collier, who previous played for UCF before an arrest led to his dismissal.

Collier thanked Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons – who coached Team Gaither at the Legacy Bowl – for giving him a second chance and said he arrived in New Orleans focused on “doing everything the right way.”

“You’ve got to talk like a pro. You’ve got to work out here like a pro,” Collier said. “I was being a leader on the field. I was trying to put everybody in a situation to make a play.”

Hickbottom, who played for Grambling in the spring of 2021 before transferring over the summer, passed for 1,847 yards and rushed for 261 net yards in 10 games for Tennessee State last fall. He entered the regular season on the heels of his recovery from COVID-19. His regular season ended when he was carried off the field on a stretcher with a bruised spine against Austin Peay on Nov. 13.

But he was deemed fit to play in the Legacy Bowl and drove his unit into field goal range on the opening series. Virginia Union kicker Jefferson Souza sailed his 51-yard field goal attempt wide left, however.

Wilkins opened scoring when he caught a pass from Witt in the right flat and ran around the end.

Extra points were kicked from the NFL distance (snapped from the 15-yard line and kicked from about 33 yards). Souza missed his first and Team Gaither led 6-0 at halftime.

Witt, who came on to start the second quarter and led another series in the fourth quarter, was 15 of 21 for 131 yards. He completed seven of eight passes for 66 yards on his touchdown drive. This season, Witt passed for 2,864 yards and 31 TDs in 10 games for Division II Chowan.

Teams started each quarter with fresh possessions.

Souza gave Team Gaither a 9-0 lead with a 21-yard field goal set up by a turnover. Fort Valley State receiver Sehmar Bridges fumbled after a short pass on which he went to the ground to make the catch, but then got up and ran – an allowable move in a game played largely by NFL rules.

Bowie State linebacker Wesley Bowers forced the fumble on the Team Robinson 29. Virginia State defensive end Javon Frazier scooped up the ball and returned it to the 3.

After team Gaither took a 15-0 lead on Carter’s keeper, Souza again missed the extra point.

Prairie View A&M quarterback Juwan Pass provided Team Robinson’s lone score on a 1-yard run. But yet another extra point kick failed, this one by Benedict’s Rigoberto Tinoco.

After Hickbottom’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Souza made the extra point for the final score.

The game was the brainchild of former NFL quarterbacks Doug Williams and James “Shack” Harris, who both played at Grambling. They wanted improve exposure for top Black college players to pro scouts during a week of activities that included meet-and-greets at a downtown hotel and practices.

Top HBCU players from college football’s FCS level and Division II were invited.

Several prominent NFL players showed their support. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took part in the pre-game coin toss. Saints left tackle Terron Armstead was among the dignitaries on the sideline.

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”