If you're a Florida A&M football fan, you have to be excited about your Rattlers. FAMU (4-0) is one of the hottest teams in black college football. Actually, make that in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Rattlers just cracked The Sports Network's Top 25 FCS poll this past week. Ranked No. 24, this is the school's first appearance in the poll since 2001, when the Rattlers were ranked as high as ninth.
FAMU's 4-0 start is its best since 1997, and the Rattlers have been able to get through September with an unblemished record and a lot of national exposure. Two players have garnered major attention: quarterback Curtis Pulley and the team's record-breaking punt and kickoff returner, LeRoy Vann.
HBCU football on ESPNU
Pulley has completed 64 of 96 passes for 846 yards, including seven touchdowns and one interception. The candidate for the Walter Payton Award (given to the best offensive player in FCS) has 47 carries for 291 yards and one rushing touchdown. He has amassed 1,137 yards of total offense.
Pulley is one of the top signal-callers in the nation.
He connected on 24 of 34 passes for a career-best 315 yards and two touchdowns in the Rattlers' 31-12 victory over Tennessee State in the Atlanta Classic. He also was named the Classic's most valuable player, the second time he received that honor.
"He's showing that he is a complete quarterback," Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor said. "He can certainly run the football. He's a pretty accurate passer. He's learning to take advantage of what the defense gives him.
"More importantly, off the field he's becoming a real leader. He's one of those guys who will go to the [offensive] coordinator. You would think the quarterback would want to throw the football. He's always advising or suggesting things that are not always passes. So again, we just feel good that he is moving forward. He's enjoying the opportunity."
Last season, Pulley threw for 1,382 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Although he did a nice job, he's on pace to eclipse those numbers with ease. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior has taken his game to another level.
"He put the work in, and not just in the weight room," Taylor said. "He's a film watcher. He's never late for practice. He puts the work in because he sees this as a good opportunity for him. The other thing, the pro scouts are looking at him. At first, they were probably saying 'athlete.' Now, they're saying he might get some other chances, too. It comes from him having a good work ethic."
Vann has put in a lot of work, too. The quick-footed return specialist has made quite a name for himself. The 5-8, 185-pound senior put on a terrific performance against Howard when he ran two punts back for touchdowns. He squirted through the Bison's special-teams coverage for 40-yard and 66-yard touchdowns. He finished the contest with an incredible 197 all-purpose yards.
In Week 2 against Winston-Salem State, he had a 95-yard punt return for a score and later took a punt 80 yards for a touchdown.
Vann has 10 kick returns for touchdowns (seven punts, three kickoffs) in his career. He is tied with Northern Iowa's Kenny Shedd for the FCS career mark in punt-return touchdowns with seven.
Last season, Vann finished with 1,121 kickoff-return yards on 38 returns with three touchdowns. He compiled 462 punt-return yards on 28 attempts for three scores.
Taylor feels Vann gives the Rattlers some great special-teams exploits. But his talents aren't relegated to just returning kickoffs and punts. Vann also plays defensive back.
"You get what you emphasize," Taylor said. "We start every practice with some form of special teams. We want them to understand the importance of special teams. Then, we do have a guy like Vann. He's fearless. He's got an aggressive personality. So, he has been able to funnel that. He even enjoys that.
"But what some people don't recognize is he's one of our better defensive players. He does a lot for our defense. We bring him in a lot of times on our nickel packages."
So far, this has been a big year for the Rattlers family. Aside from the team's playing well, in July, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted wide receiver Bob Hayes, who had played for legendary Florida A&M head coach Jake Gaither.
In spite of all the good fortunes, the Rattlers have a couple of tough weeks coming up. They will face No. 17 Miami on Oct. 10 at Miami's Land Shark Stadium. Then they will travel to Orangeburg, S.C., on Oct. 17 for a monster game with South Carolina State (3-0), which is ranked No. 1 in the Sheridan Broadcasting Network, Heritage Sports Radio Network and the Boxtorow.Com/BASN HBCU polls.
Florida A&M will try to enjoy its bye week and reflect on all the great things before it starts looking down the road.
• Alcorn State quarterback Tim Buckley was named the SWAC Offensive Player of the Week. Buckley completed 25 of 40 passes for 408 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in the Braves' 48-42 loss to Southern. He also rushed 18 times for 52 yards and one touchdown.
• Southern defensive end Steven Williams was selected as the SWAC Defensive Player of the Week. Williams made five tackles and 1½ sacks in the Jaguars' victory over Alcorn State.
• Norfolk State wide receiver Chris Bell was named the MEAC Offensive Player of the Week. Bell recorded career highs in receptions and yards receiving in the Spartans' win over Bethune-Cookman. He had the first 100-yard receiving game for the Spartans since 2007 and notched a MEAC season-high 213 yards on nine catches, including two touchdowns.
• Howard defensive end Will Croner and Morgan State linebacker George Howard were chosen as co-Defensive Players of the Week in the MEAC. Croner had six tackles, three solo, with 1½ tackles for a loss of 12 yards. He also had two sacks and intercepted one pass. Howard collected a career-high 18 tackles, nine solo, with 1½ for a loss of 2 yards. He also forced one fumble.
• Mississippi Valley State, off its first win in SWAC play, will celebrate homecoming against Texas College.
• Southern and Jackson State renew their rivalry in Jackson in what will be a home game for Southern. The Jaguars are coming a high-scoring conference opening win over Alcorn, while JSU is coming off an open date.
• A big Western Division showdown is set for Dallas' Cotton Bowl as defending SWAC HBCU national champion Grambling State opens league play against Prairie View A&M in the State Fair Classic. The Tigers are coming off a loss to Oklahoma State from the Big 12 Conference. This will be Prairie View's first game since Sept. 12.
• South Carolina State will face South Carolina in a nonconference battle. Buddy Pough will face Steve Spurrier at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
• Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone, two Division II HBCUs, will clash in the inaugural Commemorative Classic. The classic will acknowledge, promote and celebrate the contributions of these two schools and recognize the historical and cultural significance of the first black college football game played in America in 1892. The kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium in Salisbury, N.C.
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.