The Florida A&M football team is facing adversity as it heads into the fourth game of the season Saturday against Ohio State in Columbus. In addition to playing the team’s only game of the season against a Football Bowl Subdivision team some players are dealing with the loss of a former teammate.
Jonathan Ferrell, who played safety for Florida A&M in 2009 and 2010, was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a police officer Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., according to multiple reports.
The officer, Randall Kerrick, was charged with voluntary manslaughter and released on $50,000 bond, according to Mecklenburg County arrest records.
A vigil, which members of the team and coaching staff attended, was held in Ferrell’s honor Thursday night. Florida A&M coach Earl Holmes said the team plans to play in his honor Saturday.
Bobby Jackson, a senior linebacker for the Rattlers, was a teammate of Ferrell’s in 2010. Jackson said Ferrell’s death will give the team extra motivation to play hard against the Buckeyes Saturday.
“We (are) just going to use (Ferrell’s death) to give us another reason why we play the game,” Jackson said. “We (are) going to play through him, we (are) going to play for him. He was a good guy when he was here, he was a good player, he was a good friend.”
Holmes, who is in his first year as head coach, recruited Ferrell in 2009 while he was linebackers coach at FAMU. Holmes said he was “stunned” when he heard about Ferrell’s death.
“This tragedy that has happened just lets you know exactly how precious life really is,” Holmes told The Lantern.
The start of Holmes’ head coaching career has not been without challenges. Offensive coordinator Quinn Gray and defensive coordinator Levon Kirkland have both missed time this season due to personal reasons, Holmes said, but overcoming the death of one of his former players might be the toughest challenge yet.
“Football is an emotional game,” Holmes said. “You know you’re going to have your ups and downs, and it’s sudden change again. We’ve been through (our offensive coordinator) being out and (defensive coordinator) being out and now here’s death within the family. My guys have really been through a lot, and I share it with them.”
Looking forward to Saturday’s game with the undefeated, No. 4-ranked Buckeyes, Holmes said he wants his players to persevere through their emotions and play with passion.
“I want them to show, have heart, and what I mean by heart, just having passion,” Holmes said. “To persevere through all this adversity and all that we’re going through. Compete, play, have fun playing. And regardless of the obstacle, regardless of what’s in front of you, embrace it. Hit it head-on and find out what you’re really made of.”
The Rattlers lost their last two games, both at home, to Tennessee State and Samford. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, are on a 15-game winning streak dating back to the start of the 2012 season, and have outscored their first three opponents this season by a total of 134-61.
Florida A&M may be underdogs, but Holmes said he wants his team to play “the way they’ve been coached to play.”
“I’m not sitting up there saying, ‘Shock the world’… but if ‘Shock the world’ (means) that we play around the football the way they’ve been coached to play, then that’s what it is,” Holmes said. “It’s not about who we play … I’m concerned with us playing the way we need to play.”
Holmes said it is key for his team to win one-on-one battles, gang-tackle on defense, play well on special teams and avoid the turning the ball over on offense.
“On offense, we have to take care of the ball, we can’t afford to turn the ball over,” Holmes said. “They (OSU) are an explosive team, so we can’t turn the ball over. You can’t beat yourself, that’s the first thing. Second thing is if you get a chance to make some plays, you got to make the play. Lastly, you got to play fast.”
Despite OSU’s speed, Jackson said he believes Florida A&M has enough speed in the secondary and at linebacker to match up with them.
“The one thing to slow (OSU) down is to hit them,” Jackson said. “(We’ve) got a lot of the speed guys on our defense, too, so (we’re) going to challenge, match speed with speed, to see what we can do.”
In their preparations for the Buckeyes, Florida A&M has to prepare for two different quarterbacks who could start Saturday.
OSU junior quarterback Braxton Miller missed Saturday’s game at California after suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee Sept. 7, and redshirt-senior Kenny Guiton led the Buckeyes to a victory in Miller’s place. OSU coach Urban Meyer told 97.1 The Fan Thursday that Miller is considered a game-time decision to play Saturday.
Jackson said the quarterback uncertainty will not affect the Rattlers’ preparation.
“Both quarterbacks are similar,” Jackson said. “Both can throw, both can run it, both prefer to run the ball, so it’s like we preparing for the same quarterback.”
Holmes agreed with his linebacker’s assessment.
“They’re both two-dimensional, they can throw it as well as they can run it,” Holmes said. “Miller has more experience, but at the same time, the backup quarterback (Guiton) could be starting anywhere in the country. You got to go out and play and prepare for both, but they both bring the same type of game, so you got to pick your poison.”
Redshirt-senior safety C.J. Barnett said he is not underestimating Florida A&M, and said it is a talented and athletic team.
“They have some athletes that could come here and play,” Barnett said. “We’ll have our hands full. We got to treat every opponent with respect and they could come in and beat us if we’re not on our games.”
The Rattlers offense is led by junior quarterback Damien Fleming. Fleming has struggled through the first three games of this season, completing 48.4 percent of his passes for 383 yards with five interceptions and two touchdowns. In 2012, however, Fleming completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 2,157 yards and 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions on the season.
“He can toss the ball around,” Barnett said of the Rattler signal caller. “(He) has great athleticism, he’s going to be a guy we’re going to have to contain, keep an eye on.”
In addition to Fleming, the second-team all-conference quarterback in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season, Meyer said the Rattlers have “two receivers with excellent speed.” Florida A&M’s two leading receivers, Lenworth Lennon and Dewayne Harvey, have combined for 21 receptions and 306 yards this season.
On the other side of the ball, Meyer said the Buckeyes offense must be prepared for the Rattlers defense to bring blitzes on every play.
“You’ll look silly if you’re not protecting the quarterback or protecting the front side of the run game,” Meyer said Tuesday.
Meyer has dealt with the emotions Holmes and Florida A&M may be facing. During his tenure as Florida coach, Meyer dealt with the loss of Michael Guilford, a player on the team who was killed in a motorcycle accident in October 2007.
“It’s real,” Meyer said. “Your prayers and thoughts are with that team because it is, it’s not exactly a family, but the way football coaches and players and teams get along … it is like a family.”
Kickoff between the Buckeyes (3-0) and Florida A&M (1-2) is scheduled for noon Saturday.