It’s been a long time since the Shaw University football team has won a season-opening game – nine years, to be exact.
Making sure that streak doesn’t hit 10 won’t be an easy task as the Bears face SIAC champion and 17th-ranked Benedict College Saturday in the Carolinas Football Classic, but head coach Adrian Jones likes that his team will be tested right out of the gate.
“I’m a firm believer that if you play talent like that, then you’re going to know who you are,” Jones said of a five-game stretch that features Benedict and CIAA rivals Virginia Union (ranked 18th nationally in Division II), Bowie State, Elizabeth City State, and Virginia State. “Everybody on the first half of our schedule has gotten better, and we haven’t even talked about the [CIAA] Southern Division yet. We have to play great football.”
Great football was just out of the Bears’ reach in 2022, thanks to a M.A.S.H. unit of injuries that contributed to a 4-6 record. Again, Shaw was picked fourth overall in 2023’s CIAA preseason poll and selected to be runners-up to defending Southern Division and conference champion Fayetteville State.
The Bears return talent on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, where running back Sidney Gibbs is 345 yards away from becoming Shaw’s all-time leading rusher and junior receiver Ah’Shaan Belcher, who tied for the team lead in receptions (20) and led in total yards (380) despite having foot problems at different points of the season in 2022.
“You can’t control injuries; that’s just part of football,” Belcher said. “I’ve just been doing better with going to the training room and getting treatment when I need it.”
To Belcher’s point, Jones has made it his business to stock the roster with depth at various positions to ensure Shaw’s best team will always be on the field.
“We’ll have to create turnovers, protect the ball, run the ball well, and our special teams have to be special,” he said. “If we can do those things, we’ll be able to get over the hump.”
Belcher believes this opener will be a good chance for him and his teammates to make a statement.
“We’re looking forward to playing Benedict. We know they went undefeated last year,” he said. “We always want to go into another team’s stadium and win.”
The team will be more motivated as they have dedicated their season to former Shaw AD Alonza Carter, who passed away earlier this month. Jones credits Dr. Carter for his development as a football coach.
“Dr. Carter was like a second father to me,” he says. “That first year when we had our bumps and bruises, he’d come up to me after every game and say, ‘Good Job.’ He was always very positive, and that meant a lot to me as a young coach.”
The Carolinas Football Classic will be streamed on HBCUGo starting Saturday at 6 pm Eastern time.