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Ranking the best individual CIAA football seasons since 2010. See who stood out

With the HBCU football season still months away, we wanted to whet your appetite with an interesting discussion.

This is the beginning of a series where we will catalog the best individual season from each team by conference since 2010.

We begin with the CIAA in a list featuring two players who went on to the NFL and a pair of quarterbacks who could claim to be the best the conference has ever seen.

Here is each CIAA team’s best Individual season since 2010.

Bluefield State Big Blue: LB TJ Gunter, 2023

Bluefield State’s football program is in its infancy, returning to the field in 2021 after a 40-year absence.

Playing their first season in the CIAA since leaving the conference in 1955, the Big Blue showed positive signs, particularly garnering five All-CIAA selections.

There were a couple of good options, including All-CIAA defensive lineman Jaylyn Norris and CIAA Rookie of the Year quarterback Isiah Teal. However, for this entry, we will focus on linebacker TJ Gunter.

Despite missing two games due to injury, Gunter still found a way to be impactful on his way to being selected to the All-CIAA Second Team.

He recorded 46 total tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and five pass breakups (led the team) in eight games.

The All-CIAA linebacker had his best performance of the year against Virginia State, finishing with 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Bowie State Bulldogs: QB Amir Hall, 2017

An argument could be made that Amir Hall is not only the greatest quarterback in CIAA football history but the best quarterback HBCU football has seen since the new millennium.

In Hall’s three years as Bowie State’s primary starting quarterback (four years total), he set CIAA records in career passing yards (11,358) and career passing touchdowns (102).

He became the first player to win the Deacon Jones trophy in back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018, and is the only Division II player to win the award.

Although he led the Bulldogs to two CIAA championship games in 2016 and 2018, winning the title in the latter year, it was in the year he didn’t appear in the conference title game in 2017 that he had his best individual year.

The Bulldogs’ quarterback passed for 3,519 yards, completing 65% of his passes and scoring 41 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

Hall recorded nine 300+ passing yards, including a then-school record of 433 passing yards against St. Augustine’s. He also scored six passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in the game.

Elizabeth City State Vikings: RB Daronte McNeill, 2011

Elizabeth City State has fallen hard in recent years, finishing with a losing record in eight of the last 10 seasons.

This starkly contrasts how they began the decade by notching three straight winning seasons, including appearing in the CIAA championship game in 2011 and 2012.

These years were led by the team’s dynamic running back, Daronte McNeill, who became the all-time leading rusher in his four years with ECSU.

It was in 2011 that McNeill had his best year, claiming the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year Award. He finished with 1,654 rushing yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

He rushed for over 100 yards and scored at least two touchdowns in seven of his 12 games. His peak performance came against Virginia Union, where he finished with 233 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns.

Fayetteville State Broncos: DB Joshua Williams, 2021

 

Joshua Williams
Photo: Fayetteville State Athletics

The first defensive player featured on our list is a player who has translated his collegiate success to a sustained career in the NFL, former Fayetteville State defensive back Joshua Williams.

Williams led a no-fly zone Broncos defense in the 2021 season that only allowed 112.6 passing yards per game and just eight passing touchdowns.

He finished the year with 31 tackles, three interceptions, and six pass breakups. His shutdown performance against Virginia State was a standout, putting up three pass breakups and helping limit the Trojans to 101 passing yards.

With quarterbacks unwilling to throw in his direction, he opened up lanes for fellow DBs to succeed, namely Brandon Barnes-Brown, who recorded five interceptions.

Johnson C. Smith Golden Bulls: DB Carlo Thomas, 2015

Speaking of someone who was a ball hawk, look no further than Johnson C. Smith defensive back Carlo Thomas, who put the CIAA on notice in his first season with the Golden Bulls in 2015.

Thomas put up a Division II-leading 12 interceptions and nine pass breakups with 55 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

He recorded at least two interceptions in four games, including hauling in four against Fayetteville State, returning two for touchdowns.

His impact was not just felt on the defensive side of the ball, however, as he also averaged 22.8 yards on 14 kickoff return attempts and caught an eight-yard receiving touchdown against Winston-Salem State.

Honorable mention was given to linebacker Austin Jacques, who recorded 131 tackles (led the CIAA), 23.5 tackles for loss (second in the CIAA), 4.5 sacks, and two interceptions in the same season.

Lincoln (PA) Lions: QB Isaiah Freeman, 2023

The 2023 season was the best for the Lincoln (PA) Lions since returning to the CIAA in 2008. They finished with a 4-6 overall record, including their first three-game win streak since their comeback.

Quarterback Isaiah Freeman led the charge for the Lions, who became the first Lincoln player to win multiple conference Player of the Year awards.

Freeman passed for 2,319 yards, completing 57% of his passes and accounting for 25 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. He also rushed for 499 yards and scored six touchdowns.

His best performance came against Bluefield State, recording 370 passing yards and scoring five passing touchdowns while adding 45 rushing yards.

Having won the CIAA Offensive Rookie of the Year award the previous year, Freeman parlayed his breakout year and his team’s turnaround season into the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year award.

Livingstone Blue Bears: QB Drew Powell, 2014

Drew Powell put forth a decorated career with the Livingstone Blue Bears that began with winning the CIAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 and ended with winning the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2015.

In 2014, however, Powell had his best individual year, putting his skills as a dual-threat quarterback on full display.

He passed for 2,241 yards, completing 55% of his passes and scoring 26 touchdowns. He added 881 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

Powell scored at least two touchdowns in all ten games, including six total touchdowns (five passing) in the season opener against Millersville.

Shaw Bears: DB Darnell Evans, 2012

If one were to look up the definition of an all-around player in the dictionary, one would find a picture of Shaw defensive back Darnell Evans.

There was nothing Evans couldn’t do on the football field, stuffing the stat sheet in his four years with the Bears.

He ended his career among the top 10 in career interceptions (27), averaging over 18.4 yards per game on 61 total returns on special teams.

Although he was named the CIAA’s Special Teams Player of the Year and led the country in interceptions in 2013, Evans’ best statistical year arguably came in 2012.

During the 2012 season, Evans was a scoring machine, reaching the endzone in every discipline. This included two special teams touchdowns (one punt return and one kickoff return), a receiving touchdown, and returning two of his four interceptions for touchdowns.

His all-around abilities were best shown in a game against Johnson C. Smith, in which he scored the first points on a 35-yard pick-six and then returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.

Saint Augustine’s Falcons: WR Tyron Laughinghouse, 2012

The last time the St. Augustine’s Falcons finished a season with a record above .500 was in 2012 when they posted a 6-4 mark.

Tyron Laughinghouse was a catalyst for the Falcons’ success, serving as an all-purpose receiver for the team.

He finished catching 59 passes for 801 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. He added three kickoff return touchdowns, leading the country averaging 40.1 yards on 14 attempts.

In addition to being named the CIAA Special Teams Player of the Year, Laughinghouse was also selected to the Division II All-American Second Team.

His best game came against Elizabeth City State, scoring on a 95-yard kickoff return and a 77-yard punt return while contributing seven receptions for 48 yards.

Virginia State Trojans: RB Trenton Cannon, 2017

In Virginia State’s most recent CIAA championship season in 2017, Trenton Cannon put forth one of the greatest seasons by a running back since 2010.

Cannon led the nation, averaging 244.2 all-purpose yards per game and scoring 22 total touchdowns, including 17 rushing touchdowns.

He rushed for over 150 yards five times, including two games with over 200 yards rushing, claiming the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year Award.

His most dominant performance came against Lincoln (PA), rushing for a season-high 253 yards and scoring three touchdowns. He also added a 21-yard receiving touchdown and a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Due partly to his incredible 2017 season, Cannon was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, who played five seasons in the league.

Virginia Union Panthers: RB Jada Byers, 2022

 

Jada Byers
Photo: Virginia Union Athletics

A player looking to follow in the footsteps of Cannon is Virginia Union running back Jada Byers, who is looking to re-capture the magic of his 2022 season heading into his final year.

Byers was sensational, setting a new CIAA single-season record rushing for 1,920 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns, adding 18 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

In just the second game of the year against Division II powerhouse Valdosta State, Byers put the world on notice, helping lead his team to a win over the defending national championship runner-ups.

He rushed for 319 yards, averaging 10 yards per carry and scoring four total touchdowns (three rushing). This was the first of 10 straight 100-yard rushing games, eventually named CIAA Offensive Player of the Year.

Winston-Salem State Rams: QB Kameron Smith, 2012

Rounding out the list with arguably the most dominant season from a team in this decade, the 2012 Winston-Salem State Rams.

From 2011 to 2016, Winston-Salem State was nothing short of spectacular, winning four CIAA championships in the six-season stretch.

They were at the peak of their powers in the 2012 season, highlighted by becoming the first HBCU to advance to the Division II Championship game since Central State in 1983.

Quarterback Kameron Smith led the way for the Rams, who led an offense averaging 40 points per game.

Smith threw for 3,312 passing yards, completing 59% of his passes, and scored 43 touchdowns. He helped lead two receivers to 1,000-yard seasons, and three receivers scored at least 12 touchdowns.

The Rams’ quarterback scored at least two touchdowns (passing and rushing) in every regular season game, including a season-high seven passing touchdowns.

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