BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — The Tennessee State University football team was well represented on the All-OVC Preseason Team with eight players named to either the offensive or defensive teams, as announced at OVC Media Day at the Cool Springs Marriott.
The Tigers were selected to finish fourth in the preseason poll that was conducted by league head coaches and communications directors. All voters were unable to select their own order of finish. In the process, TSU picked up one of 14 first-place votes that ultimately saw the defending league champions from UT Martin secure 10 other votes for the top spot in the league. Southeast Missouri (three first-place votes) and Murray State sit between the Volunteer State foes in second and third place, respectively. Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois, and new OVC football member Lindenwood was picked seventh.
Entering his first season at TSU after transferring over former OVC foe Austin Peay, quarterback Draylen Ellis — the 2020-21 OVC Co-Freshman of the Year with Devon Starling — followed his impressive freshman campaign with a solid sophomore outing. He was ranked among the FCS leaders and led the OVC in passing touchdowns (19), passing yards (2,625), yards per completion (13.7), and total offense (268.5 ypg). Ellis became only the third Governors quarterback to record 2,500-plus passing yards in a season. He also set program records for passing yards per game (262.5) and total offense per game (268.5).
Starling followed his Co-Freshman of the Year honors by earning second-team All-OVC honors this year. He was injured in the next-to-last game of the year (which limited him to just 15 carries and 39 yards over the final two games) but still finished the year ranked 45th nationally with 800 total rushing yards and three touchdowns. Starling also caught 37 passes (for 312 yards) which was the most on the team, 5th most among all players in the OVC, and tied for 1st among all running backs. That mark was eighth among all FCS running backs. Against OVC champion UT Martin, he rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown and caught 12 passes for 117 yards; the 12 receptions were the most of any FCS running back in a game this season.
Wide receiver Zaire Thornton was powerful midway through the season with two touchdowns. He made 26 catches and moved the ball 398 yards while averaging 15.30 yards/catch.
Offensive lineman Robert Lacy was instrumental in the Tigers gaining over 1,000 yards on the ground, converting on 27-of-36 red zone attempts and 53 third-down conversions.
TSU secured two both defensive tackle spots with Terray Jones and Tadarrius Patterson.
Jones took down 28 opposition players with 20 solo tackles and was second on the squad with three sacks for a loss of 15 yards.
Patterson finished with 30 tackles (13 solo,17 assists) and had a team-high 3.0 sacks against Murray State on October 30. Patterson had at least one tackle in all but one game for the Tigers in 2021. Patterson finished the season with a team-best 5.5 sacks.
James Green led the TSU defense with 77 total tackles (41 solo and 36 assists). He also had one sack, one interception (at Eastern Illinois), and one forced fumble/ fumble recovery (at Mississippi State). For his efforts at Eastern Illinois, Green was named the OVC Co-Defensive Player of the Week. His INT against the Panthers moved TSU to the two-yard line — a return of 47 yards — which set up the first score of the contest.
Dayron Johnson did it on both sides of the return team. As a kick returner, he averaged 22.5 yards/return and scored a touchdown when he ran 90 yards to the house at Southeast Missouri. Johnson totaled 165 yards on seven attempts in that contest. As a punt returner, Johnson averaged 17.3 yards with his longest return of 47 yards against Grambling. Johnson also recorded three touchdowns as a wide receiver with 311 yards on 22 catches.
Another name to keep an eye on this season is Ohio State transfer K’Vaughn Pope, a 6-foot-1 225-pound linebacker from Dinwiddie, Virginia. Coming out of high school, Pope was ranked ninth among all inside linebackers, according to 247Sports and Rivals. At OSU, Pope played in 31 career games and was a key contributor on special teams. In 2019, Pope had interceptions in back-to-back games against Maryland and Rutgers. In 2020, Pope had two tackles with one for loss (seven yards) and the other a quarterback hurry.
TSU will kick off the 2022 season on September 3, at Eastern Washington University at 3 p.m. CT. The Tigers will play five games in Nashville with the home-opener set for October 1, against Lane College in the John Merritt Classic at Hale Stadium. The remaining four games will be played at Nissan Stadium, including homecoming on October 8 vs. Bethune-Cookman.
Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference Football Team
QB — Draylen Ellis
RB — Devon Starling
WR — Zaire Thornton
OL — Robert Lacey
DT — Terray Jones
DT — Taddarius Patterson
OLB — James Green
KR/PR — Dayron Johnson
Newcomers to Watch
LB — K’Vaughn Pope
OVC Preseason Poll
1. UT Martin (10 first-place votes) 70
2. Southeast Missouri (3) 59
3. Murray State 51
4. Tennessee State (1) 46
5. Tennessee Tech 29
6. Eastern Illinois 20
7. Lindenwood 19
Note: 6 points awarded for a first-place vote, 5 for second, etc. – Individuals could not vote for their own teams.