CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Inside a conference room of a Marriot hotel on the southside of Charlotte on Tuesday, Bernard Clark Jr. and two of his players sat quietly and unfazed when the Big South preseason poll was announced.
Picked to finish eighth – and last, since North Alabama was ineligible for the poll – by the league’s head coaches and media members was Clark’s Colonials from Robert Morris University.
Clark took a sip of his water, quarterback glanced at his phone, and defensive back Tavin Harville stared at the projector screen, unmoved. Inside, the three Colonials might’ve been smiling just a bit, because it was a feeling that’s all too familiar.
Let’s rewind back to 2019, the last time Robert Morris played a full football season. In the Northeast Conference’s preseason poll, RMU was tabbed to finish seventh out of eight eligible teams and it had just one player on the preseason All-NEC First Team. Meanwhile, Duquesne was picked to finish first.
And what happened? The Colonials turned in their first winning season since 2010, going 7-5 overall and 6-1 in NEC play, a season highlighted by a 41-21 victory over the Dukes.
So, while much has changed with Robert Morris’ football team, much is still the same too. Heading into their first full season of play in the Big South, the Colonials are just fine with flying under the radar again.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Martin said. “I’m used to seeing us projected last and I’m happy we’re last. That gives us a bigger ceiling to push and we can sneak in and catch teams by surprise.”
Clark, 54, was reminded of his days as a linebacker at Miami where, in the late 1980s, the Hurricanes were consistently one of the most talented football teams in the country. They won a pair of national championships during Clark’s time in Coral Gables, but from 1986 through 1989, the Canes’ never started the season as the preseason No. 1.
“It doesn’t matter where you start,” said Clark, entering his fourth year as RMU’s head coach. “It only matters where you finish.”
The last time Robert Morris took the field was this past spring. The Colonials played once in February and twice in April in a very brief and strange season that was impacted greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic. After that great turnaround campaign in 2019, RMU went 0-3 this past spring.
With vaccines widely available now, RMU is hoping that its 2021 fall football schedule won’t be altered the way it was last year. For unvaccinated members of the team, Clark said they have to be tested three times a week and wear a mask at all times. He hasn’t mandated shots for the program.
“I don’t want to infringe on a young man’s right,” Clark said. “As long as our guys know, there’s consequences to your actions, no matter what they are.”
While playing football in the spring was unorthodox and weird, it did give the Colonials a taste of Big South football. Robert Morris was supposed to join the conference as a football-only associate member this fall, but together a four-game schedule for last spring that featured three Big South members and James Madison of the CAA. RMU’s game against two-time reigning conference champ Monmouth was canceled, but the Colonials still played against Kennesaw State and Charleston Southern.
To Clark and the players, the difference between the NEC and the Big South was apparent.
“If you compare the two, NEC defenses weren’t as good as what we’re going up against now in the Big South,” Martin said. “From last spring, the defenses we faced, I’d put them above the defenses we played against in the NEC. They were all very disciplined too, which is not something you saw in the NEC – you saw mistakes more, guys out of alignment, stuff like that.”
Not only is the talent stronger, but its deeper too. Football teams in the NEC had 45 scholarship players, while the Big South allows 63.
“There’s no doubt that the talent level is a step up,” Clark said.
For Martin, a 6-foot-4 redshirt junior from Monongahela, transitioning into the Big South means he’s had to spend more time in the film room, studying the new defenses he’ll be going up against, understanding that extra second of time he had to get a pass off in the NEC won’t be there.
“The thing we want George to do is kind of take the reins,” Clark said. “George can make all the throws; that’s not the issue. We just want him to grab ahold of the reins and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”
Martin will have to balance that film work and time in the weight room with the pursuit of his master’s degree in cyber investigations and intelligence. Martin is hoping to work for the NSA when he’s done playing football.
The quarterback said he’s also spent this offseason working on getting stronger and faster, building up his leg muscles and helping the new wide receivers understand the playbook.
D’Andre Hicks is a player that Martin is particularly ecstatic about integrating into the offense. A versatile 5-foot-11 weapon, Hicks can play running back or wideout. He was previously at McNeese State and Appalachian State. He showed what he could do this past spring, catching 19 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
“We have a lot of talent on the outside in our receivers,” Martin said. “D’Andre Hicks is probably our No. 1 receiver. He’s extremely talented, extremely fast – fastest guy on the team. So, I’m excited about him and seeing what he can do this year.”
RMU’s offense also returns four starting offensive lineman and running back Alijah Jackson. In 21 games for the Colonials, Jackson has scampered for 1,713 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also caught 19 passes for 214 yards.
Defensively, RMU returns all 11 starters from spring ball, including linebacker Aniello Buzzacco, the Colonials’ lone all-Big South preseason First Team selection. Last spring, he led the Big South with an average of 13 tackles per-game.
Harville, a redshirt senior from Detroit, is also back in the defensive backfield after getting injured in the first game of the spring against James Madison.
“My biggest thing is just staying healthy and being a leader throughout,” Harville said.
The 6-foot-1 defensive back began his college football career at Eastern Michigan, then came to Robert Morris as a walk-on wide receiver. He caught 14 passes and a touchdown in 2017, but moved to safety when Clark took over as head coach in 2018. In the 15 games since making the switch, Harville has 48 tackles, 14 pass breakups, a fumble recovery and three interceptions.
“We can improve in every aspect,” Harville said of the defense. “I feel like our strength is us being together.”
The Colonials open the 2021 FCS season at Dayton on Sept. 4. Less than a month later, they’ll play their Big South opener in Greensboro, North Carolina against another newcomer to the conference, N.C. A&T – an HBCU powerhouse that won three straight MEAC titles and a trio of consecutive Celebration Bowls before coming to the Big South.
Against the Aggies, the Colonials will have an opportunity to prove a whole lot of people wrong.
“I know deep down that we’re going to fight hard in every game we play,” Harville said. “We’re going to always battle. I don’t believe we’ll finish last.”