Caylin Newton
Caylin Newton Credit: Courtesy Howard Athletic Department

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Howard University’s football team is off to a 0-2 start this season with losses to Ohio University and Kent State. It’d be easy to dismiss the Bison as a struggling team not worth your time. But think again.

The program is coming off a 7-4 season under former University of Virginia head coach Mike London, which included a victory over UNLV that is considered one of the most shocking upsets in college football history. And the team’s offense is led by a dual-threat quarterback with a last name that most football fans would recognize: Caylin Newton, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Howard opened the season on the road, losing, 38-32, to an Ohio team that was named the preseason favorite to win its conference. Despite that loss, London sees the team’s potential.

“To have that kind of start was promising, especially with so many young guys playing,” he tells City Paper.

In that game, Newton, a sophomore, threw for 439 yards and three touchdowns while junior wide receiver Jequez Ezzard set a school record with 223 receiving yards.

The following week’s matchup was not as competitive, with the Bison falling to a Kent State team, 54-14, that was not expected to be as competitive as Ohio.

Playing once again on the road, Howard didn’t score in the first half, as Newton finished with just 159 passing yards and 41 rushing yards, but still managed two touchdowns. The defense failed to contain Kent State’s new-look attack, allowing 511 yards of total offense.

“We got outplayed and we could not stop them,” London said after the game. “We could not convert. They were the best team today and it showed.”

Both Ohio and Kent State play in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Howard plays in the Football Championship Subdivision. Not only do FBS schools recruit better players and have more resources for practice facilities, nutrition programs, and support staff, but they’re allowed to have 85 athletes on scholarship compared to 63 for FCS programs.

While the back-to-back away games were certainly tough on the young Bison team, the schedule will only prepare the players for the rest of the season, where they’ll be on a more level playing field against other FCS opponents.

“The four FBS teams we’ve played,” London says, referring to the Bison’s games last year against UNLV and Kent State, ”[offered us] the ability to get better, (get) more experience, evaluate who you are, what you are… and that has been critical for us.”

Mike London Credit: Courtesy Howard Athletic Department

London spent six years at the University of Virginia and won Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year honors in his second season before resigning from his post in Charlottesville after four straight losing campaigns.

He spent one year as Maryland’s defensive line coach before taking the Howard job. Hardly a power in the FCS Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the Bison had just one winning season from 2005 to 2016. But London’s first year was a success, in large part thanks to a high-flying offense led by a 5-foot-11 quarterback from Atlanta.

Newton won the starting job as a true freshman, falling just shy of passing for 2,500 yards and rushing 1,000 yards. He finished the season with third team All-American and MEAC Rookie of the Year honors.

Before Howard, some coaches believed he was too small to be a quarterback. They wanted him to switch positions in college.

“I think about it all the time,” Newton said in an interview before the season. “They didn’t think I could play [quarterback]. Every time out I try to show them.”

Howard is succeeding despite its challenges. Football programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have struggled through the desegregation of college football across the 1970s and the split of Division 1 into Division 1-A and 1-AA (now FBS and FCS) in 1978.

Because they were low on funding and connections, HBCUs ended up in the FCS bucket. Meanwhile, other schools that had money and a strong brand but little or no football history got in on the gold rush: since 1987, 28 schools joined FBS. The split resulted in a great divide between the two levels, with the FBS becoming a multi-billion dollar business.

The close to the gap, FCS schools often schedule games against FBS teams to make money. Ohio paid Howard $350,000, whileKent State paid $290,000 each for a game last year and this year’s contest. Though they often take a beating on the field, FCS programs need these arrangements to survive.

Today, some HBCUs are finding success. Howard’s MEAC competitor and perennial favorite North Carolina A&T defeated an FBS team for the third straight year.

The Bison’s game against MEAC opponent Savannah State in D.C., originally scheduled for Saturday, has been rescheduled with a date to be determined due to the approaching Hurricane Florence. Their next game will be against Bethune-Cookman, another MEAC school, on Sept. 22 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“Now that it’s apples to apples,” London says, “this should be fun.”

Make no mistake, despite the slow start, something special is happening at Howard. Just sit back and watch.