The notoriety of Florida A&M football under head coach Willie Simmons continued to surge in 2021.
FAMU went 9-3 with a berth in the FCS playoffs. This included ending the nine-year drought with a rout over arch-rival Bethune-Cookman in the Florida Classic.
That triumph sent FAMU as high as No. 22 in the national rankings.
The Rattlers also made a huge splash in their debut season in the SWAC by finishing at 7-1.
These marks were achieved coming off the heels of not playing any games in 2020. FAMU opted out due to safety and economic reasons associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
"I'm proud of these young men. With the adversity they had to overcome this year and to produce like they did was an admirable achievement. I'm honored to be the leader of a great group of young men," FAMU head coach Willie Simmons said.
"We didn't have the ending we wanted. But with this dream season, when you look back, the history books will say it was one of the best football teams that came through this program."
FAMU featured several internal changes in 2021.
Revisions to the coaching staff included adding Ryan Stanchek to serve as co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, promoting Ryan Smith and Brandon Sharp as co-defensive coordinators along with hiring Milton Patterson as the defensive line coach and Shane Tucker to be the running backs coach.
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This squad drastically improved in all these positions.
Across the board, several Rattlers attained recognition for their top-tier stats. FAMU passed its final exams with flying colors. As a team, the Rattlers are graded with an A.
Listed below is the report card with marks for each position.
After Simmons, Rasean McKay was the most scrutinized person in the program.
After spending two years as a backup, McKay took over as the starter this fall.
He underwent his share of learning curves. McKay was pulled in the opener versus Jackson State. He then sat out the first half of the following game against Fort Valley State.
The Miami transplant and local grad of Godby High School upgraded his game from the opening weekend through the finale in the playoffs.
His signature moment was against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
McKay threw for a career-high five touchdowns on 22 of 31 for 383 yards.
His year-end totals are 211 of 364, 2,457 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions.
True freshman Junior Muratovic almost rallied FAMU to a win coming off the bench in the Orange Blossom Classic versus Jackson State.
He was the starter for the Fort Valley State game. However, he was replaced after halftime.
His stats for the season are 20 of 35, 173 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Offensive Line - A
No other group advanced higher from September to November than the offensive line.
The unit went from having McKay being pressured on nearly every attempt in the season opener to closing the year with pristine pass coverage.
FAMU gave up three sacks in the first game of the year. It finished 2021 with 15.
Then, there is the production in run blocking. The line's forward momentum allowed the running backs to have career highs in yardage.
Keenan Forbes earned First-Team All-SWAC honors. Jay Jackson-Williams was named Second-Team All-SWAC.
"To see us get better each week, it's an honor and testament to coach Stanchek. It means a lot when you have a coach that believes in you," Jackson-Williams said.
"I'm happy I made All-SWAC. This is big. I want to play on Sundays, so to be honored in a conference like the SWAC means a lot."
Running Backs - A
FAMU's backfield was an unincorporated extension of Jacksonville.
Bishop Bonnett, Terrell Jennings and Jaylen McCloud all hail from the city.
This triple play combined for 1,746 of FAMU's 1,889 rushing yards.
Bonnett - a First-Team All-SWAC selection - led the conference with 972 yards. This was his final dance with the program.
"It's nice to be recognized as All-SWAC for my talent. This year was better than I expected," Bonnett said.
"We have so much talent in our running backs room. Everything was so amazing. I know I'll forever be remembered here."
Wide Receivers - B
The wide receivers garnered the most attention during the preseason.
However, due to an assortment of injuries and playing with a first-year starting quarterback, the numbers were significantly lower from 2019.
Collectively, the receivers caught 208 passes while scoring 17 touchdowns.
Xavier Smith led FAMU with 64 receptions and 713 yards.
Jah’Marae Sheread was the breakout star of the wide receivers.
The transfer from Texas State tallied 55 catches for 622 yards with a team-high nine touchdowns in his inaugural season on campus.
Sheread a had a streak of five straight games of scoring a touchdown
Tight Ends - B
FAMU’s tight ends rarely were involved in the passing game. But when their number was called, they answered the phone.
Kamari Young only had seven receptions. However, the Godby High alum made the most with those grabs, hauling in four touchdowns.
His 49-yard score versus Alabama State was the second-longest for the Rattlers this fall.
Nick Dixon, another Godby grad, finished the year with six receptions and a touchdown.
Both players also made key contributions with their blocking.
Defensive Line - A+
The anchors of the Dark Cloud Defense were the space fillers on the line.
Savion Williams, Gentle Hunt and Deonte Williams thrived in 2021. They were effective in stopping the run and wrapping up quarterbacks.
Williams came to the Rattlers in January. He last played at Tennessee. He racked up 29 tackles with 6.5 sacks en route to being named Second-Team All-SWAC.
Hunt was originally part of the signing class of 2020. His totals for the year were 27 tackles and five sacks. He also donned the "touchdown chain" after scooping up a fumble recovery for 49 yards against B-CU.
Deonte was another transfer with the Rattlers. He previously played at Florida State.
His play with 12 tackles and four sacks earned him a spot as Second-Team All-SWAC.
Isaiah Land is the 2021 SWAC Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist on the Buck Buchanan watch list.
This versatile athlete is a hybrid of defensive end/linebacker. He led the nation with 19 sacks. This figure is one shy of tying the school's single-season mark.
Land also broke a FAMU record for the most sacks in one game. He had five in the win over South Carolina State.
Linebackers - A
Derrick Mayweather and Nadarius Fagan were a powerful one-two punch. Their names appear in nearly every defensive statistical category for FAMU.
Fagan had the most balanced production of all the linebackers. He had 43 tackles, one interception and two fumble recoveries. One of his pick-ups was returned 45 yards for a touchdown.
Demetrius Powell showed signs of things to come. He had 13 tackles while playing in nine of 12 games.
Secondary - A+
Led by First-Team All-SWAC safety Markquese Bell, FAMU's secondary rated as one of the best groups in the country.
Bell had a team-high 95 tackles. His stat line also reads with five forced fumbles, two sacks and an interception. He's also on the final watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award.
Fellow safety Antwan Collier joined the Rattlers in mid-August. Once he got into football shape, he made an immediate impact.
The Miami native posted 48 tackles, eight pass break-ups with one interception and forced fumble.
Adding to the flurry of turnovers were BJ Bohler and Javan Morgan.
Bohler led FAMU and tied for 30tn in the nation with four interceptions. He was named MVP of the Florida Classic after getting a pick, a forced fumble and a recovery.
Morgan is another Tallahassee product at FAMU. The Florida High alum snatched three interceptions.
Special Teams - B
Jose Romo-Martinez filled in admirably for All-American punter Chris Faddoul after he went down with a season-ending knee injury against South Florida.
He worked kicking extra points and field goals in addition to sending off booming punts.
For the year, Romo-Martinez had an average of 43.3 yards per punt.
Sheread was a viable asset as a punt returner.
The Rattlers struggled in their coverage of kickoffs and punts.
Follow FAMU beat writer Rory Sharrock on Twitter @married2game1.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: FAMU final report card: Rattlers earn honor roll status with high marks across the field in 2021