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How local HBCUs Benedict and Allen are trending upward in SC college football

Allen University coach Teddy Keaton, left, and Benedict College coach Chennis Berry TRACY GLANTZ
The rise of the Benedict College and Allen University football programs hasn’t gone unnoticed. Steven Gaither, founder of the website HBCU Gameday, has been tracking the progress of the two historically black colleges in downtown Columbia and their ascent in Division II football. The two Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rivals, located right next to each other, square off in the regular-season finales for both teams on Saturday at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium. Both have a lot on the line with nationally-ranked Benedict (9-0) looking to complete its second straight unbeaten regular season as it looks to make the Division II playoffs for the second straight year. Allen (7-2) can put an exclamation point on its best season since the school restarted football in 2018.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off one of their biggest victories, defeating Edward Waters, 59-21, to win the AME Classic Trophy. It was Allen’s first win over EW, based in Jacksonville, Florida, since 1949. Allen’s seven victories are the most in a season since 1963. “I think it will be electric,” Gaither told The State this week. “I have seen both up close. … Hopefully it will be a competitive game and it will elevate both programs. Allen deserves to have a great ending to its season. Benedict looks to continue to stay on path for SIAC title and No. 1 seed in region.”
RIGHT COACHES FOR RIGHT TIME Both coaches, Benedict’s Chennis Berry and Allen’s Teddy Keaton, have been complimentary of each other this season and in the days leading up to Saturday’s game. The two coaches have put in their dues in helping their programs become relevant again. Berry was an assistant coach for 26 years before he got the Tigers’ job in 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “Benedict did some right things in their program and gave the right person the keys to the car,” Keaton said earlier this year in an interview with HBCU Gameday. “Coach Berry is a seasoned coach and has been there for a long time. I am happy he was able to get an opportunity to lead a program. He is difficult to beat. We are trying our best to step up to him.”
This is Keaton’s second college head coaching job. He was head coach at Stillman (Ala.) College from 2011-2015 and led the program to four winning seasons in five years before the school decided to end football after restarting it in 1999. Keaton also was an assistant coach at Stillman College when it restarted, so he knows what it takes to build a program from scratch. He had stints in arena football and at Webber (Fla.) University before landing in Columbia to help restart Allen football. The Yellow Jackets won just 10 games in the first four years, including just one victory last season, before their breakthrough this year. “Coach Keaton has done a great job in building his program. And we are over here trying to build this program,” Berry told The State this week. “It should be exciting. They are rocking and rolling and doing some good things. We are doing some good things here. So it should be fun to see the chips fall where they may.
“We both took over programs that were down at the time when we took over. … To see that is a great thing.”
Benedict College center Nyzier Alston-Daniels prepares to snap the ball against Allen University on Saturday in a game played at Westwood High School. Joshua Boucher (photo attached) 
REBUILDING JOBS For years, HBCU football in South Carolina has focused on S.C. State, and rightfully so. The program has had tremendous success over the years, putting more than 40 players in the National Football League and four in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. S.C. State also has had charismatic coaches in College Football Hall of Famer Willie Jeffries and Buddy Pough, who will retire at the end of the season. But the recent success of Benedict and this year Allen has shifted some of the in-state conversation to the two Columbia schools. “You got a guy like Buddy Pough going out and you got two guys like Keaton and Berry that have paid their dues,” Gaither said. “They aren’t spring chickens, but they brought a new attitude and energy to the programs.”
Benedict was just 1-9 five years ago but went on a historic run last season, going 10-0 in the regular season. The Tigers won the SIAC championship and made the playoffs for the first time. They have followed up last year’s historic season with another one, clinching a spot in next week’s SIAC title game in Atlanta. Benedict enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 6 in the Division II Coaches poll and No. 1 in the Region II rankings, which determine postseason teams. The top seven teams in each region make the playoffs, which begin Nov. 18, and the No. 1 team in each region gets a bye. The Tigers are dominant on both sides of the ball. Benedict ranks No. 1 in Division II in points allowed (8.2) per game. The defense features defensive end Loobert Denelus, a finalist for the Campbell Award that is given annually to a player for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership. He is one of 16 finalists, but only two are from Division II. Offensively, Benedict lost all-conference quarterback Eric Phoenix, who transferred to FCS Murray State. The Tigers replaced Phoenix with Shorter College transfer Aeneas Dennis, who has thrown for 2,170 yards and 15 TDs. The Tigers offense is No. 13 in Division II in points per game (40.9).
“We are building things the right way,” Berry said. “There is a lot of favor on this program. We aren’t done yet. We have a lot of unfinished business. We are taking it one day at a time.” With the Benedict’s success the past two seasons, Berry’s name might come up for coaching openings, including the one at S.C. State. “My focus is going 1-0 each day at Benedict,” Berry said. “I am focusing on this team, this program, this college. It has been really good to me.”
Allen’s rebuilding process has been a little harder and different. The school restarted the program in 2018. Before that, it had only played football for just three years since 1968. Allen started out as an NAIA school before moving to Division II. There were limitations and struggles with the program as far as facilities. They had no on-campus practice facility until this year — now they have a 54-yard artificial turf field with one goal post. That’s an improvement from having to get up early in the morning to bus to a University of South Carolina intramural field for practice.
The Yellow Jackets play their home games 20 minutes away from campus at Westwood High School in Blythewood, but that will soon change. The college recently struck a deal with Richland County to purchase land on Cushman Drive, located just off of Two Notch Road, to build a permanent home football stadium. Plans are for the stadium to be around 5,000 to 7,000 seats. Keaton has said he hopes it’s ready in time for next season. “Coach Keaton, what he has been able to do over with the Allen program is basically starting it from scratch,” Gaither said. “It has been amazing. Not a lot of people are built for something like that. It takes a special kind of guy to come in and do something like that.” Keaton told HBCU Gameday that recruiting was tough early on within the state of South Carolina. Because of that, he had to bring in a lot of out-of-state players and used his contacts in other states from other jobs.
Now, Keaton is able to sign in-state players along with out-of-state and transfers. He also put together a veteran coaching staff, which includes four former Division II coaches. The brand of football Allen is selling also is appealing. The Yellow Jackets have one of the best offenses in Division II. Quarterback David Wright III is third in Division II in passing yards per game (349.9), and Allen is eighth in D2 in yards per game (466.5). “Now, we are building a culture of winning and showing we can play,” Keaton told HBCU Gameday. “… Every year our student-athletes have gotten better. Our transition from NAIA to Division II has helped that. I’m very happy to be a part of it but I am a small part of what happens here. “I didn’t do it myself. I had a president that was integral. Alumni and athletic director that are involved with it. I think an organization can only be successful if you got clear buy-in from administration, coaches. They have to believe in what you are doing.” BENEDICT VS ALLEN FOOTBALL GAME Who: Allen University at Benedict College When: Saturday, 2 p.m. Where: Charlie W. Johnson Stadium TV/Stream: Black College Sports Network Tickets: $25 and can be purchased at

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