The football team of the historically black college — stuck in the vast shadows of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa — hadn’t had much success in the three years before Purnell’s arrival. The Tigers finished at or near the bottom of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings in each of those years.
But when Stillman alumnus Teddy Keaton took over the program in 2011, it was the perfect opportunity for Purnell to come in and show what he could do.
That’s exactly what he’s done.
“I had to compete and earn my job as a freshman,” Purnell said. “There wasn’t a spot guaranteed to anybody, and we all had to work to start and get playing time.”
As a true freshman, Purnell beat out two other players for the quarterback position, and he led Stillman to a 7-4 record — the Tigers’ first winning season since 2007 — and a tie for first with Miles in the SIAC West Division with a 5-2 conference mark.
Purnell completed the season 78-for-161 for 970 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was also the Tigers’ leading rusher with 112 carries for 563 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I was a little surprised by how well I played last season, but I know I can be better,” Purnell said. “I didn’t know what to expect at this level coming in, but, as the season progressed, it was like doing what I had been doing growing up and I just kept improving.”
It didn’t seem like Purnell needed much more grooming initially. In his first game as a starter, he carried the ball 14 times for 130 yards and a touchdown and went 5-of-6 passing for 41 yards in a 16-13 victory over Shaw.
“I was so excited to play that first game,” Purnell said. “I just wanted to get the win and start the season with a bang.”
Purnell continued to play well throughout the season, leading the Tigers to a 5-1 mark by mid-October. In a 41-0 victory over Benedict, Purnell was 7-of-16 for 156 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. He also ran 10 times for 65 yards and a score.
Much like his time at McEachern, Purnell’s dual-threat ability has been an asset as he continues to grow into his role as Stillman’s starting quarterback.
“My system in high school was like the Oregon Ducks. We got the ball out quickly and let guys make plays.” Purnell said. “Players are much faster at this level. I have to respond like a typical quarterback and read defenses and look off safeties.
“In high school, I knew where guys were going to be because I had been around them for so long. Here, I’ve had to learn how to adjust to the speed of the game. They don’t baby you here like they do in high school. You really have to want to perfect your craft to get better.”
To that end, Purnell dedicates some of his time to studying film of opponents, himself and NFL players — like Michael Vick — who also known for scrambling out of the pocket.
“I think pass first and run second,” Purnell said. “Watching film helps me get an idea of when to run and when to throw — when to sit in the pocket long enough to read defenses and take a hit before I throw. Just knowing when to get rid of the ball or run has been the biggest improvement in my game since high school.”
At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds — he’s grown 2 inches since high school — Purnell didn’t get a lot of attention from bigger colleges coming out of high school. However, his abilities have helped him excel as a player at Stillman.
“I’m not at all surprised by Dondre’s success,” McEachern coach Kyle Hockman said. “He’s a quick learner, and all he needed was the opportunity. I thought it would be at a bigger school because he had so much success in our program, but, at 5-8, he didn’t get those looks. But he’s making the most of his opportunity now.”
Purnell is ready for his sophomore season at Stillman. A preseason all-SIAC second-team selection at quarterback, his personal goals include being a first-team Division II all-American and the player of the year for the conference, but his team goals mean more to him than anything.
“I want us to get a ring,” he said. “Not just a SAIC ring, but a Division II national championship ring. I want us to get better each practice and every game and get lots of wins. It will take dedication and hard work, but I know we can do it.
“This is a blessing to play college football. A lot of guys don’t get this opportunity. I want to make my mom and dad proud, and I’ll do what I have to do on and off the field to make that happen.”