2018 Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 1

By Craig R. Turner
Published: August 14, 2018

We are now less than two weeks away from the start of the 2018 college football season and North Carolina A&T has once again been earmarked as the team that every one is chasing, and realistically who could disagree with that prognostication?

The Aggies return the MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, 15 starters, most all of their essential backups (48 lettermen) along with eight All-MEAC performers. Gone is legendary coach Rod Broadway who retired after his final Aggie squad went a magical 12-0 earning him his fourth HBCU National Championship, the second in three years, and a third MEAC title in four years at A&T. That remarkable run is officially over. It’s in the books. It’s now all history.

New head coach Sam Washington takes over as the face of A&T football after serving as Broadway’s right hand for 11 years. Now he has taken over a program that is well established and moving rapidly up the FCS status ladder and into the national limelight.

The Aggies will go knocking at the door of one of the FCS’s elites when they take on Jacksonville State in Montgomery, AL. a week from this coming Saturday. Washington has said on more than one occasion by playing this game, A&T can gauge exactly where it is as a program in terms of competing for the ultimate goal of a FCS national championship.

In this three part series over next week or so, we will try to break down the 2018 squad position-by-position so that our readers will have a early informative guide for the upcoming season. Today in Part 1, we look at the Aggie offense as the Aggies will try to replace three first team all-conference linemen along with a big play tight end behind a new offensive coordinator and still maintain their high scoring ways of a year ago.

Offensive Line

First things first. Last year’s quarterback coach Chris Barnette steps into the role of offensive coordinator as Chip Hester has moved on to take over as the head football coach at Division II startup Barton College. Barnette has a fairly extensive and highly successful track record as the offensive coordinator at D-III Guilford College before coming to A&T three years ago to mentor the quarterbacks with his prize pupil being senior All-America Lamar Raynard.

Success in football is usually determined by the play between the tackles. Whoever controls the point of attack will inevitably win most football games. A&T lost four starters along the offensive line and none bigger than two time All-America and third round Oakland Raider draft pick Brandon Parker.

That senior group was responsible for over 5,100 yards of total offense and 35 points per game which was easily tops in the conference a year ago. Conventional wisdom would suggest that would be a major sore spot heading out of camp. However, because of the use of player heavy rotation last season, the Aggies will once again, believe it or not, put another fairly experienced starting unit on the field in 2018.

Returning as the lone starter from a year ago, All-MEAC tackle Marcus Pettiford (6-4, 293, R-Jr.) bulked up in the off season and has moved from the right side to the all important left tackle position that was occupied by Parker for four straight years. Pettiford was an all conference pick back in 2015 as a true freshman before red shirting in 2016. Even though he is just a junior, Pettiford is expected to be the leader and key catalyst of this new unit.

Beside him will be veteran Micah Shaw (6-1, 265, Sr.) who steps into a starting role at left guard after being a prime backup the last two years. Tim Williams (6-4, 300, Fr.), Delvin Milton (6-5, 310, R-So.), Tyshawn Miller (6-2, 270, R-Fr.), and Bilal Ali (6-3, 270, So.) should provide adequate depth behind the starters.

The center position is held down senior Malik Johnson (6-3, 310), who has also doubled quite a bit at offensive guard along with Dacquari Wilson (6-3, 285, R-Fr.), a promising former AP All-State center from Dudley High School here in Greensboro.

The right side tackle will be manned by red shirt freshman Dontae Keys (6-4, 300), a very impressive young lineman from Jack Britt HS in Fayetteville, NC. Immediately in back of him will be former Kansas State product and grad student transfer Breontae Matthews (6-5, 320, Gr.).

Right guard belongs to big burly senior Marcquel Hardy (6-4, 305) who started two games in 2017. Expect Sylvester Smith (6-0, 283, Jr.), Arlander Cherry (6-1, 280, Jr.), Trajan Douhit (6-4, 320, So.) and perhaps highly touted true freshman Lawrence Lagrone (6-3, 330) to be in the rotation as well.

While not as physically imposing as last year’s contingent, this 2018 unit should be much quicker and more athletic. There are a couple important aspects to consider with this new offensive line.

Even though these four new starters may not be familiar household names with most fans, three of them played significant roles in the regular rotation on an undefeated 2017 squad.

The other aspect is even more crucial. It is that this group has over 300 plus snaps of game experience already under their belts between them to draw upon. That’s a huge plus for anyone’s offensive line going into a new season but especially so with an All-American quarterback under center to protect.

Receivers/Tight Ends

There’s not much need to go on about All-MEAC junior wide receiver Elijah Bell (6-2, 225) who is without question one of the top receivers in the country and certainly the premier wide out in black college football. He has a rare combination physicality, speed, great hands, and possesses the unique ability to adjust back to the ball when blanketed by defenders.

Bell had a banner year in 2017 with 64 catches for 953 yards (14.9 ypc) and a school record 11 touchdowns. Although he has been slowed in preseason workouts with a nagging off season foot injury, expect him to consistently draw double teams once he returns back to action sometime later next month.

Until then the Aggies will go with a trio of junior Ron Hunt and sophomores Ahmed Bah and Zach Leslie . Hunt (6-2,185) is one of the fastest players on the team with a 4.35 forty time and he had 14 catches as a reserve last season.

After a strong spring showing in the spring game, Leslie (6-5,200) as elevated himself into a starting conversation. Leslie, like Bell, is a big target who can utilize his larger frame to outmuscle smaller defensive backs in the red zone. Bah (6-5, 210) is also a huge wide out who has that explosive run after the catch capability that can gash a secondary in open space.

Another receiver cut in that same mold comes to A&T by way of transfer from the U. S. Naval Academy in Havelock, NC product Quinzel Lockhart (6-2, 200).

There’s a lot of depth behind those top four receivers. Terrance Peterson (5-11,207, R-Sr.) Jordan McDaniel (6-1, 190, R-Fr.), Rashad Bovian (5-10,190, R-So.) have all been the program for a couple years now and should see plenty of action in A&T’s multiple wide out sets.

Malik Wilson (5-11, 170, Sr.) is the top slot receiver on the roster and one of the most dangerous deep threats in the conference. Wilson had 14 catches for 331 yards and 4 TDs with three of those going for over 50 yards. A midseason injury at S.C. State knocked him out of play for four games but he returned in time to play in the Celebration Bowl.

Wilson will alternate with fellow senior and former quarterback Isaiah Hicklin (6-0, 190). Hicklin spent the last three years as a reserve quarterback and made the transition to receiver in the spring where he established himself with reliable hands and surprising quickness. Amos Williams (5-9, 186) is another talented senior who might take on the role as a dual threat “Wild-Cat” which belonged to grad transfer Jacquil Capel a year ago. Williams was a reserve running back last year, and like Capel, a former HS quarterback.

How and when the new NCAA 4-game red shirt rule will be incorporated at A&T will be a topic of discussion but it could factor in with the incoming freshmen because of the immense depth and talent at the receiver position.

Expect two highly anticipated recruits, Chance Pride (5-8, 165) and Israel Spivey (5-9, 165) to make their initial mark on special teams and either work their way up depth chart or take a red shirt year later on, depending upon how events unfold on the field.

The Aggies took full advantage of a luxury last year with grad transfer Trey Scott manning the tight end post. Matter of fact, Lowe ended up as a first team all conference selection in his single year of competition in Greensboro.

There won’t be any drop off in performance at the H-Back slot as Leroy Hill (6-4, 247, R-Sr.), who was first team All-MEAC in 2016, returns for his senior year. Hill is so well regarded by conference opponents that he has been selected as a first team preseason all-MEAC pick despite playing behind Scott all of last year.

In back of him will be Jarvis Reid (6-4, 250, R- Jr.) who has shown some flashes in fall camp after converting over from defensive end in the spring. Reid was a tight end in high school but had played as a reserve defensive lineman since coming to A&T.

One freshman that will probably see some early playing time could be extremely athletic TeVaughn Higgins (6-4, 230) who was playing quarterback at Lower Richlands HS in Columbia S.C. last year. Higgins is a gifted, agile athlete who coaches feel could become a star down the road.

Running Backs

When Tarik Cohen jetted off to the Chicago Bears after an amazing career at A&T at the end of 2016, most observers thought that the Aggies vaunted ground game would almost certainly wither and die on the vine without him.

Well guess what. They don’t call A&T Tailback U for nothing. An A&T back has won the MEAC rushing title for the last seven years running. That’s right. Seven straight years.

Marquell Cartwright stepped out of the shadows of Tarik Cohen in 2017 and established himself as the top running back in the MEAC with a style and character in his own right.

The 5-9, 205 pound red shirt senior rolled up impressive numbers with 1,190 yards on 244 carries (4.9 ypc.) and 14 touchdowns. Cartwright is a pure brawler, a street fighter if you will, who thrives off contact with his bullish power and pass catching ability out of the backfield.

Cartwright won’t have to run himself into the ground his senior year as A&T welcomed in a couple of FBS transfers that will give running back coach Shawn Gibbs a lot of available options at his disposal this fall.

Darius Graves (5-8, 202 R-So.) is a home grown standout product from Dudley HS who spent a year at the University of North Carolina and was their leading rusher in the Tar Heels spring game back in 2017 with 21 carries for 65 yards and scored the game’s only rushing touchdown. In this year’s A&T spring game, he ran for 70 yards on 15 carries in a winning effort for the Blue team.

Jah-Maine Martin (5-11, 200, R-So.) made his way to East Market Street from Coastal Carolina after a stellar prep career in nearby Conway, SC. Martin ran for 171 yards as a true freshman at Coastal with his biggest individual effort coming against Presbyterian with 120 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries while subbing for the then injured and now NFL running back DeAngelo Henderson (Denver).

If pure speed and wiggle is what the Aggies are looking for in certain situations then Kashon Baker will most certainly get the call . Baker (5-7, 175, Jr., 4.4) is about as quick as they come and when not running the football out of the backfield, he’ll be returning both kickoffs and punts.

Snow Hill’s (NC) Unique Johnson (5-7, 185, R-Fr.) has emerged from a red shirt year and has had some very promising performances in early scrimmages and can be called upon if needed.

Fullbacks are in fair supply at A&T and they play an instrumental part in A&T’s running game. Primarily the lead block for the tailback, A&T fullbacks may occasionally be called on to catch a few passes and might carry the ball just a bit more in 2018.

The veteran of the group is senior William Hollingsworth (5-9, 235) and he will split duties with mammoth William Simpson (6-0, 285 R-Jr.) who is a devastating lead blocker between the tackles.

There will be additional depth available if necessary with transfers Kevin Turpin (6-0, 240, R-Jr.) and Malik Silver (6-0, 260, R-Fr.).

Quarterbacks

When discussing the topic of who is the greatest quarterback in A&T history often times the conversation will encompass the eras in which those quarterbacks played. In the case of A&T football it usually starts out with William “Red” Jackson (1949-51). Then we go into the 60’s with Cornell Gordon (1960-64) and Stan Jacobs (1968-71). It moves up from there to my era with Ellsworth Turner (1974-78), to the 80’s and the dominance of Alan Hooker (1984-87), the flash and dash of the 90’s with Connell Maynor (1989-91) and Maseo Bolin (1992-95).

Fast forward to the new millennium and history is setting up perfectly to anoint a new legend who has, for the most part, has very quietly rewritten the record books when it comes to being both the most productive and winningest quarterback in A&T football history.

Lamar Raynard had only two serious scholarship offers when he came out of Andrews High School in nearby High Point, NC – North Carolina A&T and Delaware State. After picking the Aggies, Raynard bided his time watching from the sidelines as a red shirt freshman and then began playing in extended stretches behind senior Kashawn Quick on the first of three championships beginning in 2015.

In 2016, Raynard began to mature and grow as the starter and if not for a freak late season practice injury that knocked out of action then A&T would have probably added another MEAC trophy to the cases in the Bryan Center.

Despite missing the last two regular season games and a NCAA playoff appearance, Raynard threw for almost 1,500 yards, 14 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in 209 attempts with a impressive completion rate of 64.6 percent . That 9-game performance was good enough to garner him All-MEAC second team honors.

2017 was witness to the blossoming of not only a top tier quarterback but the indisputable conductor of a perfect 12-0 season , the first in MEAC history catapulting the Aggies to its first national top ten FCS finish ever (#7), a second HBCU championship in three years and staked out A&T’s rightful claim as the gold standard for HBCU football.

The 6-5, 205 pound Raynard was golden all season long as he threw for 2,932 yards and 27 touchdowns going 209-328 for a 63.7 completion percentage against just 7 interceptions. And even though he is 26-0 as a starter, it’s not just the long list of statistical records that makes him unique. It is his coolness under pressure, his ability to read defenses, and his uncanny accuracy and touch which has set him far apart from other signal callers.

Now the reigning MEAC offensive player of the year begins his senior season chasing a second consecutive MEAC title, another HBCU crown and a permanent place in A&T football history.

Raynard needs just 1,942 yards to become the Aggies all-time leading passer, 195 completions to become the Aggies all-time leader, 2,590 total offense yards to be the school’s career leader and 12 touchdown passes to break the all time career mark. Barring injury, there is little reason to doubt that he won’t shatter all those marks this fall.

A&T is fortunate to have a more than capable backup with playing experience in behind Raynard with Kylil Carter (5-10, 225). The Austell, GA senior played sparingly last year appearing in seven games after missing most of 2016 because of a season ending knee injury against Kent State. Carter has worked hard in the off season to get back into shape after so much time off and is now looking much like the player that caught everyone’s attention during his freshman year back in 2015.

The third active quarterback on depth chart will be red shirt freshman Jalen Fowler (6-3,235) who sat out all of last year. Fowler has all the physical tools to develop into a reliable quarterback. He will need to continue to learn the college game and make strides as new opportunities begin to present themselves this season.

A couple of names to keep in the back of your mind for future reference will be Carnaji Andrews (6-1, 225 R-Fr.) and Khalil Gilliam (6-3, 188, Fr.) from Charlotte (East Mecklenburg). Don’t expect to see either of them seriously compete for playing time until next spring.