2018 Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 2

by Craig R. Turner
Published: August 19, 2018

Head Coach Sam Washington, who has been the architect of the Aggie defense for the last seven years, has placed his unit in the nation’s elite since coming to A&T in 2011. Under his guidance, The Aggies have had the No. 1 total defense in the conference three straight seasons and four times in the last seven years and finished fourth nationally last season.

N.C. A&T has the No. 1 rush defense in the conference and has been tops in the MEAC for six of the last seven years. Only once during his tenure have the Aggies been outside of the NCAA’s top ten in total defense at season’s end and have finished in the top five twice.

While stingy defense has long been a Washington trademark, 2017 was exceptional as the Aggies finished fourth in the nation in total defense allowing just 258.4 yard per outing (82.1 yds. rushing) and a paltry 12.4 points per game. A&T’s pass defense was just as opportunistic, picking off 17 passes and returning those for 478 yards and 4 touchdowns while limiting their opposition to just 11.7 yards per catch and 50 percent completion rate.

So how will Washington’s ascension to head coaching job affect the overall performance of the defense now that his attention is bound to be spread across the board? Not much since Washington has stated he will retain most of the control over the defense at least until defensive co-coordinator Courtney Coard who has been the Aggies longtime defensive line coach becomes acclimated to his new role. Coard will also continue his duties as line coach as well in 2018.

There’s been a few of tweaks and one new addition to the defensive staff in the off season as well. Assistant coach Thomas Howard moves over to the secondary to take over Washington’s old stomping grounds with the defensive backs. Terry Lantz will once again coach the outside linebackers and first year assistant Denzel Jones, a former standout middle backer at A&T and the 2015 Celebration Bowl Defensive MVP, will coach the inside backers.

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 2, we look at the Aggie defense.

By every account, the 2018 A&T defense should be dominating once again as nine starters return, four all conference performers, two All-Americans and a treasure trove of talent and solid depth behind them. But with FCS power Jacksonville State and FBS East Carolina on the horizon, can the Aggies repeat their success of a year ago against a much more demanding 2018 schedule?

Inside Linebackers

There won’t be any suspense over the inside posts as the Aggies return a couple of superb big hitting seniors to man the middle positions. Kiaundric Richardson (6-0, 210) and Julius Reynolds (5-9, 235, 4.8) will pick up where they left off a year ago where they combined for 64 tackles between them.

Richardson ‘s greatest attribute is his astonishing speed to the ball, creating all kinds of disruption, then delivering sure tackles once he arrives. Reynolds, an intelligent student of the game, excels at placing himself in the proper position to make plays over and over again.

These two will be counted on heavily to make most of the defensive calls on the field and to use their experience to help bring the younger inside backers along as the season develops. Markiess Blue (6-0, 226) is another senior with experience who help stabilize the middle.

There a quartet of new inside linebackers that are expected some substantial contributions this season. Tyler Beck (6-2, 245. R-So.) made significant strides after attending to special teams and spot duty as a freshman a year ago. Kyin Howard (6-1, 240, R-Fr.) is a Eastern Guilford product who has faired well both in spring practice and through fall camp and is deceptively quick from sideline to sideline.

KeAndre Jones (6-0, 240) is a true freshman from Columbia SC was S.C. All-Star Game participant who is making a lot of noise in practice right out of box with his physicality and should see some early season action.

Freshman Chris Williams (6-1, 228, 4.6) was a standout all conference linebacker and Sandhills Conference Defensive Player of the Year for powerful Scotland County and could be a contributor in his first year of college football as well.

Outside Linebackers

If there are any unanswered questions on defense going into this season it would be how will the Aggies replace the All-MEAC outside linebacker duo of Jeremy Taylor and Marcus Albert, a pair of four year starters.

Outside backers in A&T’s defensive setup often do more than just provide run support . They have to the foot speed to cover receivers and tight ends down the field but physical enough to come off the edge as an extra pass rusher against much bigger offensive linemen and get penetration into the backfield.

There are a lot of strong candidates on hand vying to step into the starting lineups and the competition has been fierce which means A&T will be afforded the luxury of having a good depth on the outside.

The most experienced and leading choices at this point to win at least one of those starting spots will be fifth year senior and Belmont, NC native Deion Jones (5-11, 203, 4.57) and red shirt sophomore Justin Phillip (5-11, 210, Brooklyn , NY).

Jones gained considerable playing time last year starting seven games while racking up an impressive 47 tackles, second only to Taylor among the linebackers and third best on the team. He accounted for 3.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, had an interception and broke up four passes in a breakout season.

Phillips appeared in just five games last year because of early injuries but had an outstanding spring practice after moving to the outside spot from strong safety and continues to impress in fall camp. His athleticism, ball hawking skills, and closing speed makes him an ideal defender as an underneath pass defender.

Two other upperclassmen who will figure heavily into the depth equation are Adrian McPherson (6-0, 215, R-Jr., Fayetteville, NC) who has outstanding speed and University of South Carolina transfer Antoine Wilder (5-10, 198, Jr.) who made four starts in his two years with the Gamecocks and sat out the spring to recover from elbow surgery.

A true freshmen may just break into the regular rotation very early on if early practices are any indication of things to come. Zariek Rush didn’t have to travel very far to the A&T campus as this highly touted athlete. Originally a early Howard commit, the 6-3, 220 pound freshman was a 3-star running back at Dudley High School but he’ll be a full time outside linebacker for the Aggies.

The Ends

Because of a bevy of early season injuries, A&T made it through much of 2017 with only a six man rotation for the entire line which is virtually unheard of in modern day college football. The fact the Aggies finished fourth in the nation in total defense and stayed number one in the MEAC in rush defense from start to finish speaks volumes about the talent and the coaching in this unit.

This will be an experienced and extremely deep defensive line and it all begins with All- American end Darryl Johnson (6-5, 235, Jr.). Johnson is one of in many unheralded kids coming out of high school that the A&T coaching staff has now become famous for recognizing when no one else did and then elevating them into NFL draft ready prospects by the time they finish their college careers.

Johnson was simply dominating in 2017. Blessed with a long lean muscular frame the Kingsland, Ga. native possesses an eye catching 103-inch wingspan and runs the 40-yard time of 4.7 seconds which explains his 40 tackles (25 unassisted) with 15.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2017.

If running away from Johnson is on the mind of opposing offenses, they may want to rethink that move. Sam Blue (6-2, 245, R-Sr.) was just as active and as highly productive edge defender as Johnson racking up 31 tackles (17 unassisted) with 11 tackles for loss, and a identical 6.5 sacks to his credit as well.

Former inside linebacker Tre Smalls (6-1, 250, Jr.) made the transition to a down lineman in the spring and should be top reserve off the bench. The former shrine bowler is a strong pass rusher and is versatile enough to move outside on the edge now that he has called upon to do so.

Depth beyond the upperclassmen ends will be the responsibility of a trio of red shirt freshmen. Artavious Richardson (6-2, 232, 4.6) was a 247 Sports 3-star recruit from Rocky Mount, NC who excelled in spring practice and who should start to live up to those high school accolades after sitting out last season.

Devin Harrell (6-3, 230, Ashbrook HS) from Gastonia, NC is a physical end with speed (4.7) who clearly moved into the number two slot at right end and established his future playing time very early on.

A&T’s well renowned pipeline to Scotland County is responsible for bringing Karfa Kaba (6-4, 255) to Greensboro. Kaba, an outstanding student, has the physical attributes that coaches covet – size, speed, and physicality. Expect him to have an impact in the rotation as the season progresses.

The Tackles

There will be some very good defensive tackles in the MEAC this season and at least four of them and perhaps more might just be playing at BB&T Aggie Stadium this fall. Coordinator and defensive line coach Courtney Coard couldn’t have asked for more talent at the tackle position in his very first season in that role.

Returning for his final curtain call in his senior season will be preseason All-MEAC pick Julian McKnight (6-4, 290) who missed the first half of last season because of knee injury from an illegal chop block sustained against Gardner Webb in the season’s opener.

When McKnight finally did return to the lineup, he made up for lost time by piling up 20 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks , and 2 pass breakups. He is an very strong run defender and should be completely healthy heading into 2018. Already meeting the eye test from most NFL scouts, a big senior year performance could place him in serious draft conversations by next spring.

Pairing with him at the will be red shirt junior Jermaine Williams. Williams (6-1, 285), trimmed some 20 pounds during the summer which greatly improved his overall quickness (4.9) and added additional strength in the off season. He amassed 34 tackles (20 unassisted) with 9.0 tackles for loss and a eye popping 6 sacks in his eight starts at nose tackle a year ago.

Only good things happen when Justin Cates (6-3,270, Sr.) is on the field. A ferocious pass rusher, Cates was looking like a sure fire all conference pick when he had three sacks and seven tackles in A&T’s 35-31 win over FBS Charlotte before going down with a season ending injury. Now he returns back to the rotation looking to pick up where he left off and is vying hard to win back his old starting spot.

Shomari Wallace (6-3, 260. R-So., Hope Mills, NC) is coming off a strong initial season by getting a lot of playing time for a young player and should see even more action this coming season. Wallace accounted for 10 tackles (nine unassisted), 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. He is the fastest of the defensive tackles being timed at 4.7 in the forty yard dash.

The Aggies were able to really boost both their talent level and depth three fold when transfers Justin Nwachukwu ( Northern Illinois) and Michael Branch (Presbyterian) joined the team in time for spring practice and made their presence immediately felt.

Nwachukwu (6-0, 290, Jr.) spent two seasons at Butler Community College before transferring to Northern Illinois and was red shirted there before transferring to A&T last winter. While at Butler he had 28 tackles (21 unassisted), blocked three kicks and forced a fumble and earned all-conference honors and was team captain. He’s a Raleigh native and played his high school ball at Heritage HS.

Branch (6-2, 285, Jr.)comes to the Aggies with a wealth of experience after being starter for Presbyterian (Big South) in 2017. He started all 11 games totaling 43 tackles on the year, including 2.0 tackles for loss , 2.0 sacks and recovered two fumbles. With the Blue Hose announcing their drop to a non-scholarship program last fall, it afforded Branch the unique opportunity to transfer to a championship program with a much higher FCS profile plus a chance play near home (Pleasant Garden, NC) before family and friends.

The Secondary

The Aggies will boast the two best cornerbacks in the MEAC with all conference Timadre Abram (5- 10, 170. R-Sr.) and All-American Franklin “Mac” McCain III (5-11, 190).

A fifth year senior, Abram is a model of consistency as evidenced through his 2017 stats: 29 tackles (20 unassisted), eight pass breakups and one interception. A solid run defender with good size, Abram brings a blue color attitude to his role of being the elder statesman in the secondary.

On the other hand, Mac McCain was anything but unassuming in his play on the field. In fact his playing style could be described in only one way – spectacular. McCain burst on the scene last year as a red shirt freshman and immediately started writing his own history book of sorts.

He racked up six interceptions, 3 for touchdowns including the closing seconds game winner in A&T’s upset of FBS Charlotte. He followed that up the very next week with a double pick-6 effort against Morgan State which he set the record for the longest interception return (100 yards) in A&T history and gained FCS national player of the week honors.

He also set a single season record for interception return yardage (274). On top of all that, he was A&T’s second leading tackler on the season with 50 stops. So dominant was he, that opposing offenses stop tempting fate by not throwing the ball to his side of the field with any kind of frequency.

Standing by in the wings are two solid reserves in Derrick Williams (5-10, 180, R-So.) who is one of the fastest players on the team (4.3) and the very impressive red shirt freshman Amir McNeil ( 5-9, 170) from Scotland County.

Jamal Darden (5-9, 195, R-Sr.) is next in line to occupy the all important Rover position in the Aggies’ complex multiple defense. Darden’s career had been held back a bit due to injuries up until last season where he started the last eight games and registered 25 tackles (19 unassisted) with two interceptions, three pass breakups, five pass defenses and a forced fumble.

True freshman Joseph Stuckey (6-0, 210, Fr., 4.5) hails from Hillside, NJ and was one of A&T’s most prized recruits in the 2018 class. He has been earmarked to fill the Rover position for years to come as the Aggies beat out numerous FBS and FCS programs in the recruiting wars for his services. He has not disappointed in fall camp and will back Darden right away.

The starting free safety post will fall most likely to junior Richie Kittles (5-11,195) who had a good showing in his first year with two starts after transferring in from Florida Atlantic last fall accumulating 16 tackles (eight unassisted), one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one tackle for loss.

Najee Reams (6-3, 190) possesses fabulous speed (sub 4.28) and rightfully so as he qualified for NCAA Division I Championships in the 4×400 meter relay and helped his teammates win the 4×4 MEAC outdoor title in May as the men’s track and field team claiming the 2017 outdoor conference championship team title. Reams is much more than just straight line speed as his 18 tackles (nine unassisted) on last season will attest.

Jalon Bethea (5-10,180, Jr.) missed a good deal of last season because of injuries but has been a solid special teams player and a promising defensive back during his stint at A&T. The Durham Hillside product came into last March’s spring practice completely healthy and came out at the end near the top of the depth chart after showing exceptionally well at the free safety slot. If he can continue to stay injury free he could prove to be a major comeback story in 2018.