2018 Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 3by Craig R. Turner
Published: August 22, 2018
When North Carolina A&T Head Coach Sam Washington was asked earlier this week at his first official press conference as to what his team will need to do on the field this season in order to continue the Aggie dominance of the last few years he didn’t hesitate in his answer to the media.
“Three things. Take care of the football, stop the run, and win the kicking game. The Aggies have been pretty good in meeting those first two obligations going 40-6 over the last four years. Truthfully that third one had its share of ups and downs even in last year’s meteoric unbeaten 12-0 run to its second HBCU national championship in three years and a top ten finish.
That fact didn’t go unnoticed on Washington as the Aggies have upped their emphasis on the kicking game in preseason practice and have added a couple of new faces looking to gain more consistency out of its kicking game for this year.
In our three part series over the last week, we have tried 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 this final installment of our preview, we take a look at the Aggies special teams.
Football aficionados pretty much all agree that place kickers and kickers in general are more prone to the strange psychological aspects surrounding confidence, even more so than hallowed position of quarterbacks. The mental quirks of kickers alone are too numerous to mention.
In what is indeed a rarity, A&T depended entirely on untested kickers in both its punting and place kicking with mixed results last year and while not to the level of the solid Cody Jones years of the recent past, they didn’t put A&T in any intolerable situations but it was the only real soft spot in what otherwise was story book season.
James Mackey (5-10, 181, R-Jr.) handled all of the punting chores in 2017 and put up fair numbers averaging 38.5 yards per punt which was good for seventh in the MEAC. Mackey’s biggest asset is his ball placement and hang time highlighted by runners calling for a fair catch on nine of his punts while dropping six others inside the opponents 20-yard line six times.
A&T didn’t just stand pat on Mackey and went after some insurance by signing North Brunswick’s 3-AA Mideastern all-conference punter and kicker Michael Rivers (6-0, 170, Fr.). Rivers was extremely effective averaging 44 yards per punt was also named to the All-Area team and was his team’s MVP. A top student, Rivers enrolled early and participated in spring practice and will push the more experienced Mackey for playing time.
Noel Ruiz (5-11, 160) enters his sophomore year as the team’s leading place kicker candidate after hitting on 9-14 field goals with a long of 41 yards as true freshman in 2017. Ruiz has a impressively powerful leg but will need to find his comfort zone early and shake off the inconsistencies of his Celebration Bowl play (0-3) and perform to expectations as he did during the regular season in a big road win at SCSU (3-3) and in the late season the conference clincher versus Savannah State (3-3).
Despite the freshman jitters, Ruiz ranked third overall among place kickers in the MEAC in both scoring (75 pts.) and field goal percentage (64.3). He also connected on 48-54 extra points. His kickoff average was a very respectable 51.7 yards per kick with 3 touchbacks.
Ruiz will need to bring his “A” game this season as red shirt freshman Davis Rogers enters into the picture. Although not quite the length of Ruiz, Davis (5-10, 174) was an extremely accurate kicker during his high school career at Dorman HS in Spartanburg, NC where he converted on 77 percent of his field goals (7-9) and 90 percent of his extra points (47-52). It might be that accuracy that may get him on the field more quickly depending on the game situation and field position.
Gone is record setting All-American Khris Gardin who rewrote not only the A&T record books but the NCAA’s as well as a punt returner. Instead of just one person primarily handling all the kickoffs and punt returns this season, fans will probably see several different people try their hand at one time or another on the return circuit.
Junior Kashon Baker will get the initial call to return punts in single safety this season. The 5-7, 175 pounder has plenty of speed and the elusiveness that one looks for in a return man and was the backup to Gardin last year in that role.
Kickoff returns will fall to speedsters Malik Wilson and Ron Hunt, two of the fastest players on the team. In fact Hunt clocked the fastest forty time (4.25) on the team this past spring and which is saying a lot considering A&T’s penchant for acquiring lots of speed at the skill positions.
Wilson, who is A&T’s top deep pass threat, averaged a whopping 28 yards per catch as a receiver so there is little reason to doubt he won’t be as equally dangerous on returns when the ball comes his way in earnest in just a few days.
If there is an off chance that a true freshman might break through, make a name for themselves and get some extensive game experience it would most likely be on special teams.
Chance Pride and Israel Spivey are a pair of freshmen game breaking athletes who were both standout slot receivers and return men coming out of high school. These two are literally bookends in many respects. They are about both 5-8 and around a 160 pounds with 4.4 speed, much like the now graduated Gardin.
Pride comes to A&T from Eastside HS in Taylor, S.C. while Spivey made his way from Cedar Grove HS in Ellenwood, Ga. They both gained 3-star recruiting status through various recruiting services for their lightening speed and astronomical individual stats. If for some reason the return game should sputter it would not be a surprise if one or both of these youngsters weren’t pressed into service to help jump start things.
This concludes our 2018 team preview for 2018. This coming Saturday, the wraps come off and the Aggies will take on the Gamecocks of Jacksonville State in a early season matchup of a couple of FCS juggeranuts in what will be the most intriguing game on this very first weekend of college football.
Gametime is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN or you can also follow the action on the Aggie Sports Network on 93.7 FM or 1320 AM and 1230 AM with Donal Ware of Boxtorow bringing you the play-by-play.