Back Into The Groove

by Craig R. Turner
Published: August 28, 2019

The 2019 Football season is just days away and the MEAC is up for grabs and even though most experts expect a really tight conference race, one common prerequisite remains as constant as the Northern Star just has it has over the last three years.

The team that everyone will be gunning for once again will be North Carolina A&T, winner of 3 of the last four MEAC football crowns as well as the HBCU national championships. In fact the Aggies will be seeking its third straight title on both fronts. Despite losing 15 starters from a year ago, there is more than an ample supply of new talent stepping into those starting roles to make them the general consensus favorite by their conference peers to win it all once again.

All MEAC teams will get into action on this first full week of competition with four of the league eight members hitting the field early on Thursday night.

Delaware State will take on in-state rival Delaware (7 p.m.) in the cross state rivalry, a game mandated by the Delaware State legislature (ESPN 3). Morgan State will mark its debut with new head coach Tyrone Wheatley travel to Bowling Green (OH) to do battle with Falcons (7 p.m.) on ESPN 3.

Florida A&M will step up into the land of the Giants when they travel to the all too familiar surroundings of Orlando to take on FBS #17 power University of Central Florida at 7 p.m. (CBS Sports-Digital). The last time the Rattlers visited that city they saw their dreams of a MEAC title hopes crushed by Bethune Cookman 33-19 in dramatic fashion, losing to the Wildcats for an eighth consecutive year.

North Carolina Central will kick off the Trei Oliver era as they will follow their new head coach into a very winnable game on the road against middle of the road Ohio Valley conference member Austin Peay (ESPN+) at 8 p.m.

Saturday’s lineup of games will have a couple of key FCS match ups that could have some huge implications for all the teams involved. Howard will break in new head man Ron Prince as the Bison make the short trip over to Landover to take on Maryland (12 p.m.) in the early game (Big-10 Network).

Norfolk State stays in Norfolk this weekend to take on cross town FBS nemesis Old Dominion at 7 p.m.(ESPN 3). Southern Conference member Wofford will travel from Spartanburg down to Orangeburg to tangle with Buddy Pough’s much improved S.C. State Bulldogs at 6 p.m. (ESPN 3).

Greensboro will be the site of a clash of two top 20 FCS programs barely 20 miles apart as #19 N.C. A&T will host #20 Elon (CAA) in BB&T stadium on the A&T campus. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.(ESPN 3).

Sunday will be the capper of the first weekend as Bethune Cookman and Jackson State (SWAC ) meet in the annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta. Kick off is set for 3 p.m. and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN 2.


This Saturday’s game was scheduled to be played some three years ago but a chance for Elon to have a big pay day against an FBS opponent at the time was negotiated between the schools and so this Saturday’s date marks the final game in the original four game series. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

The Phoenix is coming off a 6-5 campaign which saw them qualify for an at-large berth in the NCAA playoffs for the second straight year since joining the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) back in 2014. The architect of the resurgence of Elon football, Curt Cignetti (2 years) left in mid December to take over the helm of FCS power James Madison after their then head coach, Mike Houston left to try to resurrect the FBS fortunes of East Carolina.

The new Elon coach is Tony Trisciani who was formerly their defensive coordinator. Trisciani has been busy putting together a fresh new staff as seven Elon assistants also left with Cignetti for the hills of Harrisonburg, VA. Trisciani, 45, cut his coaching teeth once before in Burlington back in 2006 as the defensive back and special teams coach. In the interim between the Elon stints, he served as the secondary coach and recruiting coordinator at Villanova.

He’ll have a excellent cornerstone to build Elon’s hopes around in junior quarterback Davis Cheek (6-2,200). He was the 2017 CAA rookie of the year after completing 190 of his 323 passes for 2,431 yards and 15 touchdowns. Cheek was off to another great start in 2018 completing 79 of his 120 pass attempts, hitting on 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,018 yards and four touchdowns with just two interceptions before going down for the year with a ACL tear at midseason. The Phoenix are counting him to not only return but to stay healthy after extensive rehab in the off season.

His staying upright will depend largely on a rebuilt offensive line that lost three 4-year starters from a year ago including sixth round NFL draft pick Olisaemeka Udoh. The one returning starter with extensive experience is Matt Kowalewski (6-3,285, Sr.). Cooper Cromer (6-5,298, So.), Pete Townsend (6-3,285, R-Fr.), and Nick Cerieile(6-2,304, R-Fr.) will be the other starters.

The Phoenix have some capable big play receivers in Kortez Weeks (6-0,173, So.), Isaiah Hill (5-10,183, Jr.) and red zone target Cole Taylor (6-3,210). The top running threat in the single back set is Jaylan Thomas (5-10,190) who was named the CAA’s 2018 Rookie of the Year with 761 rushing yards on 115 carries with four touchdowns.

Defensively Elon, although not an overly large defense size wise, should be solid up front. Jordan Dollerson (5-11,270, Sr.) and Tiras Williams (6-2,224, DE, Jr.) are perhaps the Phoenix’s best pass rushers. Tristan Cox (6-3,335, Sr.) will be over the center at nose tackle.

The secondary is probably Elon’s biggest strength defensively and their backs are extremely active. Gregg Liggs (5-11,185, Sr.) is from Greensboro and is a preseason All-CAA pick, while Daniel Reid-Bennett (6-0,200, Sr.) had 65 tackles last year, second best on the team.

The linebackers depend a great deal on athleticism and speed and will be led by T.J. Speight (5-10,203, Sr.), Stephen Copeland (5-11,209, So.), and one of the team’s best tacklers in Jarquez Bizzell (6-1,190, Jr.) from Kinston, NC.

The kicking game is in excellent hands with punter Hunter Stephenson (40yds avg.) and place kicker Skyler Davis (5-7,155, So.) who hit on 17-of-22 field goals and was a perfect 31-of-31 on PATs as a true freshman.


First games are usually the hardest to judge because of so many unknown variables. New coaches, new personnel, new playbooks – there’s just tons of things that could impact a first game. These are two teams that are not only close in the preseason polls but also face some questions looking to be answered heading into Saturday’s opener after losing so many important starters.

One of these teams will have some of their questions answered while the other may have to reassess their situation before the season gets into full swing. No question A&T lost some of its biggest names in the school’s football history from this last championship run but there is a reason why the Aggies still placed 11 players among the conference’s preseason picks. That should tell you something.

This coaching staff does one of heck of a job in developing talent and getting the next man up ready to compete year after year. Player development and continuity within a coaching staff is what really separates the great programs from the also-rans and keeping those two things intact is worth it’s weight in gold. A&T’s win-loss column and ever decreasing space inside the trophy case does not lie.

This game won’t be a finished product by any stretch but I expect the A&T defense to fare better than what most people are anticipating despite all the heavy graduation losses. Coach Sam Washington has been emphasizing all week that its not so much about preparing for what Elon will do but about getting his team prepared to do what they do best – Stop the run, take care of the football, and win the kicking game. Execute the fundamentals, stay away from penalties, limit turnovers, be patient and the rest should take care of itself.

Sounds simple enough.


PREDICTION

N.C. A&T – 31

Elon – 17