BDV’s 2013 N.C. A&T Football PreviewBy Craig R. Turner
Published: September 6, 2013
Greensboro, NC – We are one day away from the start of the 2013 N.C. A&T football season and the buzz in and around Greensboro is getting a little louder as the time counts down. The Aggie faithful have not been this gung-ho in anticipation since last March when Cy Alexander broke a 16-year drought by bringing the school not only a 20–win basketball season, but also the MEAC title and its very first NCAA tournament win.
Now A&T fans, loyal and rabid to a fault, are chomping at the bit to continue their trip down euphoria lane and are expecting this year’s team to take the next step. Moreover, why shouldn’t they? The worm has turned – from a doormat in 2010 to a major contender just three years later.
Rod Broadway enters his third season as head coach of the Aggies and the landscape has been a little different than it was during his first two years at the helm. First of all, the Aggies are coming off the momentum of their first winning season in a decade, closing out last year with consecutive wins over FAMU, South Carolina State, and North Carolina Central to finish at 7-4 and tied for third in the MEAC.
Secondly, Broadway and his staff have finally freed themselves of the inherited APR restrictions that cut not only scholarship levels in half but also reduce practice time by a day and half each week last season. Three days of game preparation versus four days may not seem like a lot to the casual observer, but in football that is a huge disadvantage.
Practices these days are far different than they were last year when only 55 players dressed out for last season. And at times, it seemed like there were a lot less than that. A&T has held a plenty of open practices during the first part of fall camp and it was a revelation to see, for the first time in years, over 100 players going at it.
Now the Aggies have not completely gotten out from under the fallout of the APR shadow, as A&T opted not have a spring practice to concentrate on academics in order to speed up the lifting of sanctions and the NCAA agreed. In the meantime Broadway decided to make a change at the offensive coordinator post and that meant putting in a new offense in short order (five weeks). A daunting task to say the least.
Trying to bring that all together would take a veteran offensive coach. So enter Rickey Bustle, and former long-time head coach at FBS member Louisiana-Lafayette, offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech and quarterback coach to Michael Vick during the Hokies 2000 national championship bid. He also had stops along the way at Tulane, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and South Carolina.
A big proponent of fast-paced, balanced offenses, Bustle is held in high esteem in the coaching ranks for producing consistent offenses that play error free football and that places plenty of points on the scoreboard. However, the changes didn’t stop just there, as Broadway beefed up his already stout defense by coaxing another successful coach out of semi-retirement in John Gutekunst, the former head man at the University of Minnesota. Gutekunst will coach interior linebackers here at A&T.
The 43-year veteran led the bit ten gophers to wins in both the Independence and Liberty Bowls during the mid-80’s. He also has very recent successful assistant stints at Duke, UNC, and East Carolina and is no stranger to this area.
So as A&T kicks off this season it touts probably one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the FCS and certainly inside the MEAC. By adding these two new additions to a proven championship core crew of Sam Washington (DC), Shawn Gibbs (RBs), Courtney Coard (DL), Keith Wagoner (OL) and Trei Oliver (OLBs) that has won championships, A&T raised the bar more than a notch or two.
With three championships in two different venues on two different levels in six years and looking to add a fourth in 2013 under his belt, it’s no small wonder that the normally subdued Broadway has been in such a good mood this preseason.
Therefore, the brain trust for the Aggies appears to be in superb shape going into the fall, so now let’s take an updated capsule look at this year’s personnel position–by–position.
Remember the coach’s creed- “Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships.” So let’s begin with an overview of the stuffers and stoppers; the defense.
There is no doubt that Aggies possess one of the most dynamic playmakers in all of the FCS in senior All-American cornerback D’Vonte Graham (5-9,175, 4.4). It’s not about what he can do but more of question of is there anything he can’t do on the football field.
Whether it was kickoffs, punts, tackles, or interceptions, Graham had a break out year in 2011 becoming an All-MEAC performer and an All-American return specialist and is a strong contender for defensive player of the year honors not only in the MEAC but nationally as well as a shutdown corner.
Travis Crosby (5-11,190) is another preseason All-American pick at free safety and returning all-MEAC performer. He will share the deep set with Isaiah Martin (5-10,185) who is a vicious hitter at strong safety. The fourth member of this senior laden quartet will be 6-2, 210-pound cornerback Ayodeji Olatoye, a former Colorado transfer, who roams the strong side corner like a linebacker and has had an outstanding fall camp.
A&T is lacking nothing in the depth department on defense and the secondary is exceptionally talent rich and has good experience with returning reserves Marquis Boyan, Tony McRae, Don Mattocks, Landis Shoffner, Tajir Wharton, Chris Ettison, Tyree Andrews, and Daishon Stryon who are all back for another season.
D’Vonte Grant may not be the biggest outside linebacker you’ll see on Saturdays but he plays his position well enough to be a third preseason All-American pick on the second ranked defense in all the FCS and the undisputed leader of the most underrated piece of the league’s best defense.
Grant (5-11, 212) makes up for his somewhat diminutive stature with blazing closing speed and tremendous athletic ability that allows him to cover receivers underneath that allows A&T to play nickel coverage without substituting or sacrificing its run defense in long yardage situations.
He’ll be flanked on the other side by senior Brian Houston (6-0,235) who steps into the middle linebacker position shared with Tony Clodfelter (5-10,240, Sr.), Denzel Jones (5-11, 230) and Grambling transfer Jicard Carter (6-0,230, Sr.), an All-SWAC performer in 2011.
The outside linebackers are another experienced group blessed with speed much like Grant If younger players are to make a contribution here then two names will stick out immediately in freshmen Marcus Albert (6-0,205) and Georgia 5-A defensive player-of-the year Lorenz Suttles (6-2, 200).
These two freshman are perhaps a little undersized by FBS competition standards but the regional recruiting battle among FCS powers like Georgia Southern, Wofford, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, The Citadel, South Carolina State and Florida A&M was as intense for these two as any big name FBS prospects.
There also will be help off the sidelines from veterans like Colorado sophomore transfer Jermaine Clark (6-3,195), Bryson McCall (6-1,200, Sr.), Billy Summers (6-1,220) and Kia Richardson (6-3, 206).
Replacing three out of four down lineman and two first team all-conference selections will be a daunting task. However defensive line coach Courtney Coard has got to be pleased with the early signs and development, strength, and the size of his replacements in 2013.
A&T only averaged about 240 pounds per man up front the last two years and relied almost entirely on speed, quickness, and technique to offset the weight disparity with much larger offensive fronts which proved to be very successful in 2012. This season the Aggies should be able to play more physical matchup defense and generate more of a sustained pass rush with a lot less blitzing.
The Aggies will be betting on some young sophomores who gained a lot of playing time in large reserve roles a year ago and large class of red shirted freshmen with more size. The lone returning starter is Tyree Hearns (6-2,222) at defensive end who is being touted as a preseason All-MEAC pick by the conference coaches.
Competition for other end spot has been a battle royale but expect to see Angelo Keyes to be somewhere in the starting lineup sometime this year. The 6-2,256 pound Kinston product was red shirted as a freshman and runs a 4.7 forty, making him one of the fastest ends in the conference.
Defensive end is loaded with former High Point Andrews High School product and probable starter Daniel Pinnix (6-1,247) and newcomers Justin Smith (6-2,230), Kenny Melton (6-4,220), Malik Hampton-Prioleau (6-5,250) will give the defense more options.
The big difference that A&T fans will notice in the size department will be at the interior tackle and nose guard spots. Starting early for the Aggies most likely will be sophomores Mike Neal (5-11,275) and James Morris (6-2, 275) because of the experience factor of playing a lot as true freshmen in backup roles last season.
However, A&T got much taller, bigger, and deeper in the off-season with the addition of red shirt tackles Marquis Ragland (6-4,255) and Nicholas Dease (6-3,302), plus two highly regarded true freshmen in D’Anthony Ross (6-4,255) from Atlanta, GA and Damion Hicks (6-4,275) from New Port Richey, Fl.
As good as it’s defense has been and will be again in 2013, A&T has to improve on its 22.3 points per game average and reduce its turnover rate on offense. There key questions that will have be answered early on. How the offensive line will adjust to Rickey Bustle’s new schemes and formations of a power spread offense? Can the Aggies find consistent quarterback play? Will the new hyped receivers live up to expectations? How will A&T replace its all-time leading rusher now that Michael Mayhew has graduated?
Who will be A&T’s main signal caller when the Aggies hit the conference season in four weeks? We know that sophomore Kwashaun Quick (6-1, 190) will get the call against Appalachian State to open the season as Lewis Kindle serves his one game suspension for disciplinary reasons.
Quick saw action in six games last year and started four. A gifted runner, Quick has yet to show any consistent passing proficiency when required to stay in the pocket to make the check down and the throw. But to Quick’s advantage, he is a better QB under extreme pressure than sitting there waiting for clearance. If he masters the habit to get rid of the ball quickly he could be a tough match-up against zone defensive sets.
And what about red shirt freshman Femi Barimo? He’s 6-5, 213, has vision and a cannon for an arm. He just lacks game experience. When given time in scrimmages he has proven too have touch and accuracy with coolness under pressure.
He is a perhaps a half dozen games under his belt away from challenging but he has the classic pro QB mentality in that he doesn’t take unnecessary risks and is very accurate. He will remind older Aggie fans of Stan Jacobs. He’s a definite starter in the future.
So preseason really boils down to fifth year senior Lewis Kindle (6-2,205). Kindle seems to have accepted the role of leader on a road to redemption after his summer troubles. He has been spot on as you would expect from fifth year senior. He is bigger, faster, stronger, and his throws have been on the nose in practice and scrimmages.
The confidence level is unquestioned. If he would just follow what Bustle’s offense gives him he can have a very special season. It’s up to Kindle to put the quest for a championship ahead of himself. If he learns those lessons, the MEAC will be in a lot of trouble this year.
In recent years, A&T has always been known by their outstanding running backs and 2013 should be no different although no single back returns as the featured back. Now that Mike Mayhew has graduated, fans may see more of running back by committee depending on who is the most effective against certain opponents and in certain situations.
Two fifth year seniors and a true freshman will figure into the tailback quotient this year. The starting spot will vary from game to game but the primary guys will be seniors Dominique Drake and Rickey Lewis. Drake (5-10,210) is a between the tackles threat similar to Mayhew in both size and style but more of a North-South back and a better pass catcher.
Lewis is a more versatile and complete athlete do everything type back who can also play wide receiver and quarterback in some sets. Lewis has good speed and excellent acceleration in the open field and is a lot tougher than his 5-9,190 frame would suggest. He’s elusive, slippery and finds yards after first contact which is vital in short yardage situations.
Another back to pay attention to will be true freshman Tarik Cohen (5-7,170) from Bunn, NC who is the fastest of the backs at 4.45 in the forty. He possesses the potential to break short gainers into big plays and has opened everyone’s eyes in fall camp. He has excellent balance, has a low center of gravity and is extremely difficult to handle one-on-one once he gets into the secondary.
A couple of few faces will staff the fullback spot in red shirt Tony McGinn (6-2.225) from Hendersonville, NC and Hargrave Military Academy signee Shaquille Lemay (6-2, 205). Both have the physical attributes to run and catch and are solid lead blockers.
The beginning and the end of A&T’s offensive fortunes in 2013 will rest with on the shoulders of an offensive line composed of three seniors and two juniors,. That’s a lot of experience and it should count for something even though the Aggies will be running a totally different offense than what fans have been used to.
The new offense will require more of a thought process and quicker movement off the line and more downfield blocking than the previous norm so execution and attitude will have to be in the forefront. One thing A&T will not have a problem with is being undersized or outmuscled up front. Getting out played on some downs will happen but it will not come from being physically weaker. This marks the third year that this group has been together and much is expected from them as they are the oldest and most experienced group of offensive lineman that A&T has had since 2003.
The two crown jewels in the starting lineup will be All-American left tackle William Robinson, Jr. (6-3,305, R-Jr) and center Ron Canty (6-0,277, R-Jr.) who is a preseason All-MEAC pick. There will be three seasoned senior starters teaming up with them in sixth-year senior right guard Tim Sunkins (6-4,332), Nathan Isles (6-5,332, RT, Sr.) and Danye Gorrell (6-3,305, LG, RG).
A&T will have a solid group of backups behind the original five and three veterans who should contribute in a big way in the rotation as the season progresses. Jahkeem Forrester (6-3, 270), Major Kay (6-4,322) and David Bennett (6-4,260, Jr.) have been in the system for two years now and will step into fray this year no longer novices.
True freshmen Wes Cole (6-7,331), Brandon Parker (6-7,275), Darriel Mack (6-4,280) James Tyner (6-4,300) and Josh Mattocks (6-4, 325) are all big people who are standing in the wings just in case they are needed this year because of injuries but expect most of them to be red shirted.
The most underutilized element in A&T’s offense has always been a tight end. It hasn’t been that A&T hasn’t had good athletes at that position but they have been used exclusively as blockers during the Mayhew and Ferguson eras and relegated to an afterthought when it came to the vertical passing game.
That may very well change a Senior Devon Moore (6-1,265) had been used as a fullback for three years but suddenly finds himself playing the position that made him a all state selection four years ago coming out of Charlotte, NC. Another prospect that stepped up his game in camp is John Stanfield (6-2,220) who graded out well in early scrimmages.
A year ago, Kevin Francis came to A&T as a tall lanky walk-on quarterback but was moved to tight end as a red shirt freshman and surprised a few people in the midst of that transition. Francis has added some additional weight and at 6-5, and now at 215 pounds is capable of stretching the underneath defense and is a tall target in the red zone. There are big expectations for freshman Charlie Jones who at 6-5,270 pounds will see action early on in all kinds of situations both short and long.
Reliable wide receivers were in short supply a year ago but the coaching staff went out of their way to find some long ball hitters to change the dynamic of the offense from a pure power running game to a balanced attack with a stronger vertical passing game.
To that end the Aggies went out recruited former N. C State commit Xavier Griffin (6-1,185) , Florida track star Joseph Spann (5-10,175),the explosive Chris Ballen (6-1,195) from Wakefield HS in Raleigh and Denzel Keyes (6-5,210) , who was All-State in both football and basketball at Kinston high School and is the younger brother of defensive end Angelo Keyes.
The Aggies have some returning wide outs that will certainly get their share of time on the field like possession receiver Demonta Brown (6-2,198, Sr.). Torrian Warren (6-3, 190) has had a injury plagued career at A&T, missing two years of competition, but now the sixth year senior appears to be finally healthy and ready to contribute in his last go round.
The most proven wide out will be sure handed sophomore Darren Bullock (5-11. 185) who was is the leading pass catcher in terms of yardage and catches returning from a year ago.
A lot of attention will be on ECU transfer Desmond Lawrence (5-10,180), one of the fastest wide outs in the MEAC who has been off the field for the last two years as a track star. If he can regain his football form early on, he could a extremely valuable deep threat down the road.
Another possible asset could be Chapel Hill’s Dequan Swann (6-1,190), who after sitting out with a ACL injury in 2011, played a great deal on special teams as a red shirt freshman and has regained his speed and form that made him a coveted prize coming out of the high school ranks.
To be frank, A&T passing attack was anemic for most of the year and by season’s end it was pretty much non-existent. That’s because no one receiver separated themselves from being average. With the major influx of new talent and speed at the position, A&T quarterbacks should find a lot more open targets to throw to in 2013.
The Kicking Game
Gone is placekicker Zach Cigmalia, who decided to transfer out at the end of the spring semester so back on the recruiting trial went the Broadway and his staff to find a punter and kicker to go along with Jose Garcia-Comacho (5-7.200, Jr.).
Comacho is extremely accurate on extra points and short field goals but the Aggies are looking for more distance out of their longer attempts, kickoffs and punts, which is not necessarily Comacho’s forte.
Broadway may have found a couple of answers to the deep kicking game. The Aggies found a good prospect in Gastonia Huss product Cody Jones ( 6-0,150) who participated in the East-West All-star game,
He was an all conference placekicker with career longs of 28, 50 and 52 yards while hitting on 16-19 in his attempts over the last two varsity seasons after coming over from the soccer squad where he was all conference there as well. Jones was really coveted because of his kickoff distance which has been consistently deep and out of the end zone which is a huge plus.
Jones was also an effective punter with a 42.5 yard average. On paper he appears to be on equal footing with Cigmalia’s length and power. But like his predecessor only time will tell just how that will translate into consistency under actual fire in a college game. Backing him in a third slot at punter will be reserve offensive lineman Zach Gusler, (6-5, 265, Fr.) from Yanceyville, NC.
One late additional wild card who hasn’t received much media attention is transfer Dominic Frescura, (R-Fr. 6-2, 190), South Pasadena, Calif. who gives the Aggies a total of five kickers which is a school first . Out of those five, everyone will probably get a look in game action at some point and one or possibly two should emerge as a dominant force along with Camacho early on before serious MEAC play commences.
Return specialist duties pretty much belong to D’Vonte Ingram, Torrian Warren, and newcomer Joseph “JoJo” Spann. Ingram is the most dangerous return in the country and holds the longest kick return in A&T history when he returned a missed field goal against Norfolk State for a 109 yard touchdown.
He can easily change the complexion and field position in a just single play and its an adventure every time he touches the ball. Warren is also adept at finding creases on kickoffs and hopes to return to his freshman and sophomore form when he led the league in return yardage and touchdowns. Spann was spectacular with his ability to change direction and is elusive on punt returns.
So there you have it, the “Average Fan” preview of this year’s 2013 N. C. A&T football squad. Obviously, we couldn’t talk about every player or every element surrounding this year’s squad in this format but hopefully this will give you an barometer of sorts of what came out of the preseason camp and off season developments.
How will the Aggies fair over the long haul? Well after their season opening match-up at Appalachian State, which will much closer than folks think it may be, A&T will have all its horses in full gear.
With a dominating defense, and solid running game, limited injuries and if A&T’s quarterbacks can make the open throws and avoid many of the mental errors they committed last year, this team can easily be fighting for an MEAC title come early November.