Lessons Learned: Washington Prepares for Year TwoBy Semaj Marsh
Published: August 7, 2019
By all accounts, year one of the Sam Washington era was a tremendous success. During his first campaign as head football coach of North Carolina A&T, Washington led the Aggies to another outright conference title, the school’s third Celebration Bowl victory, and along the way, was even named the MEAC Coach of the Year. The road to glory, however was anything but easy. After accepting the task of replacing legendary coach Rod Broadway, Washington encountered his full share of adversity, including a pair of last-second losses, a string of untimely injuries to key players, and a host of other internal issues that threatened to derail his team from their ultimate destination. Now as he prepares for Act Two, we caught up with Coach Washington last week to hear what he learned from 2018 and his outlook for the upcoming season.
BlueDeathValley.com: As you look back to 2018, what do you think you learned most about yourself and what were some of the main things that you took away from your first season as head coach?
Coach Washington: “Don’t take anything for granted. Every play is important and every decision that you make is important. I learned that because, honestly, the two games that we lost last season, they haunt me. One with two seconds left on the clock and one with four seconds left on the clock. So, you know, we were six seconds from being undefeated for the second year in a row. And really, I have no one to blame but me. I think I allowed us to get a little too big for our britches, so to speak. We started smelling ourselves instead of doing what we needed to do to be successful.”
So now that you have been able to reflect on last season, have there been any changes that you have implemented to the program?
Coach Washington: “Very little. I don’t think what we’ve been doing here is broken or needs the be changed in any way; I just think that what we do, we need to do it better. Our foundation is based on fundamentals, technique and effort. And we’re going to constantly continue to do just that. That will be our main focus. Game to game, our objective is to stop the run, protect the football and win the kicking the game. As Coach Broadway would always put it: “we do chicken.” We’re not a steakhouse; we’re not into burritos or hamburgers or nothing else – we keep it simple. We do chicken and we just do it well.”
With that being said, I know last season your program faced some adversity at times – whether it was with several top players going down with injuries and even some off-the-field issues. Do you feel that this offseason has gone a bit smoother overall?
Coach Washington: “Absolutely. And fortunately, we were able to bring in a significant part of the team in for Summer (school session) 2, which is a very critical time to build that camaraderie and the bonding that I think is necessary to be successful. Also, it provided a chance to establish the timing with the receivers and quarterbacks. They were not just on their own with no supervision. We were able to instill some leadership and help develop some of the younger guys and make sure they understand the way that we do things and the effort that’s going to be required.”
Well you mentioned a key word that’s on the mind of a lot of A&T fans right now and that’s quarterback. After the graduation of Lamar Raynard, this appears to be one of the first years in a while where there seems to be some uncertainty at that position. How do you feel about the current state of the A&T quarterback position? Is there a clear number one guy at this point and has a pecking order been determined?
Coach Washington: “Yes, there is a pecking order. We do have a No. 1 quarterback, but that quarterback position is a lot like all the rest of them – at this point it’s still up for grabs. What we like to do as coaches is make it very competitive at each position. Nobody here just (automatically) has a spot. Now, when we go with the first group in practice, obviously Kylil will be our guy. He has won some big ballgames for us. One in particular was the ECU game last year. He came in and drove right down the field and punched that thing into the endzone twice. So he’s very capable. He missed spring (camp) because of the car accident that he was in last year in which he broke his leg, but the doctors are very pleased with his recovery and where he is right now. Granted, we still have not taken a shot on Kylil. He has not been tackled since last season so there are some questions on how well he will adjust, you know, when someone hits him. What will his mindset be? Will he jump up and be ready to go, or will he favor that knee? There are some unanswered questions, but I also think the two kids behind him are going to push him regardless, whether he’s 100 percent or not. Jalen Fowler, he’s a big 6’4, 245-pound kid that can run and he has a canon for an arm. He’s a very smart kid too, both on and off the field. He’s a 3.8 student. We also have Kingsley Ifedi, a transfer from ECU, and he’s very worthy as well. I think it’s going to be very exciting to see which one of those guys emerges. They say cream rises to the top so we’ll get a chance to see who ends up with that position.”
Besides the obvious game experience, what do you think gives Carter the advantage in the quarterback competition at this point?
Coach Washington: “He’s been in the system the longest. He’s knows the offensive system and he’s a great decision maker. He gets the ball to the right place. A lot of it is read option and RPO stuff, and he knows exactly what to do with the ball in any given situation.”
Well fortunately for whoever wins that starting quarterback job, they will have an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position. I don’t think I can ever recall an A&T roster being this loaded with such incredible talent and depth at wide receiver. I’m not sure how you are going to be able to determine who all gets the targets and touches this season, but there are going to be a lot of serious athletes trying to get on the field.
Coach Washington: “You’re absolutely right and that just makes things a little easier for us because now you can’t double-team any one particular guy. And if you do that, then you take the risk of leaving Zach Leslie or E. Bell or Ron Hunt one-on-one … and I don’t think that’s what you want to do. So we’re going to force a lot of people to stay honest on the back end and they’ll have to decide when to bring that extra guy down into the box. And if you keep them out the box long enough, we run the ball well enough to hurt you as well.”
I understand you brought in a few newcomers at the wide receiver position this year. Are there any names in particular that A&T fans should keep an eye on?
Coach Washington: “Yes, we beefed up a little bit. We brought in a kid named Korey Banks from the University of South Carolina. He’s a slot receiver and those other guys will play mostly at the X and Z [wide receiver positions]. Korey’s a true talent. I mean, he can do it all – he runs, blocks, is very physical, and he can turn a five-yard hitch into a 90-yard touchdown. We also brought in Taymon Cooke, another transfer from Marshall. He’s a very physical kid. Honestly, I’m excited to see exactly how this season unfolds with all the talent we have at that position”.
On the defensive side of the ball, I know that is your bread and butter and we always expect the Blue Death Defense to keep on rolling and being dominant as long as you and your staff are here. Obviously, A&T loses a lot of key players from the starting lineup from last season, but how do you feel about that unit heading into 2019?
Coach Washington: “Coming out the of spring, I felt really good. I really did. I think we have the foundation and the nucleus here to be pretty good again this season. But there’s still a lot of work yet to be done and, as you stated, there are a few kids who don’t have a whole lot of game experience. However, there are a few who have played quite a bit of football. So, it may seem like some new faces but yet a lot of them are not really new. We’ll also get a chance to see how well Frank McCain is able to recover from his injury. You know, he tore his ACL last year but everything (with his recovery) seems to be fantastic. I don’t think you will really know about him until he has to tackle someone or he has to take a lick. Then we will be able to determine if he is game ready or not. But now, I’m very confident in the guys who are behind him too. Amir (McNeil) came in last year and replaced him and we didn’t miss a beat. We didn’t have to change the defense in any way. We were still able to do what we do and we expect the same this year.”
Will Franklin McCain be on any practice restrictions at the beginning of camp? Will you keep him on a “pitch-count”, so to speak, in regards to the number of reps he gets … or will you just let him go full throttle from the get-go?
Coach Washington: “No, we’re going to feed him very slowly here, initially. Real slow, as a matter of fact. It will be a while before we just throw him into the fire and find out what he can or can not do.”
Now I’ve got to be honest with you, Coach. My biggest question mark on the defense when I look at the roster is at the inside linebacker positions. I know you are losing some bigtime contributors in Kiaundric Richardson and Deion Jones. Should I be concerned about not having those guys in the middle this season or is everything going to OK in your opinion?
Coach Washington: “Yes, you should be concerned just like I am. [laughs]
Ok, so I’m not crazy. That’s good to know. [laughs]
Coach Washington: “No, you’re not crazy. The kids that backed up those guys last year, they have all been battle-tested but not to the extent where they had a responsibility on every down. They played sparingly in certain situations, taking 20 snaps a game … and now that count goes up to around 50 to 60. But I feel very confident with our (inside) linebackers, I really do. I think we might actually be a little more talented at that position than we have been in recent years, but those other guys had that experience and, you know, there’s a lot of be said about just having experience.”
I guess some of the most recent memories fans might have of A&T football was from the 2018 Celebration Bowl and, to be honest, in that game our defense wasn’t as dominant against the run as we’ve all been accustomed to. After sitting back and going through all of the game film, did you identify why Alcorn was able to have so much success on the ground? Did they just have an answer for your defense that no one else has been able to come up with?
Coach Washington: “No, absolutely not. On the sideline there, you’re scratching your head wondering what is going on. But after watching the film we saw that the technique that we were playing was done poorly. We just played horrible. And it has never happened before to that magnitude. I think some of the kids got on their heels and panicked a bit and started doing things that were very uncharacteristic. But I would invite and encourage those who feel that they can run that same play against our defense again. [laughs] Bring it on.”
One of the things that happened over the offseason that came as a surprise to many A&T fans was when star defensive end Darryl Johnson Jr. decided to declare early for the NFL draft and forgo his senior season. He was eventually drafted in the seventh round by the Buffalo Bills and will actually be down here in a few weeks to face the Carolina Panthers in a preseason game. But honestly, did his decision catch you off-guard or did you have some anticipation that he was leaving? Also, how does that defensive end position stand now with his absence?
Coach Washington: “To answer the first part of the question, it did catch us somewhat by surprise. We knew that there was a chance (of him declaring for the draft early) and he came in and sat down with us and we discussed the possibilities. But you don’t really realize it until it actually happens. If it was up to me, yeah I would love to have him back but he felt that was the best thing for him and we wish him well. We’ll be in his corner cheering for him. Now as far as his replacement goes, I feel 100 percent satisfied with Tre Smalls. He’s going to be our weak-side defensive end. I think he’s a force to be reckoned with. Of course, he does not have the length that Darryl had, but I think he’s the same athlete. He’s very athletic and he can run. He has that first step, so I think he’s going to pose a lot of problems for a lot of offensive tackles.”
And what about that strong side? Who’s going to take over for Sam Blue?
Coach Washington: “Well that’s going be Devin Harrell. We’ve had these kids in the bullpen for two years now so it’s time for them to show up and show out. Athletically, we don’t expect to lose a beat and we may even gain a step or two, honestly. They are all very athletic but, again, they just don’t have that experience.”
Well Coach, you’ve got about four more weeks here and then you’ll be getting ready to host Elon on August 31. Realistically, how much time will it take for you to have a solidified depth chart? When will you know for certain who’s going to be your starters and key backups at each position for this season?
Coach Washington: “I wish I could answer that, but honestly sometimes it’s right away and sometimes it may be the day before the first game. I really don’t know (at this point) but I think we have an idea. We know where we want to start but I have hopes that there are some surprises; some guys that show up this camp that prove that they are worthy and that they are ready to play. I would gladly welcome any of that kind of talent to show up.”