All the preseason hoopla and hype over the dozens of media polls and paper analysis is now only about a week away from becoming either a highly anticipated reality or sobering wake-up call for every college football team in America.
North Carolina A&T is no exception. After opening the 2018 season with upset road victories over FCS powerhouse Jacksonville State and in-state FBS East Carolina, the Aggies hit an up and down patch in the middle of the season with home losses to bottom dweller Morgan State and a up and coming FAMU squad.
The Aggies appeared to be bound for a second place finish and a at-large berth to the FCS playoffs until the Rattlers experienced a monumental late season collapse losing its final three games which opened the door for A&T to win its second straight outright MEAC title.
That was only a prelude to the Aggies who once again claimed their third HBCU National championship in four years with a dramatic 24-22 win over Alcorn in the Air Force Celebration Bowl. The Aggies lost 26 seniors from a year ago who had been largely instrumental in compiling A&T’s remarkable 41-7 record over the last four years. And while losing 7 very critical senior all conference performers from last year, the Aggies are anything but void of talent.
Head Coach Sam Washington will have just 6 starters back on offense and a equally small number on defense. There will be a lot of new faces being mixed in with the returning veterans coming out of fall camp so the Aggies will be somewhat of a mystery heading into 2019 – new quarterback, new running back, new linebackers, and new people up front on both sides of the ball.
With all these new names and numbers, the question is can A&T complete the improbable hat trick of winning both the MEAC and the Celebration Bowl for a third consecutive year? There’s major work to be done but the program in recent years has shown it has the resiliency to replace major components year in and year out while still dominating HBCU football. This season should indeed put that supposition to the test. I’m just anxious as all you to see for myself. So let’s get to it then.
In this three part series over the next week we will try to break down the 2019 squad position-by-position so that our readers will have a informative guide for the upcoming season. Today in Part 1, we look at the Aggie defense as the Aggies will try to replace seven starters from a defense that has been one of the best in the nation over the last half decade.
For the 18th consecutive year, Bluedeathvalley.com proudly presents its annual Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 1: The Defense:
Gone are All-America Darryl Johnson and All-MEAC dynamos Sam Blue and Julian McKnight. Those three accounted for 127 tackles (42 for loss) and 16.5 total sacks. Stepping in at the starting end spots will be veteran senior Leon “Tre”Smalls (6-0,250) and FBS transfer Jermaine McDaniel (6-3,235, R-So.).
Smalls started his career at A&T as linebacker but made the transition to a down lineman last year as a first reserve and now seems poised to take over a starting role. McDaniel had a strong freshman year showing for Appalachian State last year with a couple of starts under his belt and has already shown tremendous quickness (4.59) and range in fall camp indicating that he will be a real force to be reckoned with coming off the edge.
Backing them will be sophomore Devin Harrell (6-2,235, Gastonia) and freshman Janorris Robertson, a 6-2, 240 two time all-state performer from Jacksonville, Fla. Another new name to keep an eye on will be a coveted 3-star freshman in 6-7,260 pound Kyle Stanback, all the way from Newbury Park, CA.
The tackle spots will be manned by a lot of familiar names and are expected to keep A&T among the conference defensive leaders against the run. First team preseason All-MEAC pick Justin Cates (6-3, 260) returns as a grad student and will lead the charge. Cates is coming off a great 2018 where he had 36 tackles (21 unassisted) and 3.5 sacks after coming back from a season ending knee injury in 2017. That effort earned him second team postseason all conference honors a year ago.
Beside him will be two fifth year seniors in Jermaine Williams (6-1,275) and the imposing Kadarius Kendrick (6-4,309). Williams, a Lumberton native and another preseason all-MEAC pick, will hold down the nose tackle position while Kendrick is looking to return to his sophomore form after missing last year because of academics.
Defensive Coordinator Courtney Coard will have the luxury of having some additional depth inside with local product Michael Branch (6-0, 322, Sr., SE Guilford) Karfa Kaba (6-2,257, R-So.)) and a pair of very promising true freshmen in Thomas Washington (6-2,287), and Malik Ward (5-11,265) from powerful state 2-A champion Tarboro High School.
If A&T has a distinctive unknown and a possible Achilles heel going into the 2019 season, it will be the how it will cope with the graduation of three long time starters in Deion Jones, Kia Richardson, and Julius Reynolds. That trio accounted for 107 tackles with 67 coming unassisted. They were key ingredients in the Aggie defense that only allowed a meager 95 rushing yards per game which again ranked it first against the run in the MEAC for fourth consecutive year.
While the Aggies will have a largely new unit at linebacker they still will still have first team All-MEAC Antoine Wilder (5-11,190, Sr.) back patrolling the outside and creating havoc. The University of South Carolina transfer stepped into a starting role last season and immediately made a name for himself and became one of the best defenders on the MEAC. He led the team with 67 tackles (37 unassisted), 2 interceptions, eight pass breakups, with 10 pass defended.
Flanking him on the weak side will be senior Elijah Westbrook (5-9,205, 8 tackles) who had been a standout on special teams over the last couple of years but will now get a competitive chance to become a fulltime starter in his final collegiate season.
Holding down the middle position will be red shirt sophomore Kyin Howard, a 6-0, 240 product from Eastern Guilford and is a fierce hitter. Howard is no novice to the playing field after mixing into the rotation as a freshman with 29 tackles and a sack as a top reserve.
Questions abound as to who will step up to be the major players behind this starting group as all of the reserves are virtual unknowns heading into the season opener against Elon. There is plenty of young talent on the roster but a couple of intriguing transfers may just hold the key as whether the A&T defense will be as dominant against the run as they traditionally have been in the past.
The reserve inside backers are much bigger than normal and will feature a pair of highly regarded red shirt freshmen in KeAndre Jones (6-0, 252) and Chris Williams (6-1,225). Much is also expected out of promising rising junior Tyler Beck (6-0, 245) who sat out last season.
The outside backers depth will also be top heavy in youth. Transfer Alex Fumbah (6-1, 220, Jr., Snellville, Ga.) from Fort Scott Community College will counted on heavily to be a difference maker from an experience standpoint as the underclassmen gain experience.
Also first out of the box will be sophomore Joseph Stuckey (6-0, 205) who got his feet wet just a bit last year on kick coverage duty but possesses a world of potential with his speed and ball hawk anticipation.
Newcomers Jacob Roberts (6-0,215, Fr.) Chase Williamson (6-0, 200, Fr.) and Julian Monnell (5-10,205, R-Fr.) should see spot duty early on and provide additional help most likely later on into the campaign.
Everyone on God’s green earth has been speculating about the return of All-America cornerback Mac McCain and when that might happen. McCain went down with a torn ACL during the second quarter at Bethune Cookman back in early October on a non contact play. After surgery and very intense rehab during the winter and spring months, McCain was surprisingly back out running by the mid summer and getting himself back into playing shape.
The 6-0, 175 junior will back this season but will be brought along slowly and it will be almost certainly be solely a medical decision as to when and where he gets back on to the field full time.
In the meantime, a strong battle is taking place to see who will step into his spot for the opening game. Amir McNeil (5-9, 167, R-So.) stepped up last year and did a yeoman’s job in McCain’s absence but he has been moved over to the opposite side to replace the departed Timadre Abrams who finished off a stellar college career as 2-time first team all conference selection. Derrick Williams (5-10,185, R-Jr.) is getting a lot of reps in practice and has plenty of experience.
Chris Moseley (5-10,170, R-Sr.) is a Greensboro native (Page HS) who comes into the conversation after sitting out 2018 as an upward transfer from D-II Mars Hill (SAC-8) where he as a two year starter compiling 49 tackles (39 unassisted), 4 interceptions (1 TD), and 16 pass breakups.
Another transfer who should see a lot of playing time is senior Jabari Butler (6-0,181) who has made his way to Greensboro after spending last season at Penn State. Most of Butler’s resume high marks stem from his 2 years as a starter at Abilene Christian (FCS) in the Southland Conference where he gained all conference honors and was named the conference rookie of the year in 2015.
True freshman Herbert Booker Jr. (5-11,188) appears to be one newbie who is most readily equipped to make an immediate transition to the college game. His work during the early scrimmages has been solid and whose technique and physicality in run support has stood out.
Replacing Jamaal Darden at the all important Rover position is one that holds a lot of importance in the A&T defense. The position is one of disruption – having the ability to create mayhem not only against the run but as playmaker against the pass as well. Unforeseen injuries has opened up the competition in recent days and the battle for that starting spot may not be totally decided until next week.
Will Jones (6-2,205, Jr.) appears to be one of the primary front runners at press time. He heads into his third year with the program with experience after getting significant playing time last year behind projected starter Richie Kittles (knee).
Transfer Stephen Davis Jr. (R-Jr.) has settled in after stints at both Auburn and South Carolina . Davis is an impressive looking athlete at 6-3, 215 whose career had been hampered by a knee injury but is now totally healthy and the once prized Rivals recruit appears ready to fulfill the promise that made him a hot SEC property coming out of Dutch Fork High School (Irmo, SC) three years ago.
There’s two new faces that could be called upon to step up in red shirt freshman Jazir Staton (5-10,185) and freshman A.J. Dupree (6-0,190) from Snow Hill.
The free safety will be manned by 5th year Durham senior Jalon Bethea (5-10, 180, 30 tackles) who came on strong in the second half of last season with really solid games down the final stretch run to last year’s championship.
Najee Reams (6-2,190, Jr.) is making a serious push to become the top free safety and should have a outstanding year. Reams certainly has the kind of size and definitely the speed to become that reliable center fielder in the deep secondary.
Red shirt freshman Miles Simon (6-0, 195) looks to be a sure tackler and coverage guy who has been very impressive in practice.
How well A&T can develop its younger players quickly down the depth chart will go a long way in determining just how far this defense and this team will go this season.