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 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 once again claiming 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 experienced 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 equal 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.
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 conservative 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 2, we look at the Aggie offense which, despite losing the winningest quarterback in A&T history along with its most reliable running back, has shown all the early the signs of being a high octane unit but with a much different style than what A&T fans have grown accustomed over the years.
For the 18th consecutive year, Bluedeathvalley.com proudly presents its annual Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 2: The Offense:
Lamar Raynard set new standards for future quarterbacks at A&T by not only crushing most of the meaningful individual career passing records but with his leadership that helped him to go 35-2 as a three year starter. Now the reigns have now been turned over to the best quarterback in the MEAC not to have been a starter last season.
Fifth year senior Kylil Carter (5-10, 220) will finally move into the starting role as “the guy” in the Aggie offense. Carter has never been just your average backup quarterback. He’s been thrown into the middle of fire under all kinds of duress more than once and has shown great decision making and throwing accuracy to lead A&T to some huge road wins in his career including last year’s win over FBS East Carolina along the way.
Carter is a very mobile quarterback with the ability to proficiently run the option or scramble out of trouble when necessary. What is often overlooked because of his short stature is that he is very efficient in delivering the ball out of the pocket hitting on 41-74 passes for 374 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in 2018. And despite his reputation as merely being a runner , his career completion percentage (54.2) going into this season nearly matches that of Raynard (57.5) with a much lower interception to completion rate.
Backing him up will be red shirt sophomore Jalen Fowler, Fowler is a strapping 6-4, 240 pound specimen who is blessed with a cannon of an arm and has been in the program for three years. Fowler has vastly improved over where he was this time the last year and now has a grasp of the offense and reads but has very little if any actual game experience to call upon if suddenly pressed into full time service.
The wildcard in the backup role is East Carolina transfer Kingsley Ifedi (6-2, 215, R-So.) who actually got into the game as a freshman against A&T last year for a short stint down in Greenville. Ifedi has superior athleticism for a quarterback and could become the dual threat of the future once he gains some experience and really learns offensive coordinator Chris Barnette’s system.
If A&T’s offense has the opportunity to be something special this season it will be because of an offensive line that has had a strong showing during fall camp. This is an experienced heavy underclassmen dominated unit which is uncharacteristic for most FCS programs. The corner stone to unit are a pair of outstanding offensive tackles who are preseason first team all-MEAC picks.
Left tackle Marcus Pettiford (6-4,287) has already been named to several preseason FCS All-America team . His strong re-committal to academics after a rough patch as a freshman along with his unique versatility and athleticism has helped him become the first MEAC offensive linemen ever to earn first team All-MEAC honors playing as both a left and right tackle. He will be getting a lot of looks from pro scouts this season.
Junior right tackle Dontae Keys (6-4, 300) had a breakout season a year ago being named the offensive lineman of the week twice and gaining a great deal of experience starting nine games including the Celebration Bowl. Keyes has the kind of body frame, lateral foot speed and the arm length that could make him a NFL attention getter by season’s end.
A&T has added additional size to the guard position. Left guard will be focused around Eastern Kentucky transfer LeJour Simpson (6-3, 290), a Charlotte native, who sat out last year after being a two year starter at center for the Colonels. Simpson also trimmed considerable weight off his once 330 pound plus frame during the year off and now benefits from far more quickness off the line rather than depending on just girth alone.
One player that has both the bulk and sheer strength is red shirt freshman Lawrence Lagrone. At a massive 6-3, 350 pounds, he is going to be an essential piece in craving out lane space in the middle of the defense for the running game to thrive in short yardage situations. Lagrone solidified his hold on the right guard spot back in spring practice.
Locals will be familiar with the name Dacquari Wilson who played his high school ball at Dudley High School here in Greensboro. Wilson stepped in during the early part of last season, became the full-time starter at center at Delaware State, and never looked back. The 6-3, 280 pound sophomore is also one of the strongest linemen on the team bench pressing 440 pounds.
One thing that offensive line coach Ron Mattes is really good at is getting as much versatility as possible out of his reserve linemen and not necessarily falling into the trap of locking then down into being able to perform at just one position.
Backing them up will be experienced third year veterans Bilal Ali (6-3, 265, R-Jr.), Deven Milton (6-5, 295, R-Jr.), Tyshawn Miller (6-2, 270, R-So.), Jeremiah Martin ( 5-11, 263, R-Jr.). All of these players saw meaningful action in 2018 and will be counted on to be in the rotation from day one.
Rio Claytor (6-2, 280, R-So.)) was a interesting late JUCO signee from Milianu, Hawaii and could see backup duty at either center or guard. Early signee Trawn Barrington (6-5, 305) is a freshman from Ontario, Canada by way of spending a year at Victory Valley College (CA).
The Aggies also have plenty of young new faces with size that they can call upon if necessary in Tim Williams (6-3, 290 R-Fr.), Terrance Frasier (6-6, 330, Fr.), Cesar Minarro (6-4, 285, Fr,), and Tyler Crawford (6-4, 307, R-Fr.).
Three years ago Marquell Cartwright had the unenviable task of following the greatest running back in the history of the MEAC in Tarik Cohen. People expressed a lot of doubts about his ability to impact the running game since he wasn’t particularly flashy or speedy. He didn’t have that “wow” factor.
What he did have was a ton of toughness and reliability – a guy who came to play every single down and brought the fight to the defense and not the other way around. Cartwright ended his career winning the conference rushing title twice, a Celebration Bowl MVP, a 2-time first team all-conference pick who rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and 33 TDs. So much for arm chair expert comparisons and having nothing more than a true lunch pail work ethic to bring to the table.
A&T will be looking to see if Jah-Maine Martin can duplicate those kind of numbers from its next man up in line to become the featured deep back. If his 2018 performance in a back up role was any indication of what lies ahead then the Aggie rushing attack could once again churn out the MEAC’s leading rusher for a eighth straight year.
Martin is one of those rare complete backs. The kind that has all the speed to go the distance, the soft hands of receiver, and all of the grittiness necessary to run in between the tackles down in close. The 5-11, 207 pound junior, who transferred from Coastal Carolina last spring, rushed for 656 yards and seven TDs, averaging 6.7 yards per carry which ranked him as the 4th leading rusher against MEAC competition in a purely reserve role.
Martin won’t be alone by a long shot as senior Kashon Baker (5-6, 165) and junior Darius Graves (5-7,190) will both play big roles spelling Martin and presenting their own set of match up problems for opposing defenses.
While diminutive in size, Baker’s speed and open field elusiveness once he gets to the second level makes him an ideal field stretcher and a dangerous receiver threat coming out of the backfield. He spent all of last year playing a little bit of everything – running back, receiver return specialist. As the lone senior among the running backs, the coaches will be looking to him to provide leadership and steadiness for the younger players to emulate.
After transferring from UNC, Graves awaited his turn last year along the sidelines. Graves will remind people of A&T backs of old with a north-south style that will be crucial in short yardage and red zone scenarios. Graves won’t overwhelm you with any dramatic breakaway runs but he is hard nosed, tough to knock off balance, has good vision and quick enough feet to keep the chains moving.
The fourth back in the equation is a local product from just down road in Lexington, NC and he looks to be a good one. T. J. Boyce (5-11, 205, R-Fr.) hails from North Davidson High School where he rushed for 2,663 yards and had 38 touchdowns, caught 24 passes for 309 yards as a senior in helping the Knights reach the 2-AA state semifinals while being named the 2017 Mid-State Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
He has all the tools you would expect from a back with that kind of pedigree. He showed up well during spring practice and has continued that effort into the fall. He’ll get plenty of chances early on in the season to see just how well that prep resume will hold up against D-1 competition.
Fullbacks are always the forgotten man in today’s modern college backfields with spread formations featuring four or five wide outs on almost every play. A&T has a run first mentality on offense, always has and always will so fullbacks are true commodity in Greensboro.
William Simpson will get the first shot to replace the graduated William Hollingsworth and why not? Simpson is a tenacious blocker at 6-0, 265 pounds but even more impressive is his running ability which he has been showing off a bit in practice. He is a surprisingly quick space heater.
Last time there was a Justin Nwachukwu sighting back in April he was auditioning to become a starting defensive lineman. Fast forward four months and he’s now a fullback rolling nose tackles instead of getting rolled. Nwachukwu (6-0, 272, Sr.) is not really a stranger to the position as he doubled as both a down lineman and a fullback in high school. Any way you cut it A&T’s quarterbacks and tailbacks will have two very capable and athletic big guys to protect them and to clear out holes.
If you were wondering if A&T will throw the ball a little bit more this year, I would say that would be a pretty safe assumption given the riches in this year’s receiver corps. When you sit down and look at the abundance of talent, you will quickly understand why there’s such a good chance that the Aggies just might air it out from time to time this fall.
It all begins with the man who most people say will be the next A&T player to taken in the NFL draft. Wide receiver Elijah Bell fought through a tough nagging foot injury stemming from a earlier surgery throughout much of 2018. He struggled mightily through the first half of last season including limited or no duty at all in three straight games. The 6-2, 225 pound Bell managed to put together a modest 48 grabs for 541 yards and six touchdowns in 2018.
Still, even only at half speed, the West Virginia senior had game winning catches in upset wins over Jacksonville State and East Carolina. When Bell did finally begin to heal late in the year the difference was dramatic and he topped out against NC Central with a draw dropping 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He would later go on to tie the school record for touchdown catches with a 27-yard grab in a 24-22 win over Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl.
If Bell is the bread of the receivers, then Zach Leslie ( 6-4, 205, Jr.) is certainly the butter. Leslie really came into his own last season, leading the Aggies in most of the receiving categories – catches (50), yards (676), and touchdowns (9).
A long strider, Leslie has really deceptive speed and an incredible set of hands with a big vertical leap makes him a reliable red zone target as the acrobatic Bell a thereby creating a total one-on-one mismatch on either side for every defensive back they’ll face.
With the departure Malik Wilson, the deep threat duties will most likely fall to Ron Hunt (6-2, 175, Sr.). Blessed with an abundance of speed, Hunt lead the team in average yards per catch (15.5) and will step into a starting role as that third receiver in A&T’s multiple wide out sets. Jordan McDaniel (6-1, 190, R-So.) and Ahmad Bah (6-4, 190) will also fall into the regular rotation
Freshman Mykul (Prestige) Edwards (6-5, 180) has a huge amount of talent and his development will be well worth watching as he grows and learns behind the established veterans.
Sophomore Quinzel Lockhart ( 6-1, 210) has moved from the outside to the inside at the H-Back spot and should give enemy linebackers plenty of headaches as they try to cover him downfield. Jarvis Reid (6-4, 240. Sr.) has been showing lots of signs he will be a reliable receiver as a traditional tight end in the passing game this year in addition to already being a strong blocker.
The Aggies added a potential big time playmaker in the off season with the signing of speedy South Carolina transfer Korey Banks (5-11, 185, Jr.). Banks, a former 3-star recruit, enters the picture as a primary candidate take over the slot receiver post vacated by the graduation of Malik Wilson.
Banks participated in spring practice and showed not only his wares as a receiver but gave a tiny glimpse of his versatility as a running back as well. He’ll have competition from red shirt freshmen Chance Pride (5-8, 175) and Israel Spivey (5-9, 180), a pair of young speed burners.
Still yet another talented FBS transfer has been added to this group in Taymon Cooke (6-1, 180, R-Fr., 4.33.) from Marshall. Cooke broke all sorts of prep records coming out of Graham High School in Bluefield Va., originally committing to West Virginia as 3-star recruit before later switching to the Thundering Herd and spent all of last season as a red shirt there.
If A&T can avoid critical injuries at both the quarterback and running back positions, then this offense has a chance at being something truly exceptional this fall.