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 this final piece of the preview, we look at the Aggie special teams whose big priority will be seeking a replacement for game changer All-America return specialist Malik Wilson who set the single season school records for kickoff returns for average yards per return (34) and touchdowns (4). Will it be someone already on the roster that will step to accept the challenge or will it be a totally new face that will emerge?
For the 18th consecutive year, Bluedeathvalley.com proudly presents its annual Bluedeathvalley.com Football Preview – Part 3: The Special Teams:
While Florida A&M’s All-American Chris Faddoul garnered all of the attention as the premier punter in the nation last year, and rightfully so, there was a little known freshman in Greensboro who quietly started to make his presence felt in the MEAC as the season went on.
Michael Rivers (6-0,175) came to A&T in January of 2018 out of North Brunswick High School in Wilmington, NC after graduating early. In 12 games Rivers punted the ball 66 times for 2,609 yards resulting in six touchbacks, nine fair catches and 21 kicks being placed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Other wise his stats for the year would have been well over his 39.5 yards per kick average.
His punting was a instrumental piece n the Aggies HBCU national championship win over Alcorn State in the Celebration Bowl at Mercedes-Benz in Atlanta where he averaged 41.4 yards per punt on five attempts including a 52 yarder.
Senior James Mackey returns as the Aggies alternative punter when ball placement becomes more important in certain situations and when gaining field position is at a premium. He can also put some distance into it as well as he has not had a punt under 30 yards in over two years (39.2 yd avg.).
If ever the term player development was applicable it would be so for Noel Ruiz (5-11, 160, Jr.) . After and up and down freshman year, the rising junior rebounded mightily in 2018 converting on 5 of 9 (.556) field goals and 44 of 49 (.898) extra points he also serves as A&T’s primary kick off specialist having kicked the ball off 37 times for a total of 2,064 yards and an average of 55.8 yards with 8 touchbacks.
A rigorous off season conditioning and practice regiment has gained him both increased leg strength and confidence as shown in the tremendous improvement in his accuracy during fall camp, hitting field goals in scrimmages consistently from distances of 50 yards or better.
Backing him up will be red shirt sophomore Davis Rogers (5-10,185) who in eight appearances kicked the ball off 29 times for a total of 1,685 yards for an average of 58.1 yards per kickoff two touchbacks.
All through the preseason the coaching staff has really been mentioning primarily one name when it comes to finding a new replacement for Malik Wilson as the deep man on kickoffs. That name is Korey Banks (5-11,188, R-Jr.).
Banks is a former 3-star wide receiver prospect transfer from South Carolina where he played sparingly last year after being switched to defensive back. The Tyrone, GA native who boasts 4.43 speed made the move north to Market Street at mid year and partcipated in spring practice, winning the starting slot receiver job. Coaches were even more impressed with his excellent hands, acceleration, instincts, and timing during practice performances as a return specialist.
Punts may be handled by a Chance Pride (5-7,170, R-Fr.), from Taylors, SC. Pride is a prime time highlight reel with 4.5 forty speed and can electrify a game whenever he touches the ball in the open field. The former all-state wide receiver played at Eastside High School finishing with a career mark of 3,549 receiving yards with 41 touchdowns, 14 rushing touchdowns and returned both kicks and punts for 8 more scores.
Another threat in the return game will be Israel Spivey (5-8,170, R-Fr.) who runs a team-best 4.31 in the 40-yard dash. 247 Sports rated Spivey as a 3-star athlete after starring at Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, Ga. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named him 5- AAA all-region and he returned six kickoffs and eight punts for touchdowns during his career with 418 return yards as a senior. Spivey committed to the Aggies after being recruited by the likes of FBS members Michigan, Georgia State, and Coastal Carolina.
There’s more than enough speed among these three to remedy any lingering hangovers from no longer having number 88 returning kicks. The question is which one of them will blossom into the main man or because there is so much explosiveness assembled in the return game, could this be the year of return by committee?