Well the dog days of summer will be wrapping up shortly and we will soon be heading into the fall and hopefully cooler weather which can only mean one thing – football season is upon us and it’s going to look and feel a bit different as we kick off this next decade of A&T football.
The Aggies are no longer exactly the hunted at least initially as they have moved out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic conference and is starting anew in the Big South.
How will the Aggies will match up playing a Big South schedule is still open for debate but according to the league’s coaches, A&T will finish no less than third behind the conference’s traditional front runners Monmouth and Kennesaw State. All three teams are ranked in the FCS Top 25 which is a Big South record so there will be a lot eyes cast on this year’s race with a definite bent toward those weekly rankings and jockeying for those choice seedings for the FCS playoffs beginning in late November.
It will be a first time out against not only those teams but programs like Robert Morris and North Alabama. A&T has had some prior experience with Big South competition locking horns in recent years with former member and now FBS Coastal Carolina and Gardner Webb.
Just last year A&T went on the road and beat a scrappy Charleston Southern team behind a strong second half offensive performance. A&T and Hampton will reunite on the field after a three-year hiatus after the Pirates left the MEAC for the Big South three years ago. Now they are conference foes once again.
This year’s Aggies are coming into the season as squad having come off a huge layoff, missing all of 2020 after the MEAC opted not to play last fall in the midst of the pandemic. A&T along with four other schools decided opt out of the shortened spring season which left them plenty of time to extensively train, recruit, build a lot of depth, consume a lot of film, and work on the mental and physical preparation for fall.
How deep is A&T after being out of the limelight for almost two years? Coach Sam Washington returns 13 seniors with additional eligibility because of the Covid allowance given by the NCAA, 11 of which have already graduated and nine of those graduates having an extra two years of playing time left to them along with 41 returning lettermen. Experience should not be an issue.
Covid, although it canceled the 2020 season, allowed for the accumulation of a lot of talent especially along both interior lines, a topic will explore due course as we go through this series. But first we’ll begin this year’s 5-part series with the defensive backfield, sometimes a sticking point as pass defense efficiency and interceptions were slightly down in 2019 but could be on a major upswing for 2021.
The leader of the secondary will be Amir McNeil (5-9,170), the redshirt junior from Laurinburg, NC. This 4.4 cover guy can run with most any receiver and despite his slight stature is one of the more aggressive run defenders in the lineup with 35 tackles, and five pass breakups with 1 interception from 2019.
Mac McCain, who seemed to be star cornerback forever at A&T, concluded his college career a year early and entered the NFL draft after an outstanding career that saw him gain first team All-America honors twice and all-conference honors three times. The question a year ago was who would replace the Denver Bronco free agent. It didn’t take long to find the answer.
Dwaine Crossen (6-2, 200) was a legit 4-star recruit coming out of nearby Dudley High School in 2018 when he signed with Virginia Tech. After sitting out all of 2019, Crossen came into spring practice and immediately established himself as not only the heir apparent at the strong corner but displayed leadership skills far beyond his sophomore standing.
Backing those two will be a quartet of talented young players in Herbert Booker (5-11,190, R-Fr.), Naval Academy transfer Jasion Taylor (6-0, 190, R-So.), and Aaron Harris (5-11,187, R-Fr.).
The Aggies were extremely active in their recruiting in their off year at the corner position with an eye on getting bigger and more physical and there are some incoming freshmen of note who are pushing the upper classmen and who could very well completely shed their red shirt status manage to break into the rotation at some point during the season.
Nathaniel Spindale (6-0, 180) and Avarion Cole were teammates on back-to-back state championship teams at Chambers (formerly Vance) High School in Charlotte. Cole is impressive specimen at 6-0, 205 with 4.45 speed who is extremely physical and craves contact. Shawn Chappell (6-2,205) is a 3-star prospect from Southern Durham that A&T managed to pry away from Georgia Tech in this year’s recruiting wars.
The Aggies are excited to see a healthy Richie Kittles return for a final season and are looking forward to him returning to his Celebration Bowl MVP level of 2018 after missing 2019 due to a knee injury. The 6-0, 205 grad student is etched in as the starter but he will have to fend off the challenge from a heralded ACC transfer.
Former Pittsburgh 4-star running back Mychale Salahuddin (6-0,190) made the move from offense to defense once he hit practice field this past spring and has made immense strides since making the transition. He’s a multi-talented athlete so don’t be surprised to see him from time to time on the offensive side in certain situations or doubling on special teams as a return specialist.
Big things are expected out of redshirt sophomore A. J. Dupree (6-0,190). The former Greene Central star has all the tools to become a big part of the secondary and is fundamentally solid in all phases of the game. The same can be said of Jazir Staton (5-11,195) who got a lot of action as a true freshman in 2019 appearing in 9 games with eight tackles and an interception for his efforts.
Free safety Najee Reams (6-2, 185) will be the quarterback of the defense and with good reason. The Durham product is not only highly disciplined but is perhaps the fastest player on the entire squad having been clocked at 4.25 in the forty. He accounted for 38 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and an interception after earning the starting spot in the latter portion of the 2019 season.
Janaz Sumpter (6-2, 190, R-So.) made a big impact as true freshman in just four games and then established himself in spring drills with the coaches as one of the next big stars to emerge in the secondary this season. The former high school option quarterback brings speed (4.5) and a much-coveted lengthy physical body type to the table.
Will Jones (6-2, 210, R- Jr.) is a veteran who has a good deal of game experience and will see plenty of action. He brings good size and speed and can create a few problems off the edge and is versatile enough to also play at the rover or at outside linebacker.
Sophomore Miles Simon (6-0,190) will provide additional depth behind Reams and Sumpter.
One youngster to really keep an eye on is Terrell Spicer (6-3, 180, 4.43), a long tall 3-star product from Jacksonville, NC who can cover bigger receivers and tight ends but also play just as effectively as a corner. He may very well be one of those freshmen who actually loses that red shirt status this coming year.