Today in Part 4 of this year’s 5-part preview series we examine the most talented and deepest of all the positions on the 2021 squad – the offensive line.
Offensive Line Coach Ron Mattes has a highly experienced group to work with heading into this fall. Three starters return from the 2019 championship squad and there are several new additions that have been added through 2 years of very active recruiting during the Covid layoff as well as acquiring a couple of potential starters through the transfer portal.
That’s a great problem to have since A&T loves to rotate a lot players along the line of scrimmage during the course of a game. It’s a very deep roster with a lot of size and game experience which should be money for A&T’s backs this coming season.
Everything on offense begins and ends with the center position because everything emanates from him – line calls, blocking assignments, all the pre-snap adjustments.
Dacquari Wilson (6-3,300, Jr.) is one really good one. The junior from Dudley HS was recently named by College Football America Yearbook (CFAY) as it’s starter on their preseason FCS team and is the only Big South player to obtain that distinction. He will be the anchor of the offensive line and is one of it’s most vocal leaders.
Again backing him up will be Rio Claytor (6-1,290, R-Jr.) who comes to A&T all the way from his hometown of Mililani, Hawaii. He competed in 4 games taking 42 snaps as a red shirt freshman in 2019 after coming to Greensboro from Puma Junior College in Arizona.
Antonio Carter is a 6-3,300 freshman from Orangeburg, SC (Orangeburg-Wilkinson) who got an extra opportunity during the Covid year to study film, technique and learn from the two proven veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
The Aggies were not only blessed to have veteran center returning for 2021 but both of their starting guards as well. Fifth-year Senior De’Jour Simpson (6-3,290) is a possible NFL prospect who should be a dominant force this season at left guard. Simpson started all 12 games in 2019 going 701 snaps during the season, and had the second-highest season grade on the team at 84 percent.
When looking at film of Lawrence Lagrone (6-3,330, R-So.) one thing sticks out. His physical upper body strength is beyond impressive. His first season as starter at right guard had him completing 713 snaps grading out at 79 percent as a red shirt freshman. Lagrone dropped some 20 pounds in the off season and it shows in his improved quickness off the ball which should put him in the conversation for all conference consideration.
A&T will be deep the at guard position with sophomore Tim Williams (6-4,310, R-So.) and red shirt freshman Cesar Romero (6-3,285) being first up in that rotation. Both have been in the A&T system for at least a couple of years and will play considerable minutes this years. Williams logged in 76 snaps in 2019 in a reserve role grading at 76 percent while Romero took a red shirt year in 2019 but came on like gangbusters through the spring and fall practices to move well up the depth chart.
There will be additional depth available at guard with youngsters Calvin Cunningham (6-3,305, R-Fr.), Jamison Watson (6-3, 280, R-Fr.) and Darren Jackson (6-3, 315, Fr.)
Competition for both tackle positions was wide open when camp started some three weeks ago with several vets and newcomers fighting not only for the starting spots but earning their way into the traveling rotation.
Two late summer portal transfers and a trio of value 3-star recruits have entered the picture so now those developments have really put those starting spots at a premium thus making it a far more interesting battle to follow than originally thought way back in April.
Things have become a bit clearer as to what that rotation might look like when the season begins next month. Bilal Ali (6-5, 290) is grad student who played a lot football for the Aggies in 2019 without a start to his credit with 182 snaps and graded out of 86 percent. Ali started that year as a right tackle but was good enough of an athlete to finish that year as a tight end because of injuries. Now in his final swan song Ali is a strong candidate to finally claim a starting spot as his own.
One of those transfers that made the move on the spring had been a starter the couple of years for A&T’s arch nemesis North Carolina Central. Ricky Lee (6-6, 305) is no stranger to the Aggie coaching staff as he not only was he being watched from the other sideline the last two seasons, he was heavily recruited by them out of Robert E. High School in Jacksonville, FL back in 2018.
With most the MEAC choosing not play in 2020, Lee applied his free time in the classroom and graduated from NCCU ahead of schedule with a couple of years of eligibility still left open to him. so enrolling in graduate school with a championship program he was very familiar with was the perfect opportunity.
The other new portal arrival is 6-5, 318 pound Tariq Stewart. The Cleveland, OH native was rated the No. 2 junior college prospect out of Ohio and the No. 8 offensive guard prospect by 247 Sports after spending time at ASA Junior College and made the move from West Virginia (Big-12) after sitting out all of last season. He’s strongly being eyeballed as the immediate left tackle replacement for the graduated All-American Marcus Pettiford.
There three extremely talented North Carolina first year players from 2020 who were forced to sit because of the pandemic and are waiting in the offing to provide more quality depth behind those top three starting candidates. Isaiah Brooks (6-4, 275) is from West Forsyth HS in Winston Salem, Matthew Cairns (6-5, 315) from Cary(HS), NC, Jason Ivey (6-5, 285) from South Mecklenburg in Charlotte, NC.
The Aggies added a lot of additional muscle with this year’s incoming class in N.C. Shrine Bowler Korion Sharpe (6-4,325) from Charlotte’s Rocky River HS, 247sports.com 3-star recruit Jonathan Cannon (6-5,270) from Charlotte Vance, and versatile 3-sport all-conference athlete Jayden Turner (6-4,285) from Olin, NC (North Iredell).
All in all, A&T has assembled a boatload of offensive line talent with a good mixture of seasoned veterans, mature red shirts, and some outstanding first year high school players.