As North Carolina A&T readies for its second and final season in the Big South the coaches and media have picked the Aggies to be the odds on favorite to win the conference championship. Not that being picked first in nearly all of preseason polls is anything new for A&T, it was just a wee bit of surprise considering going 5-6 overall and tied for third in last year’s conference race.
However, given the Aggies championship pedigree over the last decade, no 19-month absence from competition to deal with, disrupted practice time, a full year of an intense conditioning and weight training regiment, and a infusion of several new coaches with a far more disciplined mindset, those voters as are fans expect A&T to be back on track in 2022 and to play in the championship fashion that they have come to expect and appreciate. So today we begin the first in our 5-part preview series of the 2022 North Carolina A&T football team. First off, the offensive line.
After the year long layoff in 2020, the 2021 offensive line suffered through a miserable season that featured an unaccustomed amount of missed assignments, a laundry list of injuries, penalties and experienced depth issues which accounted for a huge drop off in nearly every offensive category from the 2019 season.
It would be an understatement to say that inconsistency was on full display after the midway point of the season forward. Net rushing yardage in 2021 was 1,558 yards compared to 3,157 in 2019, a drop-off of 49.3 percent or 105 yards less per outing. While passing yards were relatively close with 208 yards per game in 2019 versus 187 a year ago, third down conversions were way off from 41.6 % in 2019 down to 36.6% and fourth down from 66.67% to a meager 46.15 in 2021.
So why should fans be optimistic about improvement this fall and not the same old, same old? Well to begin with, A&T will be returning eight linemen who saw extensive action as either as a full or part-time starter from a year ago. Add to that a couple of mid-year transfers, a strong recruiting class from 2020 that mostly red shirted and a very solid spring game performance, offensive line coach Ron Mattes should have his unit back up to championship form in short order.
Big Cesar Minarro (6-4, 300, R-So.) made the trek to the Big South media day in Charlotte and is expected to be one of the main cogs up front as the starting center or even possibly at one of the guard spots. Antonio Carter (6-3, 300, R-Fr.) is another promising center/guard prospect who could have breakthrough season.
The Aggies received some good news recently that All-Big South center Dacquari Wilson (6-3, 280, GR) will be returning to Greensboro for his final year of eligibility after graduating and flirting with the transfer portal before deciding to turn down an FBS offer from Charlotte University last month. How the return of Wilson will translate into the rotation long term after missing spring practice will need to be sorted out but A&T, with or without him in the line-up, will have a lot of experience, strength and size in the middle of the O-line to compliment him.
Lawrence Lagrone (6-2, 345, R-Jr.) is a two-year starter at right guard and is just a dominating force as a run blocker and may be the strongest lineman out of the group. Lagrone is the “old man” among the guards and his leadership will be needed to help bring the new players along especially in the early part of the season.
Korion Sharpe (6-4, 315) had a tremendous freshman season and became a starter on the left side over the last four games late in the year while veteran Tim Williams (6-4, 315, R-Jr.), and 3-star South Florida transfer Uriah Greene (6-4, 285, R-Fr.) will provide plenty of quality depth at the interior slots.
Matthew ” Big Country” Cairns appears healthy and ready to go after a medical red shirt year from suffering a preseason injury a year. The very promising 6-5, 315-pound red shirt freshman should see plenty of playing time in the rotation with his ability to play at either guard slot.
The tackle depth is much akin to the interior positions – a lot of young talented depth with a good amount of experience among the starters. The starting spots will most likely fall to returning starting senior bookend tackles Tariq Stewart (6-6, 300) and Ricky Lee III (6-6, 305).
Lee is preseason All-Big South selection and started all 11 games at left tackle for the Aggies in 2021 after spending two years as a starter for N.C. Central before transferring to A&T. Stewart, a Cleveland, OH native, is penciled in as a probable starter on the right side after transferring from West Virginia a year ago and a stellar junior college career.
Behind those two seniors a real battle for playing time is brewing among a pool of talented young tackles heading into fall camp. Jonathan Cannon (6-5, 283, R-Fr.) had a strong spring practice and will push both of the veterans ahead of him to vie for major role this season as will Charlotte product Jason Ivey (6-5, 288, R-So.) who sat out last season. Ivey graded out well in the spring game and seems poised to perhaps leapfrog his way into a starting role.
The Aggies didn’t stand pat with their roster as they also brought in Middle Tennessee freshman transfer Ja’Ny Alston (6-7, 270, ) from Carboro, N.C. as well as highly sought-after recruit Jesiah Henderson (6-3, 305) from Wake Forest Roseville who flipped from his earlier commitment to East Carolina and instead decided to cast his lot with the A&T back in June.
On paper this offensive line is a lot younger than it was a year ago going into the start of fall camp. With the exception of perhaps its two projected starting tackles, this 2022 group is made up of mostly young underclassmen who got to play quite a bit more than had been anticipated last season because of missed practice time, Covid protocols, constant injuries, and frankly some lackluster performances from some veterans that had been counted upon to lead.
Now with a solid year of strength and conditioning, an above average spring practice, two successive summer school sessions of teaching and learning each other under their belt, experienced depth beyond the starters and with some new faces in leadership roles, this year’s offensive line should be demonstratively better both physically and mentally.
They’ll get a lot more than just a cursory check-up when they go up against a much-improved N.C. Central squad. The Eagle defense is now led by former long-time A&T and now NCCU defensive coordinator Courtney Coard knows the Aggies past tendencies, strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone so this first game on Sept 3rd in the Duke Mayo Classic at Charlotte’s Bank Of America Stadium will tell us a lot about just how far the Aggies have put 2021 in the rear-view mirror.