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 an 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 it’s time for part 2 in our 5-part preview series of the 2022 North Carolina A&T football team.
Today we take a look at the front four, the mainstays of the defense that could very well determine just how far Aggie football can go in 2022. Courtney Coard, defensive coordinator and line coach for the past three years decided in the spring that he would return to his alma mater N.C. Central to take over those same duties. Coard was instrumental in establishing a traditional stingy defense especially against the run for nearly a decade.
However, in recent seasons the run defense and turnover margins had begun to tail off. In comparing the stats of the last two seasons (2019, 2021), A&T’s defense went from allowing just 286 in total offense to 346.5 yards last year. The ’19 Aggies allowed just 23 touchdowns in 2019 to eye-popping 36 TDs a year ago. and while the actual run defense wasn’t totally bad, the 2021 pass defense accounted for 12 interceptions two years ago but only seven in 2021.
Head Coach Sam Washington didn’t hesitate one iota as he quickly brought in an old friend, ex-teammate from his pro years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a battle tested and proven defensive disciplinarian in Kevin Willis. Willis, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, has coached at every level of championship caliber college and playoff pro football and comes to Greensboro to take over much of the same duties as Coard and specifically focused on improving the Aggies run defense and intensifying the pressure pass rush.
Willis will have a strong nucleus to work with in his starting group and the edge rush should be superior with the return of a pair of super talented defensive ends in Jermaine McDaniel Jr. (6-4, 240, R-Sr.) and Devin Harrell (6-4, 237, Gr.).
McDaniel is coming off a injury riddled season from a year ago but has worked hard on his body, gaining more muscle and improved speed from an intense off-season conditioning program. Harrell is taking advantage of his extra Covid year as a grad student and will mark his third and final year as a starter.
There is no drop off in performance on the outside when either one is out of the game because Robert Porcher IV (6-3, 260, R-Sr.), Janorris Robertson (6-4, 240, R-So.) and Henry McDaniel (6-2, 235, So.) all got their fair share of playing time a year ago and were solid all year long in the rotation.
The Aggies have added even more depth behind these upperclassmen with incoming newbies Cox Mill HS 3-star prospect Tyshon Bullock (6-2, 240) who was an early enrollee who got in on spring practice and cat-like speed rusher Jelani King-Leverett, an impressive looking 6-4, 220 prospect from Grand Rapids, MI for the future.
If there is a potentially vulnerable spot in the front four it will be the inexperienced depth behind the starters at the defensive tackle position. The Aggies will go with a pair of red shirt seniors in Karfa Kaba, a 6-3, 280-pound native of Laurinburg, NC and Shomari Wallace (6-3, 275) from Fayetteville, NC.
Kaba accounted for 30 tackles, six for loss and three sacks over 9 games in a reserve role last season while Wallace played in seven games garnering 18 tackles, five for loss with 3 sacks as well.
Javon Armstrong-Grady (6-3, 260, R-Fr.) sat out last season and although recruited as a defensive end has the ability and just enough size to gain some valuable time in that inside rotation. No stranger to contact, he was the North Carolina state heavyweight wrestling champion at Pamlico County HS two years ago.
Willis will have to bring some youngsters in off the bench to give the older guys a blow and while they are all short on experience, they do have the talent to contribute right away.
Keep your eyes on four true freshmen who are expected to play significant roles this season. Just how much will depend on the injury situation and just how rapidly they develop and adjust to the college game.
Christopher Allen is a touted 3-star recruit who had numerous FBS offers out of Wake Forest (NC) High School and was an early enrollee who participated in spring practice. His lengthy 6-4, 285-pound frame and explosive foot speed will be a most welcome addition to the front four.
Greensboro Dudley product Jyheem Pittman (6-3, 295) gained just about every honor possible a year ago for the state champions including the News and Record Defensive Player-of-the-Year. His excellent size and strength both as a run stopper and an adept inside pass rusher gives him a skill set that will most certainly get him on to the field very early on.
Caleb Jones comes into A&T with solid credentials from a year ago as a formidable tackle at juggernaut state champion Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, as that state’s 6A defensive player of the year. The 6-1, 305-pound Jones had originally given an early verbal commitment to the Naval Academy over Dartmouth before choosing to go with the Aggies on national signing day and has been impressive in the early fall camp.
Christopher Abraham (6-2, 269) from Cox Mill in Concord was another one of those December early enrollees who got a head start on his college career as he went through spring practice with the veterans back in April and more than held his own.