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. We’re just over a week away from the start of the 2022 football season and there have been some interesting competition on the offensive side of the ball and especially so at the skill positions.
This year A&T has some of best depth at the skill posts that they’ve enjoyed since the Bill Hayes era of the 1990s. Because of that depth the Aggies will be looking for a much higher level of play specifically from the quarterback position where the expectations far exceeded the actual results in 2021. So today in part 4 of our 5-part preseason preview we take a deep look at the offensive skill positions.
There will be a lot of new names that Aggie fans will need to familiarize themselves with this year as the veteran duo of Jah-Maine Martin and Kashon Baker have exhausted their all of their eligibility.
That has opened the door for a new stable of running backs that will bring a much different look and style to the running game. The lone returning running back who had substantial playing time is sophomore Bhayshul Tuten (5-11, 198). Tuten had a memorable first season rushing for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns on 37 carries as a true freshman. He also proved himself to be both a reliable and dangerous receiver out of the backfield catching 10 passes for another 230 yards and a touchdown. The New Jersey product will be the featured back and has both the size and speed to approach the 1000-yard mark this season.
Wesley Graves (5-9, 220) is a bullish sophomore running back from Danville, Va. who saw only spot action as a freshman but proved in spring and fall camp that he can counted on to be a key contributor this fall getting those tough yards between the tackles in short yardage situations and down in the red zone.
The one back that got everyone excited during spring ball is red shirt freshman Charlie “CJ” Dixon from Hogansville, GA. In 2020 Dixon was high on the radar of a lot of FBS teams garnering a dozen offers including some from SEC and ACC programs.
He is an unusually large running back at 6-3, 235 who is not only power runner who can bowl over people but is also blessed with good open field speed (4.5 ), capable of breaking off big chunks of yardage and taking it to the house. He was more than impressive in the spring game rushing for 131 yards and a TD on just 15 carries.
The “water bug” role that Kashon Baker filled so admirably for so many years is going to most likely fall to freshman Dorien Stewart (5-8, 175) from Middle Creek High School in Raleigh, NC. Stewart ran for 747 yards and 11 TDs in a pandemic spring shortened 2021 season of seven games.
In recent seasons, fullbacks have always been important components in A&T’s offense as primarily as a lead blocker and as an occasional receiver in the red zone. Not since big Eric Farmer in the late 90’s under Bill Hayes has the fullback actually gotten meaningful touches outside of that role but that just might change this season.
Romello Kimbrough (6-1, 235) transferred in over the summer from Morgan State, and he comes in as a legitimate running threat. Kimbrough was a starter for the Bears rushing for 190 yards and seven TDs and caught eight passes for 69 more. The Columbus, GA. native played two years at Butler JUCO before matriculating to Morgan last season.
Melik Ward (6-0, 260, R-So.) is the current incumbent fullback. Ward is strong lead blocker who played in all 11 games last year and played a role on special teams as well.
The Aggies also managed to find another athletic fullback in Steven Roland-Washington, a 6-0, 225-pound freshman from York, PA. who will be on standby duty if needed as the campaign develops.
It’s been a long, long time since A&T carried a truckload of tight ends but things have changed radically in the off-season. The Aggies not only have five tight ends on the new roster, but they played a significant role in spring practice and are expected to be incorporated a great deal more into the passing game this fall.
Returning to the starting lineup will be Nick Dobson (6-3, 245, So.) who only had four catches out 10 targets last season but three of those receptions went for touchdowns. Dobson is a large target with very sure hands as evidenced by his unforgettable one handed circus TD catch in a win over Celebration Bowl champ S.C. State a year ago that earned a ESPN Sports Center Top Ten Plays distinction.
Another end who is expected to see major minutes is red shirt junior Demondre Goodwin (6-3, 235) who originally came to A&T as a wide receiver two years ago but moved to the tight end spot after last season. Goodwin has excellent speed and brings plenty of physicality. This will be his first full healthy season after a Covid year and rehabbing from injury as a freshman.
There is adequate depth behind those two in 5th year senior DeAndre Arnold-Gaskin (6-3, 235) who is an excellent blocker out of the run game and newcomer Joshua George (6-4, 228, R-Fr.) from Hope Mills (South View HS), N.C.
True freshman Anthony Rucker ( 6-4, 220) was a highly sought after 3-star signee from Orlando ,FL. who turned down several FBS offers including App State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Kentucky, Ole Miss, UVA, and Central Florida. Blessed with great speed and route running skills , Rucker has more than enough tools to become a dominant player at that position for the future.
There are so many talented receivers returning on the 2022 roster that it will be extremely difficult to determine which one will steal the limelight from week to week. This is undoubtedly the deepest and most talented group of wide outs in the Big South and perhaps in the entire nation among the FCS ranks.
The wise old owl of the contingent is grad Zach Leslie (6-4, 210) and one of the unquestioned leaders on the offense and the dean of “Jump Ball U”. Leslie was slowed by a injured foot and saw very little action of last season in four games but still accounted for six receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Now fully healed, Leslie is expected to return to his dominant form of two years ago when he averaged over 21 yards per catch.
One unheralded player who doesn’t get a lot of notoriety but may just be the team’s best possession receiver is grad Jordan McDaniel (6-1, 200). McDaniel had just seven receptions for 94 yards but they all came in crucial conversion situations.
Elijah Bowick (6-2, 205, R-So.) opened a lot of eyes in his six game stretch a year ago after transferring from Virginia Tech. He made eight receptions for 153 yards and a TD in his freshman season. He will play a much bigger role this fall after being in the offense now for a full year.
If there was any doubt whether Taymon Cooke (6-0, 185, R-Jr.) could become a big play guy for the offense after transferring from Marshall two years ago then he erased those doubts in the second half o the 2021 season. Cook grabbed 17 receptions for 200 yards and a TD while returning six kickoffs for 213 yards for an average of 35.5 yards a clip. Cooke is versatile enough to line up either inside or outside and is extremely dangerous once he reaches space into the second level.
The slot receiver spot will be held down by preseason All-Big South pick Jamison Warren (5-11,185, So.) who rose up the depth chart as a freshman to become a starter over the last five games a year ago. He snagged 24 catches for 280 yards and a TD, good for second and third in those respective team statistical categories.
Sterling Berkhalter (6-5, 190, So.), South Carolina transfer Ger-Cari Caldwell (6-5, 195) bring so much talent to the table that winning a starting spot won’t be much a prerequisite when it comes to getting on the field. Both were highly recruited 3-star prospects out of high school and have some very distinct things in common – route running, great length, deceptive speed, soft hands and ball concentration.
When A&T rotates their receiving corps during the course of a game will absolutely be no fall off in the level of talent or capability.
There will be some additional new names that just might emerge as major contributors by conference time like Army transfer Laquan Veney (5-11, 175, Fr.), Kendrick Leslie (6-2, 170, R-Fr.) who is the younger brother of Zach, and the explosive Amonte Jones (5-ll, 165), an all-state 3-star prospect from Chesapeake, VA.
Quarterback – the straw that stirs the drink for the offense. An intense battle that occurred in March between four candidates for the job has now grown to five and the anticipation as to who will emerge as the number one quarterback has dominated the preseason conversation not only among the fan base but in the press as well.
The lack of consistency at quarterback position is the one crucial element that did not live up to expectations in 2021 and it was in large part responsible for the disappointing drop off of nearly 14 points per game and dismal 5-6 record, the first losing season in nearly decade in Greensboro. Coach Sam Washington declared there is an competition for the starting QB position and that the starter will be determined by who can best lead his offense based on their ability to make the correct decisions, extend plays with their feet and while being accurate in then passing game, and foremost maintain ball security.
Jalen Fowler (6-4, 235) is the most experienced signal caller and the incumbent starter from a year ago. Fowler hit on 127 passes on 228 attempts for 1,774 yards and a 55.7 percent completion rate with 10 touchdowns. However, his eight interceptions along with four fumbles were a particular sore spot. Fowler is a gifted natural pocket passer who must improve his footwork and speed to augment the run along with ball security in his final season.
Zach Yeager played sparingly as a freshman in just four games has been in the program for two years and can be best characterized as a solid and consistent game manager coming out of spring practice. The 6-1, 210-pound red shirt freshman is a dual threat and is pushing hard to become the starter. Even without that designation he will see far more action in 2022.
Alston Hooker (6-1, 180, R-Fr.) has the bloodlines and technique very reminiscent of his Hall of Fame father and former Aggie great Alan Hooker. In fall camp he has shown that he has remarkable quickness, good instincts, recognition, and the ability to escape the pocket when pressured coupled with an accurate arm once he does.
Eli Brickhandler (6-2, 195, Fr.) came to A&T in the spring from Stockton, CA by way AHOP Christian Leadership Academy in Chapel Hill and showed well in spring practice as an early enrollee. Brickhandler is a 3-star prospect and one of the most highly rated high school quarterbacks ever signed by A&T. He threw for 2,794 yards during his final prep season with 26 touchdown passes and only 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 847 yards and 11 touchdowns
The Aggies just recently added transfer Roman Purcell (6-1, 215) who originally signed with Army in 2020 where he did not play before moving to Monroe Junior College last fall. Purcell is from Indianapolis, IN where he starred at Indian Creek High School. Purcell, a terrific student, has excellent speed (10.3 in the 100 meters). He accounted for 1526 yards on the ground and was solid in the air as well by passing for 574 yards as a senior in high school. Because of his late matriculation to A&T, it most likely means that he will be red shirted this season until he has a chance learn the offense next spring.
If the Aggies can find the right quarterback who can settle in and be consistent and efficient by making the proper reads, extend plays with his feet, and deliver the ball accurately and on time to their extremely talented receivers, then this offense has all the other tools already in place to have a remarkable turnaround breakout year.