It is almost time for North Carolina A&T to kick off another exciting year of Aggie Football but this year it will be marked by a rejuvenation of sorts. Now A&T has had an extremely successful run since 2015 under first the legendary Rod Broadway and later his handpicked successor Sam Washington. Both were instrumental in rebuilding a dormant A&T program that floundered badly in the middle to late-2000s but rebounded spectacularly over the next decade winning four Celebrations bowls in as many tries, 5 MEAC championships, and claimed historic road victories over both FBS and top tier FCS opponents.
After moving to the Big South in 2020, there the “lost season” when college athletics in large part across the nation either was limited in participation or in large part completely shut down as was the case in the FCS because of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic which claimed more than a million lives in the United States alone.
The transition coming out of that shutdown in 2021 and a switch to a new conference was never a smooth one for either players or coaches as the Aggies failed to have a winning season the first time in nearly a decade going 5-6.
Fast forward to 2022, after a terrible 0-3 start including a very disappointing 28-13 loss to archrival and eventual HBCU champion N.C. Central, A&T rolled off 7 consecutive wins and a chance to win the Big South title outright in a season finale against Gardner Webb. However, A&T played probably one of worst games since the NCCU loss and were thoroughly manhandled 38-17 in what would be Washington’s last game at the helm as head coach.
After a post season evaluation, the A&T administration and Washington mutually agreed to part ways citing a difference of vision. That difference in vision had some direct influence to the fact that the Coastal Athletic Associate (formerly the Colonial) had been actively courting the Greensboro-based university for almost a year. Couple those factors with an opportunity to join a conference comprised of a high academic peer group that is spearheaded by like-minded research institutions, well you get the point.
Also take note that the CAA is legitimate FCS super conference of 16 members full of star power that encompasses the east coast from the Carolinas all the way up to Maine. It is traditionally, from top to bottom, one of the toughest and most competitive football second only to perhaps the Missouri Valley.
In this writer’s opinion, the surprise ascension into the CAA was the primary catalyst in causing A&T to look at and think much differently about its athletic program more than they ever had before.
Enter Vincent Brown as the new head and face of A&T football.
Brown has the about everything the football program at A&T could want in a head coach. He is an HBCU product (Miss. Valley State alum), former 3-time All-Pro linebacker in the early 90’s with New England Patriots, extensive experience as both defensive coordinator and position coach in the NFL as well at the college level at UVA, Howard, UConn, and championship FCS programs in the CAA at both Richmond and W&M.
He has also assembled a much larger coaching staff than A&T has ever had, which is loaded with quality and experience across the board at the NFL, FBS, and FCS levels. His early on emphasis of discipline and responsibility both on and off the field has been a welcomed sound to the ears of many A&T loyalists after some public and some not so visible breakdowns in that area over the last few seasons.
The staff was able to install a new offense as well as a base 3-4 with multiple looks and sets back in March, kept most of if not all of team together for both summer school sessions in vigorous off-season training and development. Now the season is upon us as the Aggies prepare for their opening contest against UAB in Birmingham a week from this coming Thursday on ESPN 3.
We are going to look at this year’s edition of the A&T Aggies with the understanding that what most fans have become accustomed to seeing in their style of play is going to change demonstratively under new management. So, let us begin Part One, first with the offense.
A&T had been fortunate in previous years with having a succession of quarterbacks stepping up into starting roles after being seasoned backups to the previous outgoing signal callers. During the Broadway-Washington era the transition was relatively smooth without a need to worry about experience although depth had been in question from time to time.
However, this year that scenarios has been reversed with far more depth but not nearly as much playing experience to draw upon. Of the four quarterbacks on the roster, only one has a complete game under his belt, while two others got some reps before injuries limited their time under center a year ago. There has been an open competition throughout the spring and into the fall camp.
Zach Yeager (6-1,210, R-So.) began last season as the starter against NCCU and gained some more experience North Dakota State but a shoulder injury soon after relegated him to the sideline for much of the rest of last season. In his time on the field Yeager completed 27 of 59 passes for 296 yards for 1 TD and 2 interceptions over four games. He now seems more settled this fall after having fully recovered from the shoulder injury and surgery that slowed him a bit in the spring.
Eli Brickhandler (6-2, 195) is a redshirt freshman and a former 3-star prospect from Stockton, CA who got his most meaningful moments in the second half against Duke a year ago and showing flashes while engineering two second half scoring drives while going 6-10 for 60 yards with one scoring toss in a 40-29 loss. Brickhandler had a very strong showing in the spring game running the offense smoothly while executing good reads with sound decision making.
Alston Hooker (6-1, 185, R-So.) is one of the best running threats A&T has at the quarterback position. He is quick and very adept at evading pressure and an efficient passer as evidenced in spring game. Also getting thrown into the mix this year is true freshman Kevin White, a highly regarded prospect (6-0, 180, 4.4) from Newport New, VA. who brings with him some very impressive statistics from his stellar prep career at Green Run HS.
Although at the time of this publication, a starter is yet to be named, expect the Aggie to utilize two if not three QBs early on in its first two games to make sure there will be adequate game experience behind the starter as the season moves forward.
No question the Aggies will be missing All-American running back Bhayshul Tuten who broke several single season marks a year ago. Tuten decided shortly after the season ended to test the transfer portal and is now playing for Virginia Tech.
And while Tuten was a “homerun hitter” who had the ability to break off huge gainers to the house at any moment, the Aggie Tradition of being solid in the running game has not gone anywhere. AT will have its deepest running corps it has had since the potent Bill Hayes Wing-T coached offenses of the 1990’s. A&T’s backfield may have exchanged those traditional home run hitters for big time punishers in 2023.
Wesley Graves, (5-10, 225, R-So.) has the most game time of the returning backs as he rushed for 68 times for 320 yards (4.7 ypc) and 4 touchdowns last year. Graves is a true bullish power runner between the tackles and a reliable receiver who catch the ball out of the backfield. He led the Aggies in the spring game on the ground with 121 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
Charlie (CJ) Dixon (6-3,235, R-So.) has the body type of a inside linebacker but 4.55 speed and surprisingly agile feet should serve him well in the anticipated ground oriented offensive scheme. Dixon had a solid spring game as well.
There are new additions to the A&T backfield and the one that has taken the fall camp by storm has been Virigina Tech transfer Kenji Christian (6-2, 210, R-So,) who literally swapped places with Tuten through the portal. Christian is bringing some of that home run flavor with him but in a much larger package as he has been impressive throughout fall camp. Christian was one of the top backs in the nation a couple of years ago with several SEC, ACC, and Big-12 teams making scholarship offers.
There are three additional backs that joined the program but just how much they will contribute early on behind the big three remains to be seen. Keon Caudle is transfer from N.C. State who made the switch back in the spring semester. Caudle (5-10, 185, R-So.) is from Enfield, NC and played his high school ball at Tarboro High School where his team won two state titles during his career. Caudle rushed for over 1,000 yards and led the nation in punt returns and was named the MVP of the Coaches East-West All-star game in 2019.
The name Jailen Hicks (6-4, 200, Fr.) should be familiar to Greensboro area fans for his standout performances at Dudley High School in both football and track. Hicks is the son of former A&T All-American and NFL veteran running back Maurice Hicks who starred in the blue and gold the 1990’s.
Shimique Blizzard (5-8, 191, Fr.) from Chesapeake, Va is an exciting young back who comes to A&T with a lot of the same skill set that reminds a lot of people of a young Tarik Cohen. That is a very high bar indeed, but Blizzard could break possibly through at some point in time during the season despite being a true freshman.
So, what is an H-Back? Well for all you football novices let me give you a simple explanation.
It is essentially a tight end lined up in the backfield much like a fullback or halfback but with no essential ball carrying responsibilities – a pro variant of a traditional double tight end formation made famous by former Washington Redskins Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs.
And why is that important? Because it gives us a kind of sneak peek into A&T plans to primarily run the football but do so by affording some unpredictability because of the potential to exploit teams underneath when defenses choose to stack the box.
The Aggies brought in an outstanding athlete for that exact purpose in St. Francis (NEC) transfer Daniel Nyamkimah-Fondong (6-1, 240, R-So.) from Middleton, Delaware. Malik Ward (6-1, 260, R-Jr.) will see plenty of action as the up man in short yardage situations and is an outstanding blocker. M A&T also brought in another transfer in JUCO product Michael Benn (5-10,230, Jr.) for more depth and experience behind those two.
If double tight end sets are your thing, then this just might be your year. The Aggies have bolstered that position for this fall but the guy that everyone and including a few NFL scouts will be watching is junior Nick Dobson (6-3, 245). Dobson has not only the size and strength of being a superb blocker but also has the soft hands of a wide out. With a different offensive philosophy do not be shocked if Dobson has a breakout year as a big pass receiver this season.
Another tight end who could be an impact player is Darren Bennett (6-4,250, Jr.) from Elk Park, PA by way of Hudson Valley CC. Bennett is a big target who had 14 receptions for 216 yards and two touchdowns last year. Bennett was impressive on film for his ability to pick up extra yards after the catch and consistently finding separation in his route running.
The Aggies were not shy when they pulled in Charlotte product Antoine Bell (6-4, 220, R-Fr.) who comes to A&T as a transfer from Western Carolina. Incumbent tight ends include Joshua George (6-4, 215) and Anthony Rucker (6-3, 211) both red shirt freshmen who got in plenty of work this past spring and fall.
If there is to be any consistency and/or high point production out of an offense, it usually occurs when a team has a lot of big, physical, experienced veteran personnel returning along the offensive line and A&T has all of that.
Coach Ron Mattes was one of two coaches retained by Brown and for good reason. The A&T offensive line is returning All-Big South lineman from a year ago in 6-6, 300 graduate and NFL prospect Tairiq Stewart. Stewart, a right tackle, plays with certain level of controlled nastiness and can be downright vicious with his drive blocks in the run game. He is a preseason all-conference pick going into A&T’s first year of CAA play.
Flanking him on the all-important left side will be another graduate student in Jason Ivey (6-5,290) who moves into the spot vacated by Ricky Lee who is now with the Carolina Panthers. Ivey has been very productive throughout the camps and is an excellent pass blocker and equally dominant on plays.
The right-side guard slot is held down by senior Lawrence Lagrone (6-2,345) who recently set a team bench press record of over 500 plus pounds. Lagrone is more than just another big guy but is also a team leader and a steadying force up front.
A&T has another preseason All-CAA pick in its offensive in graduate student in center Ceasar Minarro (6-4, 300) played some 436 snaps last season, graded out at 83 percent, missed only three assignments despite missing three games because of injury, and was never called for a penalty.
Rounding out the starters will be left guard Korion Sharpe (6-4, 315, Jr.) who was an All-Big South pick a year ago on an offensive line that led that conference in rushing (2,042 yds) and yards per carry (5.1). He had a team-high 86 grade on the season. He also had a whopping 37 domination blocks and missed only four assignments in 606 snaps played.
The level of play beyond those starters does not move the needle downward in any way with the retention of Jonathan Cannon Jr. (6-5,290, R-So.), Tim Williams (6-4, 315, R-Sr.), Antonio Carter (6-3, 300, R-Fr.), Mathew “Big Country” Cairns (6-5, 300, R-So.), Uriah Green (6-4,285, R-So.) and Calvin Cunningham (6-2, 300, R-So.) All these players have now been in the program for at least two or more years and have become older seasoned veterans.
Add in some talented newcomers like Spencer Webb (6-6, 310) Brock Stukes (6-3,320) and Jared Crawl-Bey (6-6, 250) and the future is very bright for the offensive line in the foreseeable future.
For the first time in recent memory A&T will not be returning any of its top pass catchers as Zach Leslie finished out an illustrious career as an all-time top ten receiver in A&T history in three categories – catches, total yardage, and TD catches.
The Aggies were victimized by the portal when Cincinnati native and rising star Sterling Berkhalter opted to return to his hometown as a Cincinnati Bearcat. Those two developments, while not totally unexpected, left two open slots and opened the door for some young talent to finally emerge.
There were some very good performances turned in during the spring from preseason All-CAA pick Taymon Cooke (6-1, 185, Sr.) Cooke has long been known for his speed and kick returning prowess taking one back for 98 yards to the house a year ago against Charleston Southern but few people recognized that is a very dangerous deep threat as well.
Sophomore Ger-Cari Caldwell, at 6-4, 200 pounds, is a tall physical receiver who has all the natural gifts to be a major difference maker but in order to live up to his full potential he will need to find more consistency which seemed to be an issue at times as a freshman.
Nick Wilds-Lawing (6-3, 195, R-So.) came to A&T three year ago as a quarterback but made the transition to wide out and appears ready to claim a starting spot in the lineup after showing he could be counted on as a reliable possession receiver in spring and fall practices. Christian McDonald (6-3, 205, So.) is another solid possession receiver who worked his way into the rotation as a freshman around midseason because of ability to block downfield.
Other returnees include sophomores David Brinton II (6-0, 165) and Corey Crawford (6-1, 185, Jr.). Three freshmen have also been added to this group as well in Xzavion Walton (6-5, 200), Jayvonne Dillard (6-2, 203) and Rory Jones Amen Heptep (6-1, 180).
The slot receivers are in very good shape especially with the return of Jamison Warren (5-11, 185, Jr.) who missed over half of last season with a leg injury and Amonte Jones (6-0, 165, So.) who stepped in for him the rest of the way.
Big things are also expected from Laquan Veney (5-11, 175, R-Fr.) from Richmond, Va. Freshman Shamar Sutton from Northeastern HS in Elizabeth City is seemingly too tiny at 5-8, 150 but the Elizabeth city product is one of the most explosive all-purpose players come out of the NC prep ranks this past year. Look for him down the road for future contributions.