In part 2 of our preseason preview, we will look inside the A&T defense. Last year’s defense was adequate limiting teams to 108 yards per game rushing and 186 yards through the air but gave up a very uncharacteristic 26.5 points per game and generated only 24 turnovers on the season ending up -8 in that category for the year. Third down percentage was a disappointing 42.86% and a whopping 61.54% against fourth down conversions.
Translation of those numbers? The Aggies did not do a very good job of getting off the field in third and fourth down situations. A lot of it could also be traced back to the enormous number of penalties that were accrued as A&T was one of the most heavily penalized teams in the Big South averaging almost 74 yards per game for a staggering total of 809 yards in 2022.
There will be changes made under new defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Josh Zindenberg who Brown has tasked with the primary job of righting the ship and correcting those ills.
The Aggies have junked the traditional base 4-3 in favor of a multiple 3-4 scheme. While A&T will not be a big team up front, this alignment will enable the defense to use its speed and range to hopefully offset any size disadvantage by infusing a more aggressive and pressure-oriented posture especially into the pass defense.
The goal will be to create as much chaos and disruption as possible thereby forcing opponents to take chances and make mistakes which equals more turnovers.
The first order of business he and new defensive line coach Kenard Lang is to rebuild the interior defensive line that was decimated by graduation and key defections to the transfer portal.
There has been a lot of speculation as to how this new defense will look especially with portal departure of star freshman DT Caleb Johnson who took off to Boston College shortly after spring practice ended last April. There has been definite shift to more mobility and quickness especially along the outside has been a major theme this fall.
The Aggies still held firm with four defensive linemen who saw extensive playing time last year after being redshirted in 2021. Javon Armstrong-Grady (6-3, 240, R-So.) has moved up to a prime role after being in a reserve role and has performed well in camp and has taken over a leadership role.
Anthony Hairston (6-2, 250, R-So.) was a standout at NE Guilford and moves to the inside this fall from his linebacker slot as a freshman and should do well there.
Janorris Robinson (6-4, 240, R-Jr.) is a tackling machine who played behind departed seniors Devin Harrell and Jermaine McDaniel for the last two seasons and should earn a starting spot at one of the ends.
Junior Henry Daniels has added some additional muscle in the offseason and at 6-2, 262 and has been moved inside from defensive end to a down lineman and will man one of the tackle spots. Daniel accounted for 21 tackles as a part-time starter last season.
The change is defense should bring some younger defensive linemen into the spotlight early on. Jelani King-Leverett (6-4, 225, DE, R-So.) slowly developed as a freshman and gained quite a bit of experience in the latter part of last season. Tyshon Bullock (6-2, 240, DE, R-Fr.) from Cox Mill HS in Concord, NC redshirted a year ago and will be a factor.
Newcomer Giovanni Divers (6-3, 250) is a true freshman with a lot of promise. UT- Chattanooga transfer Ja’Ny Alston (6-6, 270, R-So.), moved over to the defense from offensive line when fall camp began to help provide some additional size with quickness and to add a bit of depth there.
The youth movement is very apparent even more so with the interior linemen. They will be young as well without a ton of game experience, somewhat smallish in stature but not short on talent. Chris Allen (6-4, 285, R-Fr.) Austin Alexander (6-2, 244, R-Fr.) and Chris Abraham (6-2, 260, R-Fr.) are a trio of natural defensive tackles who will definitively get baptism by fire early on.
Some freshmen that were added during the late spring signings will need to be ready to spell them as the season goes along and may surprise fans as this new and very young defense finds its own identity. Kelvin Broadhurst, Jr. (6-1, 270) is an intriguing nose tackle prospect for Dorman HS from Roebuck, SC as is Greensboro Dudley product Jordan Miller (6-1, 280) who was an all-conference and all-region performer on a state championship team.
A&T did tap into the portal to get a three highly sought after transfers in Michael Ethridge lll (6-1,230, R-So.) from Jacksonville State, DeTerias “DT” Glover (6-3, 247, DE, Jr.) from Austin Peay out of the OVC and Rashuad Pernell (6-5, 250, DE, R-So.) from Virginia Tech. These three will play a very important part in adding an immediate veteran presence to what is otherwise a very young defensive line that is amid the changing over to an entirely new scheme.
There’s little question that the loss of Jacob Roberts and Tyquan King to FBS program via the transfer portal created a sore spot for the defense. However, the schematic change of the defense to a new hybrid 3-4 system may just lessen that blow just a bit.
Barry Turner Jr. (6-0, 225, GR.) is a talented proven battle tested starter who transferred from Charlotte. He is an aggressive hard hitting inside backer and should start at one of the inside positions. Turner is also the son of former running back great Barry Turner from the early 90’s.
Senior Malich Jacobs is a huge inside presence at 6-2, 250 and played a great deal last year spelling both Roberts and King throughout the season. He is an excellent defender against both the run and pass so both inside positions should be more than solid with these two new faces.
They will be backed by David Mack (5-11, 235, R-Fr.), a former all-stater who starred at West Forsyth in Winston Salem, juco transfer Ronald Graves (5-10, 225, R-So.), and true freshmen in Joshua Iseah (6-2, 240) who was among the 2022 state leaders in sacks in North Carolina and Kade Moledor (6-0, 225) who was an all-state selection from state champion Dawson County HS in Georgia.
Four-year starter Joseph Stuckey has graduated and moved on to the pro ranks but look for a three headed monster to step into the spotlight this fall at the outside rover slot in Dudley HS product Sincere Burnette (6-1,210, R-So.), junior A. J. Dupree (6-1, 190) and red shirt sophomore Avarion Cole (6-0,210). Expect Cole to be the immediate starter after having accounted for 39 tackles (30 unassisted) and two picks in 2022.
Some younger linebackers will also figure into the mix as well in Joshua Benton (6-0, 205, Fr.) Ty’Quan Kearney (5-11, 200, R-So.) and freshman Terien George (6-2, 225).
There is one area that will not require a great deal of tinkering because it is the clear strength of this year’s defense. This is the same unit that was second in the Big South in interceptions from a year ago with 15 including two pick-6’s and it returns completely intact.
All eyes will be on preseason All-America and CAA cornerback selection Karon Prunty (6-2, 185, R-Jr.) and rightfully so. Prunty came to A&T last year as a much-ballyhooed FBS transfer from Kansas of the Big-12 and he did not disappoint by leading the team in interceptions with 4 along with 7 pass breakups as teams shied away from his side of the field on a regular.
Prunty also proved to be a solid tackler with 30 tackles (21 unassisted). That effort earned him first team All-Big South honors and he is expected to be a major team leader both on and off the field this season.
Flanking him on the other side will be vastly underrated Aaron Harris (5-11, 185, R-Jr.) who was second on the team in both pass breakups with four and 3 interceptions while landing 13 unassisted tackles of his own. Harris will also double as a dangerous kickoff return specialist on special teams.
Behind this dynamic duo depth will be provided by Janaz Sumpter (6-0, 185, R-Jr.) who is a superb athlete and good open field tackler with 21 hit last season. Nathan Spindale (5-10, 185, R-So.) is an experienced second year man and Texas natives’ freshmen Greg Featherstone (5-11, 170) from San Antonio and Evan Ford (5-10, 175) from Houston have both been pleasant early surprises in fall camp.
The safeties are on equal footing with the corners in terms of talent and experience with senior Jazir Staton (5-11, 190). Staton has a nose for the football and has been a major factor in the A&T run defense. David Laney (6-1, 175, R-So.) is a dependable free safety who tracks the ball well and red shirt junior Herbert Booker is now in his fourth year of the program and understands the defense as well as anyone.
Still the best of the group is a guy who came to A&T as a preferred walk-on and is blossoming into one of the better deep safety prospects in the FCS in Ty Williams (6-1, 175, Jr.). Williams, a Detroit native impressed the coaches enough as a freshman as a quick study to earn himself a starting role by the middle of his freshman year and hasn’t looked back since. A vicious hitter and excellent deep man coverage defender Williams could earn himself a few postseason honors if he continues to develop.