The wait is almost over. After a hiatus of over 640 some odd days, fans are eagerly anticipating the restart of a regular gridiron season. No more re-watching the 2019 season on You Tube, scouring the various social media platforms for any snippets of practice pictures or preview videos, or muddling through obscure on-line football articles that rehash the same old stories every other day or so. Yes, this weekend will mark the return of Aggie Football.
Saturday will usher in a new era of Aggie football as the newest full member of the Big South Conference. With the 50-year association with the Mid-Eastern Athletic is now in the rear view mirror A&T fans are more than curious to see how the Aggies will respond to a whole new slate of conference opponents that are as unknown to them as what lies behind Door #3 on an episode of “Let’s Make A Deal.”
Coach Sam Washington is curious as well but has been his usually stoic and quietly confident self in stating that very little if anything will change in A&T’s approach in its new surroundings and why should it? It’s a proven formula.
The Aggies have had incredible success over the decade running basically the same system throughout. Starting under Rod Broadway in 2011, A&T has resulted in winning four HBCU National Championships (last 3 consecutive), 5 MEAC conference crowns, and receiving a FCS playoff appearance all while going 71-25 overall (74% winning pct.) over the last decade.
More important than just winning big in a particular season has been the Aggies’ success in maintaining their dominant posture for so long with a distinct bulls eye on their back each and every time they step onto the field. The formula has been pretty simple -out work the other guy, focus on preparation, a team first mindset, recruit the right kind of student athlete, act like a champion on and off the field and keep things simple.
Now the Aggies will be taking their food truck to new venues with the Big South where there’s going to be a lot of new competition and variety on menu but that recipe will remain the same.
Broadway said it best in the latter days as his tenure as head coach and its been carried forward by Washington to this day – “We’re Like KFC. We like things simple. We don’t do fish, we don’t do burgers or hotdogs or ribs. We just do chicken.”
So far business has been stellar.
On the very first week of competition for A&T as being part of the Big South the league schedule looks like this. On Thursday night NAIA Reinhardt travels to #19 Kennesaw State for a 7 pm kickoff on ESPN+.
Saturday’s games will feature Robert Morris at Dayton (Face book) at 12:00 pm. #25 North Carolina A&T heads to Greenville, SC to take on Furman at 2 pm (Nexstar/ESPN+).
Campbell gets a big opportunity for a upset against FBS Liberty in Lynchburg, VA at 6pm (ESPN3). Gardner-Webb draws a tough assignment at FBS Georgia Southern at 6pm (ESPN3) while CIAA Virginia Union has a big date at Hampton at 6 pm as well (ESPN+).
At 7 pm #13 Monmouth will open at FBS Middle Tennessee State (ESPN3) and Southeastern Louisiana travels to North Alabama (ESPN#).
The Furman Paladins are member so the Southern Conference they have been picked to finish fifth in their coach’s preseason poll. In their last full season in 2019, the purple and white went 8-5 and advanced to the first round of FCS playoffs.
Furman decided to play in the abbreviated spring season this year winning their first two games in impressive fashion but fell off drastically after that dropping 4 of their last five to finish at just 3-4.
Head Coach Bobby Johnson enters his fourth year in Greenville, S.C. with 22-14 record including two 8-win seasons with two playoff appearances. Hendrix is a Furman alumnus and spent ten previous years as an Associate Head Coach and offensive coordinator with the Air Force Academy before accepting the Furman job.
With his Air Force background, there is little wonder why the Aggies are expecting a heavy dose of option football with a small mixture of play action pass tossed in for good measure.
There’s been some uncertainty about the quarterback position with no clear cut favorite or consistency coming out of the spring season. Hamp Sisson (6-0,190, Jr.) has the most experience. Sisson, the Paladins’ signal caller who took virtually all of the snaps in the spring, went 89-172 (52%) for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns but 9 interceptions in the seven-game season.
Running the football is the Paladins bread and butter and it all begins with
Devin Wynn, a senior and 2019 first team all-conference selection, rushed for 1,182 yards, 14 touchdowns, and averaged a league leading 6.6 yards per carry among running backs. The 6-foot, 216-pound, Greensboro, Ga., product, heads into the season with 1,957 career rushing yards.
The running back post got an additional boost in the latest Paladin recruiting class with the signing of Myion Hicks (5-11, 210, Fr.), a highly recruited Dallas (Desoto) product that should see some action.
Furman’s most experienced performer along the offensive front is center Evan Jumper (6-4, 274, R-So.), whose a two year starter.
Two others who figure to occupy starting spots are Wyatt Hughes (6-3, 284, R-So.) and Ryan Lamb (6-2, 305, Fr.). Furman returns a pair of solid guards with experience in Jacob Johanning (6-3, 276, R-So.) and Clark Daniel (6-3, 289, R-Sr.). The tackle positions will most likely fall to Anderson Tomlin (6-5, 296, R-Jr.) and Pearson Toomey (6-3, 282, R-So.).
Furman’s major pass threats will need to be kept in check. All-American tight end Ryan Miller is formidable weapon at 6-4, 225 and is their “go to” receiver in must pass situations.
Flanker Ryan DeLuca (5-11, 185, Sr.) is coming off a spring campaign that saw him register a team leading 24 catches for 441 yards (18.1 ypc). Dejuan Bell (5-9, 162, Jr. ) is small but quick and speedy and will also play a key role in the return game.
In the spring Furman’s defense ranked consistently among Southern Conference leaders in most every category: scoring defense (20.4 ppg/2nd); rushing defense (127.1 ypg/2nd), and total defense (323.4 ppg/3rd). It will be that veteran defense that will determine just how far Furman will climb up the SoCon ladder this fall.
The core of the Paladin 3-4 defensive front, combined to log 144 games, 40 starts, 259 tackles, 35.5 tackles for-loss, and 11 sacks. The group includes preseason All-SoCon end Landon Lawrence (6-3, 260, 5th), Parker Stokes (6-0, 288, NG, Sr.), tackle Matt Sochovka (6-4, 289, R-Sr.), and Cameron Coleman (6-3, 304, R-Jr.)at the other end.
Linebacker Adrian Hope (6-1, 233, Sr.) is a two-time All-Southern Conference performer and earned All-America honors two years ago.
Team co-captain Elijah McKoy (6-2, 231, Sr.) returns to the field after missing the spring season with a knee injury.
Three cornerbacks with notable experience return, led by Travis Blackshear (5-10, 180, Jr.), a two-year starter and preseason All-SoCon selection, Ivan Yates (5-11, 178, R-Fr.), and Micah Robinson (5-11, 170, R-Fr.). The Paladins return experienced starters DiMarcus Clay (5-9, 185, 5th Year) and Hugh Ryan (6-1, 200, R-So.) at strong safety and free safety, respectively.
The Aggies won’t be playing any cupcakes on it’s 2021 schedule and they will get a real good barometer on how much almost 2-year layoff has affected them. Furman has had a solid and well established SoCon football program for several years and despite having a so-so Covid shortened spring season the Paladins return an experienced defense and more than capable offensive squad. This will be the first meeting between A&T and Furman so their will be a lot of feeling out processes early on in this game.
One thing is for sure though, Expect Furman to apply lots of pressure on defense knowing that A&T will be starting a new QB and to definitely put a trailer on All-America running back Jah-Maine Martin. The key here will be that A&T’s patience against all of the early pressure and then pick it’s spots to take advantage of other individual mismatches that will almost certainly present themselves because of it.
Likewise, Furman will try to speed up the tempo on a A&T defense that has an all new interior line and create confusion with their ball control option/inside-outside misdirection ground game that they are noted for. The Aggies will have to be assignment conscious and the secondary especially will need to make sure they don’t give up big plays by getting lulled to sleep from overprotecting against the run.
The first 9-12 minutes of this game will be crucial between a team basically that finished playing a half season just 3 months ago and one that hasn’t taken a snap since Christmas of 2019.
As long as the Aggies weather the early pressure surge that Furman will try to exert in the first half and not dig a big hole for themselves, A&T can then settle in and be able to utilize a lot of its skill position advantages and physical depth to slowly take control of this contest. It may be tough going for a good while but A&T should find their big game niche as they usually do against the better teams they face and eventually pull away late.
Should be a good one. See you Saturday in that other Greenville.
N.C. A&T – 27
Furman – 17