When it was first announced last year that the Aggie-Eagle Classic was being re-routed from being played from its traditional on campus setting to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte a lot of people wondered if this game would draw enough fans to even scratch the surface of the 75,000 seat NFL venue.
The Charlotte Sports Foundation and Duke Mayo folks who specialize in putting on huge sports events for the Charlotte business community went to work in putting together a unique early season bowl experience for these two HBCU football programs that would not only benefit the schools financially but a mountain of entertainment events would attract their fan bases and the greater Charlotte area in earnest.
If advance ticket sales leading up to tomorrow night’s game is any indication, then this year’s Aggie-Eagle Duke Mayo Classic should be one to remember. Event officials stated yesterday that ticket sales had passed the 35,000 mark and it appears that the lower half of BOA may be sold out by game day necessitating perhaps opening the upper bowl for a large anticipated walk-up crowd just prior to kickoff.
In any event, this year’s game should easily rekindle the atmosphere of the run of those Labor Day weekend Aggie-Eagle games in Raleigh of the mid 1990’s through the early 2000’s. Crowds attending those games in Carter-Finley had about the same general numbers capping 40,000 fans twice during that time period.
The Duke Mayo has put together a huge slate of parties, fan fests, concerts, step shows, pre and post game attractions, and all sorts of vending and shopping venues all around the BOA area to keep people engaged throughout the holiday weekend making it a much bigger social event than just going to another football game for those in attendance.
It will be the 100th meeting between these two schools so playing this year’s in this new venue with everything that is being added to it by this partnership is more than fitting. But even with all the hoopla and distractions that will surround the stadium on Saturday the real business at hand has and always will be about the A&T /NCCU rivalry, the pageantry, the bands, the trash talk, the bragging rights that surround this game because it is THE GAME.
It’s Aggie-Eagle and that’s all you ever really need to know.
NCCU head coach Trei Oliver is entering his fourth year with the North Carolina Central Eagles and for the first time since his rebuilding mission started the top Eagle
feels he has a legitimate championship contender that can now go toe-to-toe with anyone on his schedule. And why shouldn’t he?
His squad returns 17 starters from a 6-5 squad but more importantly it is the Eagle offense that should be much improved over last year. Quarterback Davius Richard (6-3, 215, Jr.) is the straw that stirs the drink for the Eagles. The preseason All-MEAC pick had a solid sophomore year throwing for 2,133 yards to become just the second quarterback in NCCU history to register more than 2,000 passing yards in consecutive seasons. He completed 58.0% of his passes (177-305) and accounted for 23 total touchdowns (15 passing, 8 rushing).
Latrell Collier (5-10, 200, R-Jr.) will be the primary running back. Collier led the Eagles in rushing with 399 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and ran for 6 touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes for 77 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Eagle receiving corps returns intact with a trio of sophomores that are experienced and proven. Quentin McCall (6-4, 195), Devin Smith (5-10, 185), and Joaquin Davis (6-4, 190) are good route runners, and all can pose deep ball threats.
The biggest improvement with NCCU is the offensive line which has added three new faces from the transfer portal that will give them more size and experience up front. They return all-MEAC guard Corey Bullock (6-4, 315, Jr.) and he will be flanked by Kideam Diouf (6-5, 295, Sr.) from Arkansas State, Robert Mitchell (6-4,305, Sr.) from Lackawanna JUCO, and tackle Da’Quan Thomas (6-2, 275, R-So.) from the University of Florida.
On the defensive side, Oliver managed to lure away defensive coordinator Courtney Coard away from A&T last winter to take over a defense that gave up 26 points and allowed nearly 400 yards per game in total offense. Coard will need to install a new system and bring a young defense along quickly with and huge emphasis on stopping the run, a sore spot for Eagles last season.
The Eagle front four has a mixture of seniors and youth. The leaders will be
ends Jessie Malit (6-3, 250, R-Sr.) and Colby Warrior (6-2, 245, R-Sr.) both returning starters from last year. The inside tackle posts will be held down by Quantez Mansfield (6-2, 295, Jr.) and Jaden Taylor (6-1,280, So.).
While not necessarily physically imposing on defense, NCCU has made team speed as a priority. Linebackers Jaki Brevard (6-0, 210, So.), Max U’Ren (6-2, 225, R-Fr.), and rover Manny Smith (6-0,190, Jr.) will need to be overly active to compensate for their lack of size.
The Eagle secondary will most likely be their strong suit because that is where most of the experience resides. All-MEAC corner and return man Brandon Codrington (5-9, 180, Jr.) is a special player and one of the best punt return specialists in the country. Tarmaurice Smith (5-9,185, R-Sr.), a transfer from Southern will step in at the other corner while Khalil Baker (6-0, 185, Jr.) and Kole Jones (5-10, 190. So.) will be the safeties.
Kicking chores belong to junior all-MEAC place kicker Adrian Olivo (5-10, 185, Jr.) and punter Juan Velarde.
Much has been made over the quarterback competition in fall camp and there has been plenty of speculation as to who would eventually emerge from the group of four. Well that question was finally answered this week as Coach Sam Washington named red shirt freshman Zach Yeager as the #1 quarterback. Yeager is a 6-1, 210-pounder from Minneapolis, MN who only saw brief duty in four games last year in mop up situations and so retained full eligibility.
Yeager was a highly regarded dual threat prospect out of Minneapolis North where he owned nearly school record there. Yeager’s stock rose significantly in 2020 as he threw for 1,945 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior with only three interceptions. He also rushed for three touchdowns and was rated one of the top five high school quarterbacks in that state as a senior with scholarship offers from South Dakota State, Tennessee State, several Ivy League and SWAC programs.
And while Yeager was named the starter, Washington made it clear that the Aggies intend to play at least two quarterbacks early on so that there can be clearer separation between the four. Fifth year senior Jalen Fowler, last year’s starter, is expected to see action as well against NCCU. Fowler missed nearly two weeks of preparation reps heading into this weekend because of Covid quarantine protocols.
While a lot of folks are debating about whether two quarterback system is being applied is being applied here and to what degree, I have a different take on it. What I see occurring is a planned transitioning away from not only an older quarterback to a much younger one but also gradual transitioning of A&T’s offensive philosophy hopefully with as little disruption as possible.
We can’t say for sure but generally things have changed and evolved during the spring and summer with some major changes in the coaching staff and fresh new perspectives they most likely brought with them. We’ll know soon enough exactly what that new perspective looks like in real time by late tomorrow night.
This year’s Aggie-Eagle is shaping up to actually be competitive this season after three straight merciless beatings that have been dished out by those guys in the Blue and Gold.
The Eagles have gotten older and wiser over the off season with Oliver’s first recruiting class having now reached junior status plus having made use of the portal to fill some immediate needs along the offensive and defensive lines. Davis Richards is a now a proven veteran quarterback with a bigger and healthier offensive front in front of him. So it begs the question is this the year that the Eagles finally break through?
The answer to that question is most likely not. As much as the Eagles have improved, A&T hasn’t exactly been sitting around twiddling their thumbs. The Aggies have added a few pieces themselves and the off the wall circumstances and attitudes from a year ago are in the rear view mirror. The press and A&T peers in the Big South seem to think that also because the Aggies have been picked to win it all and to return back to their championship ways this fall.
There are four keys to an A&T victory to watch for tomorrow night:
1. Win the battle up front. Whichever team’s offensive line can establish the run will most likely win this game.
2. Don’t give up the big play. Both teams are deeply footed in the Rod Broadway coaching tree – Make every game a war of attrition and keep major mistakes to a bare minimum.
3. Discipline – watch the flag distribution between these two. This is the first game of the season so players will be sky high and a bit jacked up to say the least. Composure is going to be worth at least 7-10 points to the team that stays away from dumb penalties and mindless retaliation.
4. Weather the storm. Someone will get punched in the mouth early in this one and how well the recipient can handle those early haymakers will be instrumental.
As good as Central appears to be this year they remain vulnerable in a one area which is a big one for a season opener and will start showing later into the game. That one area is depth. It’s not necessarily all about the numbers but more about the quality of those second and third guys in what will be an extremely physical and exhausting game. A&T learned that lesson the hard way a time or two in their first year in the Big South.
Drive safely and we’ll see you in Charlotte.
N.C. A&T– 28
NCCU – 20