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2010 North Carolina Central Season Preview
For the past three years, the North Carolina Central University football program has undergone a transformation, from back-to-back conference champions and NCAA Division II playoff participants to new Division I-FCS members experiencing the harsh realities of a team in transition.
Heading into their fourth year as a Division I competitor, the fledgling Eagles, who have endured thousands of miles of travel to road contests against nationally-ranked opposition, are now battle-tested, mature, experienced and ready to soar.
The 2010 edition of the gridiron Eagles welcomes back 61 returning letterwinners, including 17 starters (9 offense, 8 defense), consisting of 10 seniors, six juniors and one sophomore.
“It’s going to be different,” NCCU head coach Mose Rison said about the upcoming campaign, his fourth as the program’s head mentor. “We have been a team in transition. We have played a lot of road games, and played with a lot of youth. Now we have seven home games and we are going to have experienced depth.”
NCCU Offense Looking to Regain Scoring Output from 2006 Championship Season
During the first three season of the Division I reclassification process, NCCU averaged 18.3 points per game against Division I opposition, compiling a 7-16 record in those contests.
With nine returning starters, Rison sees the potential for the 2010 offensive lineup to return to the form of the 2006 squad that scored at a school record pace of 30.9 points per game under his direction as offensive coordinator.
“I want to get back to where we were in 2006 as far as scoring points,” said Rison. “I feel we will score more points, move the ball more consistently and be more explosive.”
Rison’s confidence stems mainly from the return of starting quarterback Michael Johnson (R-Jr., 6-2, 230, Durham, N.C.). Last season, his first as the full-time starter, Johnson threw for 1,931 yards (175.5 avg.), a single-season total only four other signal callers in school history have accomplished. Johnson completed 153 of his 268 passes (57.1 percent) with 18 touchdown tosses, equaling an impressive pass efficiency rating of 132.31. As a team, the Eagles amassed an average of 304.4 yards of total offense per outing.
“Michael is a student of the game, is excited about football, and no doubt is a leader,” Rison said. “He has tremendous command of the offense and controls the line of scrimmage. Without a question, we will go as he goes. I hate to put that kind of pressure on him, but I know he will respond.”
Two seasons ago, Johnson shared the starting quarterback duties with Keon Williams (R-Jr., 6-0, 183, Charlotte, N.C.), providing the Eagles with an experienced and capable back-up. Redshirt freshman Eric Brown (6-3, 180, St. Louis, Mo.) and Winston-Salem State transfer Jordan Reid (R-Fr., 6-2, 190, High Point, N.C.) are available for additional support behind center.
The task of keeping the quarterback safe will be the responsibility of a massive and experienced front line. The projected starting five for the Eagles are all two-year starters on the college level with an average size of 6-4, 319 pounds.
“We have been working extremely hard making sure the one place we improved is the offensive line,” Rison said. “I can’t tell you how joyful I have been to be able to talk about the young men we have coming in.”
Rison is speaking about the addition of three transfers with the size and experience to make an immediate impact. Standing an impressive 6-8, 350 pounds, Shaun Millien (Jr., 6-8, 350, Roslindale, Mass.) enjoyed back-to-back conference championships as a two-year starter on the offensive line at Dean College in Franklin, Mass. Armand Poole (R-Sr., 6-2, 285, Grayson, Ga.) started for the past two seasons on the offensive front at Hofstra before the Pride dropped the football program. Julian Gray (R-Jr., 6-4, 290, College Park, Ga.) also started the 2008 and 2009 campaigns as an offensive lineman at Winston-Salem State.
Eric Stanley (R-Sr., 6-5, 347, Sterling, Va.) is back after missing 2009 with a preseason injury. “He has fully responded to treatment and will be back and ready to go 100 percent,” Rison said.
Senior James Frye (6-3, 325, Catawba, N.C.) returns for a third consecutive year as NCCU’s starting center. “I expect him to come back even stronger than last year,” said Rison.
Other Eagles returning to the offensive front with starting experience include Timothy Charity (Sr., 6-0, 286, Manteo, N.C.), Joseph Figueroa (So., 6-0, 277, Fuquay-Varina, N.C.), Alex Johnson (Jr., 6-2, 277, Monroe, N.C.), Dominique Moore (Jr., 6-3, 290, Roanoke, Va.) and Markee Watts (Jr., 6-6, 394, Charlotte, N.C.).
Rison also mentioned newcomer Daniel Harrison (So., 6-5, 330, Wendell, N.C.) as a key addition to the deep offensive line.
“We return the nucleus of starters and others with game experience, which gives us a very formidable offensive line,” said Rison. “We will have a line with some experience and we will have depth behind them that can come into a game and we will not lose anything.”
The improved offensive front will be a welcomed sight for the Eagles running backs. NCCU’s top three rushers, accounting for 98 percent of the squad’s ground attack in 2009, are all on this season’s roster.
Senior running backs Tim Shankle (5-10, 200, Gainesville, Fla.) and Tony McCord (6-0, 188, Stone Mountain, Ga.) combined to average more than 100 yards per game last year. Shankle led the way with 732 rushing yards (66.5 yards per game/4.1 yards per attempt) and eight touchdowns, while also catching 20 passes for 143 yards. McCord was second on the team with 359 ground yards (39.9 yards per game/4.7 yards per attempt) and a score, along with seven catches for 41 yards. “They have been our two most consistent backs,” Rison said about Shankle and McCord. “I am expecting big things out of both of them. They understand what this offense is all about.”
After sitting out the 2009 season, Justin Campbell (R-Jr., 5-6, 197, Monroe, N.C.) will look to regain the form that made him one of the top three running backs in his first two years with the Eagles. “Justin’s return gives us a proven backup.”
Last season’s third-leading rusher, Arthur Goforth (So., 5-7, 168, Columbia, S.C.) “is a nice change of pace,” according the Rison. With rookies Andre Clarke (Fr., 5-10, 220, Mauldin, S.C.) and Duval Smith (Fr., 5-10, 185, Roswell, Ga.) joining the backfield mix, Rison said, “we are a good, solid seven deep at running back.”
At fullback, junior Justin Manning (5-8, 245, Raleigh, N.C.) and redshirt junior George Mobley (6-0, 260, Charlotte, N.C.) will compete for the starting role. “Justin is a good physical blocker who understands the offense,” said Rison, “while Mobley is a big, strong physical football player who I expect to be ready to go after missing the 2009 season.”
Although losing the services of the team’s leading receiver in Will Scott (45 catches, 706 yards, 10 touchdowns), Rison still believes “the wide receiver position may be the strength of our offense.”
Junior Geovonie Irvine (5-7, 150, Durham, N.C.) is the squad’s top returning receiver after collecting 38 receptions for 582 yards and three touchdowns in his college debut. “When people look at his stature they take him for granted, but he is one of the best wide receivers I have ever been around,” said Rison. “We will find a way to get the ball in his hands.”
Andrew Johnson (Jr., 6-2, 176, Fayetteville, N.C.) tied for the team-high with an average of 15.7 yards per reception, finishing his first NCCU season with 19 catches for 298 yards and three trips to the end zone. “Andrew has shown tremendous speed, good hands, and has good size,” said Rison. “I look forward to watching him play.”
Redshirt junior Corey Harris (6-4, 200, Chesapeake, Va.) is slated to return after suffering a preseason injury that ended his 2009 campaign.
Although recording only one catch for eight yards last season, junior Decona Roberts (6-1, 203, Indian Trail, N.C.) has really come into his own, according to Rison, adding that Roberts “had the best spring of all the wide receivers.”
Joining the Eagles from Winston-Salem State is Lamar Whidbee (R-So., 6-3, 180, Hertford, N.C.), the Rams’ second-leading receiver in 2009 with 16 catches for 208 yards as a starter in all 11 games as a redshirt freshman.
A pair of redshirt freshmen, Stanley Wright (6-0, 206, Charlotte, N.C.) and Marvin Poole (6-3, 176, Columbia, S.C.), are expected to make a significant contribution this fall with a year of practice under their belts.
At the tight end position, redshirt junior Earthan Ward (6-4, 218, Edenton, N.C.) will also command attention in the opposition’s defensive secondary. Ward was responsible for 19 receptions for 248 yards (13.1 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. “Earthan has tremendous hands and has improved as a blocker,” Rison said. “He has played a lot of football, and is a big factor in what we do.”
Reserve tight end Detwan Robinson (So., 6-4, 246, Lewisberry, Pa.) “is very athletic with great hands and speed.”
Veteran Defense Remains the Strength of the NCCU Football Team
With eight returning starters, including the team’s top three tacklers, a veteran defensive unit stands ready to protect the Eagles’ nest and pick up where it left off a year ago.
After starting out the 2009 season with a turnover margin of minus-eight (-8), NCCU posted a plus-10 (+10) turnover margin in the last five games. On the season, the aggressive Eagles amassed 63 tackles for a loss with 18 sacks, 37 quarterback hurries, 16 interceptions, seven recovered fumbles and six forced fumbles.
“The strength of our football team is the defense,” Rison said. “We have a lot of veteran football players. The defensive nucleus is something to be excited about.”
On the defensive line, the Eagles return all three starters and welcome three transfers to provide quality depth up front.
Senior defensive tackle Teryl White (6-5, 290, Macon, Ga.) enters his final season after collecting 114 tackles, including 22.0 tackles for a loss, in the past two years. “I expect Teryl White to be Teryl White,” Rison said with high praise for the team leader.
In his first season as a defensive end, Xavier Proctor (Jr., 6-6, 254, Ellicott City, Md.) made a big impact with 30 tackles (14 solo), including 4.5 hits for a loss. “I expect him to play at a high level,” Rison said.
Before being limited with an injury, nose guard Mark Blakeney (Sr., 6-0, 287, Charlotte, N.C.) stood toe-to-toe against some tough competition in the middle of the line of scrimmage, tallying 16 tackles. “Mark was outstanding before his injury last year, and I expect him to return to form,” said Rison.
A big addition up front is transfer Shane Moore (R-Jr., 6-1, 275, Greensboro, N.C.), who played in the Conference USA at Marshall University after earning Guilford County Defensive Player of the Year honors three times while at Northeast Guilford High School. “He has tremendous speed and athleticism,” said Rison. “I expect him to be unblockable.”
A pair of Winston-Salem State transfers, Chase Tripp (So., 6-2, 245, Chocowinity, N.C.) and Charles Goodwin (R-Fr., 6-6, 260, High Point, N.C.), provide much needed depth up front.
“It’s a situation where we need them all,” Rison said about the wealth of talent available on the defensive line. “It’s going to be a long season.”
The top five linebackers returning for NCCU, all with starting experience, combined for 243 tackles last year, an average of nearly 50 takedowns apiece. Leading the way is the ferocious duo of Calvin Hillie (Sr., 6-1, 235, Concord, N.C.) and Donald Laster (Sr., 6-0, 238, Shaker Heights, Ohio).
Hillie topped the Eagles with 70 tackles in 2009, including 6.0 hits for a loss with a sack, three interceptions, six pass break-ups, three quarterback hurries, a recovered fumble and a forced fumble. “Calvin Hillie is one of the most physical football players I have been around,” said Rison. “He has good speed and a nose for the football. He can flat out bring it.”
Laster was all over the field last season, placing second on the squad with 63 takedowns, including 10.0 tackles for a loss with a team-high 5.5 sacks and an astounding 13 quarterback hurries (the next best Eagle was lineman Teryl White with 4). He added an interception, two pass deflections, a recovered fumble and a forced fumble. “I think Donald Laster is our best defensive football player,” said Rison. “He lays it on the line every single play. He has been a great student and a tremendous leader. His teammates look up to him. I expect him to play lights out.”
Fellow senior linebacker Rakeem Vick (5-10, 213, Fort Washington, Md.) tied for sixth on the team with 39 tackles last season. “When healthy, he has played outstanding football,” said Rison. “He has matured and has become one of the vocal leaders of the team.”
Junior linebacker Roger Stewart (6-1, 216, Charlotte, N.C.) also recorded 39 tackles a year ago and placed third on the squad with 7.5 hits for a loss with 2.0 sacks. Another junior, Eliezer Sandifer (5-11, 217, Miami, Fla.), contributed 32 stops last season and Rison feels that “this is his year.”
The secondary is led by a pair of returning starting cornerbacks, David Ingram (Jr., 5-8, 173, Waldorf, Md.) and Rashad Fox (Sr., 6-0, 180, Washington, D.C.). Ingram amassed three interceptions and 15 pass break-ups for a total of 18 passes defended, a mark no other Eagle has reached since 1996. He also added 39 tackles (31 solo) with 2.0 hits for a loss and a forced fumble. Fox also finished with 39 tackles, while contributing two interceptions and four pass deflections. “During the past two years, these two cornerbacks have played a lot of good football,” said Rison. “They will take control of the secondary to help some of the young safeties.”
The leadership role in the secondary will also fall on senior Ja’Quez Canty (5-9, 184, Winston-Salem, N.C.), who will start on a full-time basis at strong safety for the first time in his Eagle career. Canty tallied 35 tackles with an assisted sack and a pass break-up as a junior.
The free safety position will be tackled by sophomore Marc Lewis (6-1, 174, New Bern, N.C.) and redshirt freshman Tyrique Williams (5-10, 193, McDonough, Ga.). “They have the ability to be special football players,” said Rison.
Adding to the size and physicality of the NCCU secondary will be Rochester Community & Technical College transfer Fred Ominde (Jr., 6-0, 180, Rochester, Minn.), who earned all-conference honors with 47 tackles (37 solo), 13 pass break-ups, two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles last season.
NCCU Special Teams No Longer a Question Mark
Heading into the 2009 campaign, NCCU had no returning kickers. The punting and place-kicking duties were left up to three true freshmen. The uncertainty did not sit well with Rison. “I was nervous going into last year because we did not know what we had,” he said. “Unlike last season, we have guys who have played in a game. It’s a nice situation.”
The place-kicking job was won by Frankie Cardelle (So., 5-10, 193, Salisbury, N.C.), who made 11-of-20 field goals (55 percent) and converted 31-of-33 extra-point kicks to lead the team in scoring with 64 points. “Frankie was a bit inconsistent, but he has a strong leg and I expect him to kick a lot better as a sophomore.”
Cardelle also finished the 2009 campaign as the team’s punter and kickoff specialist, averaging 36.6 yards per punt with a long of 48 yards.
Sophomore Brian Haselsberger (5-11, 180, Oak Ridge, N.C.) carried most of the punting load in 2009, averaging 35.2 yards per punt with a long of 53 yards. He also placed 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. Redshirt freshman Matthew Cornelius (6-0, 157, Charlotte, N.C.) will also compete for snaps as a punter.
Sophomore Nickolas Hahula (5-9, 258, Rocky Mount, N.C.), who served as the regular holder and started his rookie season as a kickoff specialist, returns as another valuable place-kicker.
“I feel a lot better about our kicking game than I did last year,” said Rison. “We will have 2-3 kickers that we can put in the game and get the job done.”
Starting the plays on special teams for the third year in a row will be long snapper Zachary Means (Jr., 5-11, 180, Rocky Mount, N.C.).
“I sleep a lot easier at night because we have guys that are more experienced now,” Rison said. “It is a huge plus for us.”