N.C. Central ended its football season with a loss for the first time since Jerry Mack took over the program in 2014.
The Eagles, picked to win the league, finished the season 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the MEAC. For the first time in four years, they didn’t end the season with a title.
Since it’s never too soon to look ahead, here’s a preview of what N.C. Central should look like in 2018.
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True freshman Chauncey Caldwell took over the starting spot against Florida A&M on Sept. 28. He was benched in favor of sophomore Naiil Ramadan during the first half of a loss to Norfolk State on Oct. 21, but took all the snaps the following four games. There is every reason to believe the job will be Caldwell’s to lose when spring practice rolls around for the Eagles. Caldwell finished with 1,411 yards passing, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. He was second on the team in rushing with 495 yards on the ground and another five touchdowns, showing he can be the type of dual threat quarterback head coach Jerry Mack prefers. Micah Zanders, who started the first three games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury on Sept. 21 should return, along with Ramadan and freshman Dominique Shoffner, who was a redshirt in 2016.
Four different running backs have started at least one game the last two seasons for North Carolina Central and all four should return in 2018. Ramone Simpson came into the 2017 season as the starter, but redshirt freshman Isaiah Totten broke an 81-yard touchdown run against Duke in the opener and kept running with the first team the rest of the season. Totten finished the season 718 yards on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Simpson and fellow senior Dorrell McClain, the 2015 MEAC Offensive Rookie of the Year, won’t just hand the job over to Totten during their final season in Durham. No matter who starts, running backs coach Jordan Reid will have an experienced player carrying the football.
For four straight seasons a different player has started at tight end for Mack. That streak should end with the return of Josh McCoy and Xavier Crandall. McCoy caught 11 passes for 121 yards and three scores as a junior, while Crandall served more as a blocking tight end.
The Eagles will have to replace their top two receivers – Jacen Murphy and David Miller – the only seniors who started on offense in 2016. The go-to guy next season should be Xavier McKoy, who showed flashes as a sophomore, catching 18 passes, two of them for touchdowns. A quartet of quality receivers return. Sophomores Chance Kennedy and Nique Martin, along with junior Eric Saintil, all saw their roles increase as the season went on. Also, true freshman E.J. Hicks appeared in one game, but seemed to be on his way to a lot of playing time before suffering a season-ending injury. A lot also depends on whether Jalen Wilkes returns. Wilkes was suspended for the opener against Duke, and played in three games before leaving the team.
All five starters return for offensive line coach Jason Onyebuagu, a far cry from 2016 camp when he was forced to replace four starters. With a full year playing as a unit, the line should be the strength of the offense. The group got better the more they played together, so coming out of spring ball they should be clicking by the time the season rolls around.
The defensive side of the ball is where things get tricky for the Eagles. It starts with the defensive line, which will lose three of four starters. Kawuan Cox led the MEAC in sacks (8.0) as a sophomore. Lining up opposite of Cox should be Randy Anyanwu, who had 30 tackles and one sack in 2016 as a junior. Anyanwu might get a push from Tavon Lofties, who played in 10 games as a sophomore.
There are way more questions than answers along the interior of the defensive line for the Eagles. Ja’Quan Smith, a four-year starter, Roderick Harris and Chris Burton are all gone. There isn’t a lot of experience returning at that spot, which was the strength of the defense the last two seasons. Arthur Randall and Cam’ron Perkins could be early candidates for those two defensive tackle spots.
This is the only spot on the team with no starters returning. Reggie Hunter and Kenneth O’Neal were the two leading tacklers and King Kiaku was in the rotation early in the season. His junior year was cut short after six games when he suffered a season-ending arm injury. Once he recovers he’ll probably be penciled in as one of the starters at linebacker. The other spot should be up for grabs between sophomore Jarrett McCarter, Brandon Bailey, who mainly saw action on special teams as a freshman, and junior William Lulu, who sat out last season after transferring from Mount San Jacinto College.
Three of five starters return for the Eagles in the secondary, and no matter who lines up along the front seven, the back end is in good hands with safeties Alden McClellon and Davanta Reynolds, who picked off six passes in 2016. Safety Jaquell Taylor, who started one game in 2016, along with cornerback De’Mario Evans, should give the Eagles four seniors in the secondary.
Daryl Smith, who will also be a senior, started the season finale against North Carolina A&T, and played well, finishing with five tackles. He should add depth and experience.