Coming off a 7-4 season in which its average margin of defeat was 4.0 points per game, N.C. A&T has the look of a definite dark horse in this year’s scramble for the MEAC football title.
Entering the season, the Aggies appear to have the requisite tools to give predicted league frontrunners Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State all they can handle. A&T opens the season against Alabama A&M in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Orlando, Fla. On Aug. 31.
Defense is A&T’s calling card. A year ago, the Aggies topped the MEAC in rush defense (90.3 yards per game) and was fourth in total defense (277.9 yards per game). Linebacker D’Vonte Grant (102 tackles, three interceptions and four recovered fumbles) rates among the league’s elites. During his career, Grant, a fifth-year senior, has scored four defensive touchdowns – a school record.
Up front, Michael Neal and Daniel Pinnix – who combined for 11 sacks and seven quarterback hurries last season – set the standard for defensive excellence. Tony McRae is expected to make an impact at cornerback after delivering noteworthy performances as a back-up defender and kick returner the past two seasons.
“The front seven is the strength of the defense,” said Coach Rod Broadway. “We expect to get better. It’s all a matter of our younger players getting acclimated to our system.”
As for the offense, the focus is on Tarik Cohen, who ran for 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. The 5-feet-7, 170 pounds sophomore runs 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has an uncanny knack for breaking long runs anytime he touches the ball. As a college newcomer, Cohen was first-team All-MEAC and was voted Rookie of the Year. Aside from leading the conference in rushing, he became the first Aggie freshman to rush for 1,000-plus yards.
“Tariq is a special talent and we’re going be creative in how we use him,” said Broadway. “The focus is to find different ways to get him more touches. We need to create situations that will allow him to do what he does best – make big plays.”
Cohen isn’t A&T’s only potent weapon available. Wide receiver Desmond Lawrence, a track All-American sprinter, is back and he’s primed to improve on his 10.9 yards per catch average from a season ago. Lawrence had 37 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns as the Aggies primary receiver.
The Aggies offense could have a breakthrough season if they can further amp up their passing attack. Opposing defenses will surely stack the line of scrimmage in an effort to stymie Cohen. With two weeks left before the season opener, Kwashaun Quick, a junior, has the edge at quarterback. During the spring game, Quick showed much poise as a passer who can improvise and escape the pass rush.
“At this point, Quick is ahead of everybody else,” said Broadway. “He’ll be pushed. But it’s his job to lose. We’ll just have to wait and see what develops during the rest of the preseason.”
The offensive line features two proven veterans in tackle William Ray Robinson III (6-feet-3, 307 pounds) and center Ronald Canty (6-feet, 277 pounds). Robinson, a two-time all-conference pick, has allowed only one sack in 2,000 snaps. Canty is a steadying influence who’s heady, dependable and durable.
“The big concern for us is not other teams; it’s us and how we play,” said Broadway. “It’s all about playing at a high level week in and week out. Getting to that consistent level is what we’re aiming for.”