NC A&T still rolling, NC Central trying to find its way

The Aggies, the two-time defending HBCU national champions, earned a last-second win in their opener, while the Eagles were torched by Austin Peay

Cornerback Mac McCain, pictured last season, was named to the All-MEAC first team in 2018 and is a key returning player for the Aggies. (Molly Mathis / The Daily Reflector via AP)

There’s a difference between a successful college football team and a successful program. It’s the ability to sustain a winning tradition even as key players come and go.

Or as in the case of NC A&T, key players and a Hall of Fame coach.

The Aggies began making that transition last season when defensive coordinator Sam Washington succeeded his retiring mentor, Rod Broadway, and led the team to a second straight Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship.

They’re taking the next step this season now that many of their key players — including quarterback Lamar Raynard, running back Marquell Cartwright and defensive end Darryl Johnston — have moved on and must be replaced.

If last week’s season opener against Elon is any indication, there won’t be much drop-off. If any at all.

New quarterback Kylil Carter threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns, a defense that returned only four starters allowed just 221 total yards and placekicker Noel Ruiz kicked three field goals — including a school record-tying 52-yarder on the final play — to give A&T a 24-21 win against its FCS neighbor.

The victory helped elevate the Aggies to No. 15 in the first regular season FCS poll.

“Our philosophy has remained the same since Day 1,” Washington said recently at his team’s preseason media day. “We’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel in any way. We just do what we do and hopefully do it well.”

One thing A&T has traditionally done well during a five-year run that has seen it compile an impressive 34-5 record is play defense. And this year’s unit looks strong again despite the turnover in personnel.

The Aggies recorded five sacks and limited the opposition to just 19 yards rushing in the win against Elon. Among the individual leaders were sophomore linebacker Kiyn Howard (10 tackles), sophomore nose guard Jermaine McDaniel (eight tackles, three sacks) and senior defensive end Devin Harrell (two sacks).

Offensively, graduate student Carter graduated from career backup to confident starter while senior wide receiver Elijah Bell caught nine passes for 93 yards and a score that made him A&T’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns.

“The formula will remain the same,” Washington said. “We will stop the run, offense will protect the ball, and we’ll win the kicking game.”

While the Aggies have developed a consistent system that works, their rivals at NC Central are still in the process of trying to figure things out during a period of transition.

North Carolina Central will again rely on junior running back Isaiah Totten to lead the Eagles offense. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Alumnus Trei Oliver is the Eagles’ third coach in as many years, taking over for Granville Eastman, who led the team last season on an interim basis. The former all-MEAC defensive back inherited 14 returning starters from a team that posted the program’s first losing record since 2013.

While there is plenty of experience to go around — including leading rusher Isaiah Totten and preseason All-MEAC defensive linemen Darius Royster and Kawuan Cox — last week’s season-opening 41-10 loss at Austin Peay suggests that there’s still plenty of work to do.

“We have a lot of question marks,” Oliver said before the game. “I would like to see us put a disciplined, physical, competitive team on the field. There are so many unknowns coming into the season, I’d just like to see us improve week in and week out.”

That task got a little more difficult this week when one-time starting quarterback Chauncey Caldwell announced after the Austin Peay loss that he is entering the NCAA’s transfer portal. Caldwell split time with Micah Zanders in the game and threw for NCCU’s only touchdown — a 35-yard pass to Nique Martin.