First Quarter Report Card on A&T FootballBy Semaj Marsh, Peacemaker Sports / September 19, 2019
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It’s hard to believe, but roughly 25 percent of the 2019 season is already in the books. A&T currently sits at 2-1 overall and is ranked No. 17 in the FCS polls after last Saturday’s road victory over Charleston Southern. The Aggies enjoy a bye this week and they won’t return to action until next Thursday night against Delaware State. Therefore, this seems like a perfect time to assess each position group and hand out some first quarter grades.
After waiting in the on-deck circle his entire career, fifth-year senior Kylil Carter finally got his chance to lead the A&T offense this season. After missing all of spring camp while recovering from a leg injury, Carter earned the starting job by beating out Jalen Fowler and ECU transfer Kingsley Ifedi. So far, Carter has shown some decent arm talent and a good command of the offense (479 yards passing and 2 touchdowns in 3 games), but at times his overall consistency has been lacking (48.7 completion percentage). The speed of the game seemed to really affect him at Duke, and Carter struggled early last week against Charleston Southern become getting hot in the fourth quarter. Expect Carter’s numbers to only improve as he settles into his role at the starting quarterback, but so far he is still a work in progress.
In his first season as the clear-cut starter, junior Jah-Maine Martin is already gaining praise as the next great A&T running back. Last weekend against Charleston Southern, Martin put the offense on his back in the second half, scoring on touchdown runs of 84 and 76 yards to finish with a career-best 299 yards on the ground. Martin was also one of the few bright spots on A&T’s offense against Duke, exploding for an early 66-yard touchdown and proving that his skills weren’t just relegated to the FCS ranks. If he keeps up this pace, Martin will be a shoe-in for first team All MEAC honors.
Consisting of LT Marcus Pettiford, LG De’jour Simpson, C Daquari Wilson, RG Lawrence Lagrone and RT Dontae Keys, the A&T starting offensive line has already exceeded expectations. Through the first three games, the big boys up front has consistently opened up running lanes for Martin and provided ample time for Carter to throw the ball downfield. It should come as no surprise that they struggled at times against Duke’s superior front seven, but overall this unit held up admirably against the Blue Devils’ pressure. Against Elon and Charleston Southern, A&T offensive line imposed their will late in the game and dominated the line of scrimmage in crunch time to help secure the victory.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
With junior wide out Zach Leslie suspended for the season opener and senior Ron Hunt sidelined with a hamstring injury, the unit – – also known as Jumpball U because of their knack for making acrobatic catches – – has not yet been at full strength. All MEAC receiver Elijah Bell had a big opening night against Elon (9 catches for 93 yards and 1 touchdown) but struggled against Duke and Charleston Southern with some uncharacteristic drops on third downs. South Carolina transfer Korey Banks has been an immediate contributor, showcasing both blazing speed and great hands. When they are locked in, there is not a better receiving corps in FCS football, but so far this unit hasn’t quite lived up to their own lofty standards.
With the unexpected departure of junior defensive end Darryl Johnson Jr. to the NFL draft and the graduation of two other senior starters, the A&T defensive line unit entered the season with great uncertainty. However, from the first game this group has been a dominant force. App State defensive end transfer Jermaine McDaniel was name MEAC Defensive Player of the Week after an eight tackle, three sack performance against Elon. This week, senior defensive tackle Jermaine Williams was recognized by the conference after recording 6 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss against Charleston Southern. Understandably, this unit was not able to dominate as much against the massive Duke lineman in Week 2, but they will likely wreak havoc against every offensive line they face from here on out.
Another position that faced uncertainty this year after the graduation of key veterans, the A&T linebacker corps has also been a pleasant surprise. Sophomore Kyin Howard (25 tackles) and JUCO transfer Alex Fumbah (20 tackles) have been tackling machines in the middle of the defense and hybrid linebackers Joseph Stucky and Antoine Wilder have been consistent playmakers on the outside, each recording over 20 tackles and one interception. Look for true freshman Jacob Roberts to earn more minutes as the season unfolds.
All-American cornerback Mac McCain has yet to see the field this season, still recovering from an ACL injury, and his absence has been a significant one. Redshirt sophomore Amir McNeil has been the only returning starter in the secondary and has played most of the season with a cast on left hand. Missed tackles and pass interference calls has plagued this unit every week, and almost all of the big plays surrendered by the defense has come through the air. Derrek Williams, the Week 1 starter at cornerback, reportedly suffered a significant injury in the Charleston Southern game and the timetable for his recovery is unknown. Even when McCain eventually returns, depth in the secondary will continue to be a major concern.
After missing his first two field goal attempts in the season opener, Noel Ruiz has connected on seven straight including a game-winning 52 yarder against Elon as time expired. Ruiz, who has already racked up MEAC special team player of the week honors twice this season, has also dramatically increased his kick-off distances, routinely sending the ball into the end zone for touchbacks. Newcomer Korey Banks has been a steady hand on both kick and punt returns and always appears ready to break a long one. The only area of concern has been the A&T punt protection unit, which has given up punt blocks to both Elon and Duke.
Second year head coach Sam Washington has done a masterful job of integrateing new faces into his lineup on both sides of the ball. Nobody in HBCU football makes better halftime adjustments than Washington and his staff. The Aggies came out flat against a winless Charleston Southern last week, but shut down the Bucs offense after the break and changed their own offensive gameplan in the fourth quarter to force feed Martin. The dramatic win over a top 25 ranked Elon team in the Week 1 was another signature accomplishment for this program, which continues to prove its standing as a true FCS powerhouse. If you must nitpick, there have been a couple of clock management issues over the first three games, but no one can debate that the Aggies are a well-prepared and well-coached team, week in and week out.