One year ago, almost to the day, N.C. Central football coach Jerry Mack sat in the lobby of the Waterside Norfolk Marriott and talked about the goals for his 2016 football team.
He wanted that version of the Eagles to control its destiny in the MEAC and eventually play in the Celebration Bowl. Last season NCCU went 8-0 in league play and made it to the Celebration Bowl, falling to Grambling State, 10-9.
On Friday, as the MEAC held its annual media day at the same location, Mack, sitting in almost the exact spot, outlined the next step for his team. Dating back to spring practice, after coming up short last December in Atlanta, the goal has been to not only get back to the Celebration Bowl but to win the HBCU National Championship.
With three MEAC titles under his belt and most of his roster walking around campus with at least two rings, Mack has his sights set higher. Even when the team broke the huddle during spring practice they all shouted the same thing: “Natty.”
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Mack doesn’t want his team to shy away from that, but there are steps that need to be taken for that to happen.
“It goes back to what we always talk about, taking it one step at a time,” Mack said. “We’re going to always start the season talking about goals, as far as being MEAC champions, being national champions, but in order to get through that process, it is about taking it one day at a time, doing everything to make sure we are successful going into the next season.”
The sting of the Celebration Bowl loss might be just what the doctor ordered for motivation. The last few seasons the Eagles have always played with a chip. If they weren’t picked to finish first, that was a motivator. That won’t be a problem this season as N.C. Central was predicted to win a fourth straight MEAC title.
Last season certain things, like not getting a TV game, or being picked third, motivated the team. The fuel this year will be the one-point loss to Grambling.
Preseason first-team running back Ramone Simpson said he hasn’t even watched the Celebration Bowl again. However, just the thought of that game, and how it ended, drove him and his teammates during winter and summer workouts. Defensive end Antonio Brown has watched the game, but said it stung just the same watching on television as it did playing the game.
“I watched it alone at the house,” Brown said. “I just can’t get over it.”
Simpson said the game was always used as a motivational tool during the offseason, something the coaches held over their heads. It was part of the process of remaining humble, Simpson explained. The junior from Wilmington said staying humble and hungry, like they have in the past, is the key to reaching their goals. Staying humble, for a three-time champion, has been easier than expected.
“You always have to be hungry to strive and be better than you were the year before,” Simpson said. “I feel like with the recruits coming in and the concepts in the playbook the coaches have it set up to put us right back where we need to be.”
There are some challenges ahead for the Eagles.
First, they must replace All-MEAC quarterback Malcolm Bell. Second, they have to replace four of the five guys who protected Bell, including All-American center Carl Jones.
Four quarterbacks, three of whom weren’t on the roster a year ago, will compete for the starting job.
Redshirt junior Naiil Ramadan led the team in the spring and is the only player on the team to take a snap in maroon and gray. He will battle with junior college transfer Micah Zanders and true freshmen Chauncey Caldwell and Dominique Shoffner for the spot. Whoever wins the job, will have to handle the pressure of not only following Bell, but trying to make sure this senior class leaves Durham with four rings. That’s the new expectation around town, which is perfectly fine with Mack, who is used to hunting but is now the hunted.
The players are OK with the target on their backs, knowing each week will feel like a championship game.
“It’s going to be great for us because it’s going to bring everybody’s best,” Simpson said. “You have to prepare for every game just like it’s a championship game. We can’t go out there slacking and all of that’s going to play a role and add to a championship season.”
For the first time in the Mack era, the Eagles were picked to finish first by the coaches and league sports information directors. Mack’s first year, the team was picked eighth. Since then, Mack has won 24 games and three league titles, making the Eagles the measuring stick in the conference.
“It’s a lot better than being at the bottom of the league,” Mack said with a laugh. “You work hard to get to that level, where you are No. 1 and you want people chasing you. We embrace it, we’re ready for the challenge. We feel like now we’re one of the top teams in the league, come get us.”