N.C. Central football coach Jerry Mack has heard the questions dating back to spring practice.
Who is going to replace Malcolm Bell at quarterback? How do you replace four starters on the offensive line?
Yes, there are holes on offense - very important ones - that North Carolina Central must fill as the Eagles being their quest for a fourth straight MEAC crown. Bell, the record setting quarterback is gone, and so is Carl Jones, the All-American center. Three other seniors, including two more All-MEAC picks, left with Jones, leaving sophomore Nick Leverett as the only returning starter up front.
The battle to replace Bell might be a four-man race as N.C. Central opens fall camp Tuesday. Only four starters return on offense, and there were growing pains in the spring as sophomore Naiil Ramadan tried to fill the huge shoes left by Bell, statistically the second best quarterback in school history. Ramadan emerged as the guy, if only by default. His main competition, freshman Shaolin McGuire, didn’t even finish spring practice, deciding to leave the team. True freshman Chauncey Caldwell enrolled in January, but was held out of drills as he recovered from surgery. During the summer, junior college transfer Micah Zanders arrived, along with another true freshman, Apex native Dominique Shaffer, who finished with 3,400 total yards of offense and 51 touchdowns as a senior at Middle Creek High School.
Ramadan appeared in five games in 2016, throwing just 19 passes, while throwing two touchdown passes. The Charlotte native game Eagles’ fans a glimpse of what life would be like without Bell, leading N.C. Central to a road win at Morgan State last season, throwing the game-winning touchdown to Jalen Wilkes. In the spring Ramadan was up and down, but did shine during the spring game.
This is the first time Mack has had to replace a quarterback, and he said the battle in fall camp will be huge.
“We’re going to give those guys a few practices to get accumulated,” Mack said. “Then we are going to cut it down to just a few guys we will be working with. It’s going to be a slow process of weeding guys out, then they are going to have to start understanding their role.”
Each player, Mack said, has dual threat ability, just like Bell. The thing is finding the guy who will grasp the offense and separate themselves from one another. Mack doesn’t have a timeline he’ll use to name a starter before the season opener at Duke on Sept. 2.
After the spring, Mack was encouraged by how well the young offensive line progressed. Replacing starters is nothing new, but replacing starters with guys who haven’t proven themselves on Saturday is tricky. Steven Perry and Twishawn Glenn both appeared in 10 games last season. Perry is expected to replace Jones as center. Marley Conley was penciled in as the starter at right tackle in the spring, but suffered an injury during the spring game. Two true freshmen - Jose Jeanty and Somadina Okezie-Okeke - are expected to compete for spots on the offensive line as well.
While there are more questions than answers on offense, it’s quite the opposite on defense. Seven starters return to the best defense in the MEAC in 2016. Four of those starters were All-Conference selections. That side of the ball is clearly the strength of the team and might be expected to lead the way, especially in the early games while the offense establishes an identity.
“I think with our defense, and the combination of pieces around our quarterback,” Mack said, “it’s going to help that trigger man continue to play well early in the season.”
Last year the defense proved it could win a game. Again, in the Morgan State contest, without Bell, the defense needed to pitch a second half shutout if the Eagles had any chance of winning. Not only did they hold the Bears scoreless, Morgan State only crossed midfield once after halftime. Linebacker Reggie Hunter was the hero that game, intercepting two passes in the win.
On paper, this is the most experienced defense Mack has coached. N.C. Central must replace four starters, but each of those starters could potentially be replaced by FBS transfers. The competition at the position groups on that side of the ball can be just as intriguing as the quarterback battle.