Naiil Ramadan entered Thursday night’s contest as North Carolina Central’s third-team quarterback.
The redshirt sophomore from Charlotte hadn’t played a snap all season, not the position he imagine when spring football ended and he was the No. 1 guy. But two full games and three quarters into the season, Ramadan hadn’t seen the field. So with the Eagles trailing South Carolina State by eight in the fourth quarter, Ramadan wasn’t expecting his number to be called.
He had his helmet on, but he hadn’t warmed up at all and was a spectator for three quarters. When Chauncey Caldwell went out with a hand injury, and starter Micah Zanders already out the game, Ramadan was up.
“They didn’t tell me anything about Micah,” Ramadan said, “so I didn’t know.”
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Trailing the Bulldogs, 28-20, Ramadan entered the game on 1st and 10 in South Carolina State territory. His first play he was dropped at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Not an ideal start to his cameo appearance. On second down, however, Ramadan threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jacen Murphy to pull the team within two. On the next drive Caldwell would return, throwing the game-winning touchdown to tight end Josh McCoy. Caldwell, the freshman from Durham, got credit for the final touchdown, but the Eagles would not have been in that position if not for Ramadan.
It was like a blast from the past. Last season, on the road at Morgan State, Ramadan took over for an injured Malcolm Bell. His first play against the Bears was an interception. On that chilly day in Baltimore, Ramadan would lead the Eagles to a come-from-behind win, throwing the game-winning score to Jalen Wilkes in the 21-17 win. Ramandan’s pass to Murphy was his only attempt of the game. He would return to the sideline for good the next drive. Caldwell would throw for a score and the defense would hold South Carolina State to minus two yards the final eight plays of the game, but everyone in the locker room acknowledged how big Ramadan’s appearance was.
“It was unbelievable,” NCCU junior safety Alden McClellon said. “Naiil is one of my best friends, so it wasn’t surprising. He did it last year against Morgan State, so he’s always ready.”
When Ramadan entered the game, McClellon immediately thought back to Morgan State and he felt fine. He knew Ramadan, who completed just 13 passes last season, was more than capable. So did Caldwell, who became Ramadan’s biggest cheerleader. Caldwell just had a cramp in his hand, and didn’t want to be selfish and stay in the game, knowing he couldn’t throw the ball.
“I was very excited,” Caldwell said. “Off the field we are very close and we will talk about it later and celebrate.”
That speaks to the unselfishness of the quarterback room. Three different quarterbacks played, with Zanders starting, but passing for only five yards in the first half. That made way for Caldwell, who head coach Jerry Mack knew was going to play, but entered the game sooner than expected when Zanders went down. Ramadan wasn’t in the plans at all, but the quarterbacks feel anyone in that room can get the job done.
“We all pull for each other,” Caldwell said. “When I’m in he cheers for me, when he’s in I cheer for him. We’re all going to be ready when our number is called.”
Ramadan stayed ready on the sideline by taking mental reps. It would have been easy for Ramadan to get down on himself after Zanders and Caldwell came in and leaped him on the depth chart, but he never lost confidence.
“It’s just mental toughness,” Ramadan said. “My teammates keep me positive and tell me to believe in myself. I’m very confident.”