NCCU dodges showers, gets in first preseason scrimmage
As nasty as it was outdoors early Saturday morning, N.C. Central football coach Jerry Mack still had the Eagles out there practicing on campus at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
Mack is into his first season at NCCU and has had to be half ball coach, half meteorologist. Rain forced him to adjust the first day of fall training camp on Aug. 1. He moved the workout from early evening to later that night under O’Kelly-Riddick’s lights.
Based on the rain forecast for Saturday, Mack bumped up practice an hour and change hoping the earlier start would buy him enough time to get a feel for what the Eagles might look like when it’s time for them to line up against East Carolina on Aug. 30 (8 p.m., ESPNews).
Saturday’s officiated scrimmage was NCCU’s first since fall camp opened, and transfer quarterback Quinn Billerman looked like he rolled out of bed with his arm cocked back and ready to throw, using the first play of the day to take a shot downfield.
That pass was incomplete, but Billerman and transfer wide receiver Anas Hasic a few plays later beat preaseason All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first-team cornerback Michael Jones for a good chunk of yardage. The footing certainly wasn’t the greatest out there on the islands for corners like Jones, although Mack said defenders in team scrimmages generally have the upper hand because they’re familiar with what their teammates do on the other side of the ball.
NCCU senior defensive tackle Ty Brown was able to penetrate the line of scrimmage and get his paws on a couple of balls. Brown didn’t come up with an interception, but he was looking good with his hand in the sand, part of NCCU’s new-look, 4-2 defense.
In previous seasons, Brown (6-4, 235) played standing up as an outside linebacker in NCCU’s 3-4 scheme, but Mack and NCCU defensive coordinator Granville Eastman said he can be more of a force as a lineman coming off the edge.
“His high-end side for us is when he’s rushing the quarterback,” Eastman said.
Eastman has described NCCU’s Ryan Smith (6-0, 180) as a freak. The junior safety can cover like crazy, and he can lower the boom the way he did during the scrimmage when he separated a receiver from a ball thrown by Billerman.
That was Billerman’s second series at the controls, and he wasn’t moving the chains. Then he stuck the football in the belly of senior running back Andre Clarke, who found a seam off his right tackle’s rear end and hurried nearly 50 yards to the end zone.
Clarke would tell you he probably wouldn’t have made a run like that last season. He had surgery on his right knee in 2012 and said it’s taken him some time to get his mind right as far as running the ball like he means it.
“Last year, it was a big mental thing for me,” Clarke said. “Physically, I was cleared and I was out there playing, but it was more mental. I wasn’t confident in myself out there running.
“I feel my speed building up even faster and faster, and I’m able to do more explosive runs.”
“Andre Clark had a good day (Saturday), ripped off some explosive runs, and he showed that he could take one to the house,” Mack said. “He outran a couple of guys to finish to the end zone.
“We’ve got a good core of shifty, little backs, and they’ve all got a special skill set, so we’ve just got to do a great job of making sure certain people touch the ball in certain situations.”
Mack hired former Southern High School head coach Adrian Jones to oversee NCCU’s running backs, who were inconsistent a year ago during a 5-7 season. The various drills Jones has brought to practice and the intensity with which he administers them has made all of the difference, Clarke said.
“He just brought a whole different approach to it,” Clarke said.
“Adrian brings a different mentality to that room — that tough, hard-nosed mentality,” Mack said.
In April, NCCU’s running backs left a good number of balls on the ground during a practice in Rocky Mount. Jones has since worked with his backs on ball security.
“We didn’t have any balls on the ground (Saturday),” Mack said. “That’s a compliment to (Jones’) coaching.”
Mack said he’d give NCCU’s running backs a B-minus, so there’s still more work to do.
Billerman threw some interceptions and, all in all, was outplayed by quarterback Malcolm Bell, who made a nice run for a touchdown.
Mack said he’s comfortable with both Bell and Billerman under center.
And Mack said he’s not uneasy about All-MEAC first-team return specialist Adrian Wilkins not generating a whole lot of offense from his receiver position during the scrimmage.
“We know what Adrian can do,” Mack said. “Somebody else has to step up.”
NCCU’s field-goal unit was not good, Mack said.
“I’m really disappointed in that part of practice,” Mack said.
A few spectators took in the scrimmage. Loud music was pumping through the stadium’s speakers to simulate crowd noise.