NCCU takeaways yield weekly MEAC honors
Only on a football field could four N.C. Central defenders get away with the sort of thievery that they committed in broad daylight at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Saturday.
The Eagles’ defensive backs ran for 103 yards on five interception returns, and Tony Williams returned one 48 yards for a touchdown. Michael Jones stole two passes from Charlotte quarterback Matt Johnson, while Hakiem Swann swiped another.
And in the second quarter of the Eagles’ 40-13 win over Charlotte, NCCU’s Tim Thaniel gave the game’s momentum a hard swing in his team’s direction when he skied for an interception, pulling it down with one hand as if grabbing a basketball rebound.
“These guys can roll; they’re really good,” NCCU defensive backs coach Andre George said. “It may appear that they’re freshmen, but I don’t think they’re your typical freshmen.”
Williams, a redshirt sophomore, is the oldest of the bunch. Thaniel is a redshirt freshman, while Swann and Jones were in high school a year ago.
Jones, the rookie of the week in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, also showed off in Week 2 against St. Augustine’s with his interception and 80-yard return in double overtime that gave the ball to NCCU’s offense for what turned out to be the winning field goal.
Jones (5-9, 175) is tied for the Football Championship Subdivision lead in interceptions with three for 115 yards. Against Charlotte, the cornerback also had four tackles and broke up a pass.
“He says play with enthusiasm, play with fun, just think about who you’re doing it for and just go out there and ball hard,” Jones said.
George told his defensive backs to stop thinking so much about what they’re supposed to do and just do it.
“Get back to having fun and just flying around and just get back to that 5- and 6-year-old kid who first started playing football and bring that personality,” George said. “If you’re going to mess up, mess up full speed.”
NCCU’s seven interceptions ties the team for second place in that category among FCS schools, trailing South Dakota State with nine picks.
Before NCCU showed up in Charlotte, the 49ers’ quarterback hadn’t been intercepted in 59 attempts. Johnson had completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 8 touchdowns.
George told NCCU’s defensive backs that Johnson liked to throw short passes before airing it out with play action. The short stuff is what the Eagles’ were swooping on and stealing.
NCCU’s cover guys weren’t always properly lined up on the field, but they were playing with a controlled aggression that allowed them to make plays — that’s football, George said.
“At the end of the day, this is back-yard football,” George said. “Go out and have fun.”
The Eagles’ secondary is young because the team’s recruiting needs in prior years necessitated bolstering other positions, George said.
That means opposing offensive coordinators will tell their quarterbacks to test the youngsters while staying away from NCCU defensive back Ryan Smith, who last year proved that it’s dangerous to pick on him, George said.
No. 4 Towson heads to NCCU’s O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on Saturday with an offensive line that George said is not exceptional but scrappy and disciplined enough to hold their blocks, giving Towson’s receivers more time to get open.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” George said. “They’re a little more talented than UNC Charlotte. But the UNC Charlotte game did a lot for us from a confidence and execution standpoint, from a believing standpoint.
“The enthusiasm and the focus we had coming out versus Charlotte, if we do that again, I’m not sure how many teams can play with us on those days.”
NOTES — NCCU’s Adrian Wilkins is the special teams player of the week in the MEAC after scoring on a 100-yard return to start the second half against Charlotte. It was the second-longest kickoff return in NCCU history. ... Wilkins, who also caught a team-high five passes for 83 yards and finished the game with 183 all-purpose yards, is NCCU’s leading receiver with 10 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. He is averaging 50.3 receiving yards per game and 15.1 yards per reception.