New coach, new-look Eagles travel to tough ECU

Aug. 29, 2014 @ 05:20 PM

This is that time of the year when grade-school kids meet their new teachers and everybody’s excited about the next new thing.

It’s the same way with college football, particularly when coaches fired or otherwise pushed aside after last fall have been replaced. So now is when fan bases like N.C. Central’s are pumped about the next new thing.

Last summer, NCCU athletics director Ingrid Wicker-McCree removed Henry Frazier III from his position as the school’s head football coach when his marital problems seemingly were in the news as much as his Xs and Os. Wicker-McCree promoted NCCU assistant head coach Dwayne Foster to interim head coach, and the Eagles went 5-7.

In December, Wicker-McCree decided NCCU’s football program needed at the helm this really young wide receivers coach from the University of South Alabama named Jerry Mack. And with that began talk about Mack being 33 and good-looking and smart and all of that. He became the next new thing, like the beginning of a school year.

The Eagles get their first test today. It’s not a little quiz, either. No, they’re taking a serious exam at East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville (8 p.m., ESPNews). It will be Mack’s debut as a head coach.

ECU plays big-boy ball on the Football Bowl Subdivision level and have in senior Shane Carden (6-2, 221) a quarterback who threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.

NCCU quarterback Quinn Billerman (6-3, 215), out of Raleigh Ravenscroft, will be making his first start for the Eagles after transferring from New Mexico Military Institute, where he threw for 2,962 yards and 34 touchdowns.

Carden has an alluring target in ECU wide receiver Justin Hardy (6-0, 188), who caught 114 passes for 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns.

NCCU’s Adrian Wilkins (5-8, 170) last season had 37 catches for 427 yards and two touchdowns on the Football Championship Subdivision level. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they represent the best NCCU’s passing game had to offer.

Things generally don’t go very well for FCS teams that go against FBS squads. ECU is 22-1 against FCS opponents, but the Pirates never have played NCCU.

Mack didn’t sign up for this. Along with the players he inherited came tonight’s date with ECU coach Ruffin McNeill and his Pirates, the first game of a long season wherein not much is expected from the Eagles, predicted to finish eighth out of the 11 teams that play football in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

“We play every game to win,” Mack said.

That includes NCCU’s matchup with ECU, predicted to finish fourth in its first season in the 11-team American Athletic Conference. ECU last season was 10-3 overall, finished second in Conference USA and beat Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl.

ECU will pay NCCU $290,000 to compete in tonight’s game. It’s the sort of FCS-FBS contest that historically has been regarded as a guaranteed win for the FBS teams, which are allowed to count the victory toward becoming eligible for a bowl game.

The paycheck aside, NCCU has plenty to gain from playing ECU, a potential upset among the possibilities, Mack said.

“Young men, they want to compete at the highest level,” Mack said. “You always want to match your best against their best.”

A nationally televised game like this Eagles-Pirates matchup never hurts recruiting for a school like NCCU.

With NCCU and ECU both being North Carolina schools, some of the players on each team competed against each other in high school, Mack said.

And the truth of the matter, Mack said, is some of NCCU’s guys believe they are talented enough to have suited up for ECU.

Here’s their opportunity to prove it.