Make no mistake about it, the spring game was important for new N.C. Central coach Trei Oliver.
Oliver wanted to evaluate his first team and he did so for two hours under a cloudy sky at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. But be clear, the spring game was also one big family reunion for current and former Eagles.
Oliver, who played defensive back and punter for NCCU in the 1990s, wanted to restore the sense of “Eagle Pride” back into the program. So the spring game served as a lettermen’s day, with close to 100 former players lining up on both sidelines to watch the Maroon (offense) take on the Grey (defense). There wasn’t an official score, but John DeLucca did connect on two short field goals in the first half. Micah Zanders also threw two touchdown passes, one to Tyler Barnes and another to Ryan McDaniel. Zanders, who missed most of 2018 with an injury, also ran for a score.
With Chauncey Caldwell recovering from foot surgery, Zanders took most of the reps in the scrimmage.
“He needed the reps,” Oliver said. “He got a lot of work in and we wanted to be able to get a good evaluation on him.”
However, Oliver was so committed to letting the former players get involved that he let two of the best serve as honorary coordinators to start the second half. Former all-American center Carl Jones, who was part of the Eagles’ last MEAC title team in 2016, called two plays for the offense. Maurice Spencer, who was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft in 1974, called the defense.
Spencer and Jones were put on the spot by Oliver, but the brief moment put extra energy on both sidelines. On the first play with Spencer calling the shots, defensive back Deonta Fair picked off a Zanders pass. The next play resulted in a sack. But Jones got the last laugh on his third offensive play call when Zanders hit Barnes for a deep bomb down the sideline for the touchdown.
Jones and Spencer gave the headphones back to the real coordinators, but not after Oliver joked that he should add both former all-Americans to the coaching staff. After the scrimmage, Oliver addressed the team briefly, then took pictures with former teammates, before introducing his old playing mates to his current set of Eagles. All part of the master plan this weekend.
“I was so happy to see all of those guys and they had a really good time,” Oliver said. “These young guys have to know who came before them and I want them to understand that.”
Earlier this week Oliver was asked to name the best NCCU team ever. After some thought, he said it would have to be the 2006 team that went undefeated when he was an assistant coach. He added, however, that he was a part of the best secondary in school history, which sparked some debate between former Eagles who thought they could claim the same. Those conversations, or debates, continued on Saturday.
“To be the best you have to know who the best was,” Oliver said.
Allowing Spencer and Jones to call plays was a way for Oliver to get the former letterman back involved. Oliver jokes that “everyone has the answers” when it comes to calling plays, and he just wanted them to see how hard it actually is.
That was just part of the involvement, which including former players talking to current players in the same position group and posing for pictures.
Junior wide receiver Xavier McKoy said he was shocked to see so many former players on the sidelines when he came out for warmups, but having them there help put extra pep in his step once the spring game started. Having them back on campus, braving the elements, created a true sense of family.
“It made it feel like a big, big, big family reunion,” McKoy said. “It was good to see all the old heads come back and cheering us on, pushing us, giving us motivation. It was definitely good.”
McKoy said the message from the former players was pretty simple: Get NCCU back to competing for MEAC championships. McKoy was a freshman the last time Eagles won the league title, their third championship in a row. It’s been a slow climb back to glory since. NCCU finished 5-6 overall last season, and interim head coach Granville Eastman wasn’t brought back. Enter Oliver, who played and coached at Central as an assistant, and the alum hope he can re energize the program, returning them to their glory days.
Spencer, who played four seasons in the NFL, likes that one of their own is leading the charge now.
“He’s not only an Eagle, he’s a fireball Eagle,” Spencer said. “He has passion. He has what’s necessary to bring this program to the standards that we deserve and anticipate.”