DURHAM — North Carolina Central will begin spring football practice today at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, fresh off one of its most success seasons since making the jump to Division I six years ago.
The Eagles went 9-3 in 2016, winning their third straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and advancing to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, falling to Grambling, 10-9. Now N.C. Central gets back to work, on the hunt for an unprecedented fourth consecutive MEAC championship. That won’t be easy, as the Eagles have some huge holes to fill on offense, and some key pieces to replace on defense. But that’s what spring is for, to get a start on trying to figure those things out.
Here are five questions to ponder as N.C. Central starts spring drills.
1. Who replaces Malcolm Bell at quarterback?
This one won’t be easy. Bell left N.C. Central as No. 2 all-time in all-purpose yards, setting the new standard for quarterback play in Durham. Bell started all 12 games a year ago, and was named first-team All-MEAC. But Bell is gone and behind him are three guys with little to no experience.
Redshirt sophomore Naiil Ramadan is the only quarterback on the roster who has game experience. He saw action in five games and threw two touchdowns, leading the Eagles to a road win at Morgan State after Bell left in the second quarter with a head injury. Behind Ramadan will be redshirt freshman Shoalin McGuire, who was highly recruited out of Magna Vista (Va.) High School, and true freshman Chauncey Caldwell.
Caldwell is a local kid who played three years at Hillside before transferring to Mallard Creek in Charlotte for his final season. Chances are one of these players will have a chance to gain a lead on the other two during spring practice.
2. Can the Eagles put together an offensive line?
No matter who plays quarterback, there will be a new offensive line in front of him. N.C. Central must replace four starters up front, including All-American center Carl Jones.
Redshirt sophomore left tackle Nick Leverett is the only returning starter up front. He also happens to be very versatile. Leverett played center in high school, and played both guard positions last season. This spring the Eagles will need to find four players to build around Leverett or it won’t even matter who wins the quarterback job.
3. Will NCCU shore up its special teams’ details?
In 2015 a blocked kicked cost N.C. Central an outright MEAC championship. In 2016 it cost them the Celebration Bowl. Both times the kicks were blocked due to a man running off the edge. It’s a small detail, but it has come up big, costing the Eagles big wins each time.
4. Is there another Mike Jones on the roster?
The secondary would have been the only unit to return all starters in 2017, but All-Conference cornerback Mike Jones transferred shortly after the Celebration Bowl.
The other four starters more than held their own all season, considering not many teams threw at Jones. The other cornerback, Nolan Corpening, was solid all season, as he got most of the attention. De’Mario Evans and Ruben Saunders both played spot duty last season, but either could step into that role vacated by the explosive Jones.
5. How much help will they get from the new guys?
A few freshmen have already enrolled and will go through their first spring drill at N.C. Central. Randy Anyanwu, a defensive end who transferred from the University of Buffalo, is expected to step in and help right away.
Caldwell is another guy who should benefit from going through spring drills, depending on how fast he recoveries from offseason surgery. There are also some redshirt guys who are expected to get extended looks this spring. There has been a buzz around running backs Isaiah Totten and Jordan Freeman, and wide receiver Chance Kennedy.