Defense, running backs shine in Eagles first scrimmage

The defense flew around, and North Carolina Central football coach Jerry Mack liked that a lot. But there were too many penalties and pre-snap mistakes than he cared for during the Eagles first scrimmage of the spring.

The three-time MEAC champs went through a three-out, full workout, at O’Kelly-Riddick Saturday morning. N.C. Central has four practices completed, and Saturday was the first time the Eagles went 11-on-11 in game like situations. The offense was led by redshirt freshman quarterback Shaolin McGuire, who was picked off once and didn’t throw a touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Naiil Ramadan hit Jalen Wilkes for a long score towards the end of the scrimmage, while running backs Ramone Simpson and Torri Cotton each found paydirt for the offense.

“I thought the running backs played well,” Mack said. “They ran the ball tough in between the tackles and they got it out on the perimeter a lot.”

Isaiah Totten, a freshman running back from Apex, was also in the mix as Dorrell McClain got some rest for N.C. Central. With the passing game taking a while to gel with two young quarterbacks, the running backs were more than willing to lead the way. Simpson, an all-conference pick last season, said the backfield is more than willing to get the offense going. Simpson, a junior, and Cotton, also proved to be reliable receivers out the backfield for McGuire and Ramadan whenever they got in a jam.

“The running game opens up the passing game,” Simpson said. “Once we get that on the same accord, I feel like nobody can stop us.”

Cotton, who missed last spring with an injury, looked, at times, like he was playing in a different speed than the defenders. The Panama City Beach, Florida, native made defenders miss in open space and continued to prove he can run between the tackles despite his small frame (5-8, 160). Cotton’s improved play this spring is “about getting older” but it also helps to get the additional reps since McClain is out.

“It’s just getting used to the play calls,” Cotton, who started one game in 2016, said. “It comes natural now.”

Things haven’t come as natural for the quarterbacks. Both Ramadan and McGuire made some plays with their feet, but left plenty of plays in the passing game on the field. McGuire was picked off by Josiah Dailey during one of the earlier series. Ramadan liked the energy the offense played with, but also knows there is room for a lot of improvement.

“We have a long ways to go,” Ramadan said. “We have big goals to get back to the Celebration Bowl, and it’s going to take a lot better effort than that.”

Effort, or lack thereof, was something Mack felt was lacking at times during the scrimmage.

“I thought our effort was a little slow today,” Mack said. “I thought we started out decent but as the scrimmage went along the guys got tired, so I would like to see the effort increase because it doesn’t take any talent to get that out of you.”

Defensively, Mack singled out the play of Dailey, defensive tackle Cyrus Stanback and safety Devonta Reynolds. Reynolds, a junior, said defense made a lot of mental mistakes, but “bounced around.” The next time out he would like to see more discipline from his ground, who return eight starters from last season.

All eyes will be on the quarterback battle up until the first game. McGuire and Ramadan got about equal reps, even though McGuire ran with the starters. Mack said the Ridgeway, Virginia, native wanted to make more plays down the field, but had a hard time completing deep passes. McGuire admitted a lot of throws were left on the field and he has to get back to the film room and see where things went wrong.

“We could have scored a lot more,” McGuire said. “We could have picked up the tempo more. We could have done a lot of things. As far as me, this wasn’t my best game, it was a learning curve for me. I’m going to have to get in the film room and focus on what I did wrong and just go for it coming into Monday’s practice.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV