Numbers game

N.C. Central defensive back Nolan Corpening remembers walking out of the locker room the first day of spring drills and noticing a lot of his teammates looked different.

Sure, guys looked different physically because they spent the offseason training. But that wasn’t it. Corpening noticed a lot of guys, more so than usual, made a change in their uniforms. He couldn’t remember a spring where so many guys changed jersey numbers. In fact, Corpening, a senior from Charlotte, was one of them, switching from No. 36 to No. 4.

In college football single-digit numbers are the latest craze. With the exception of the offensive line, you can see a player at almost any position wearing jersey Nos. 1-9. Decades ago those select numbers were reserved for kickers and quarterbacks. These days they are even more popular with skill position players, defensive backs and more and more across college football, defensive linemen.

For the Eagles, some did it because it dates back to their high school playing days or further. Others, like linebacker Reggie Hunter (from No. 52 to No. 2) did it because they never had the chance to wear a single-digit number and wanted to try it out. Whatever the reason for the new looks, head coach Jerry Mack warns the players not to get too comfortable.

“We let anybody wear any number they want right now, it doesn’t have anything to do with the fall,” Mack said with a laugh. “If a guy comes and it’s (available) we let them wear it, they might have worn it in high school or peewee football for all I know. But when the season comes there won’t be as much change.”

Corpening, who started all 12 games last season at cornerback, probably has the best reasoning for his switch. He went from No. 36, which he said he never liked, to No. 4. The 4, as he explained, represents his fourth season, chasing his fourth MEAC ring. The area code for his hometown is also 704. Corpening wore No. 10 in high school, but knows a switch to a single-digit jersey number represents much more.

“It’s only one number, so it kind of puts a spotlight on that one number, you have to respond well,” Corpening said. “You have a single-digit on your back so you have to be one of the ballers on the team.”

Running back Torri Cotton, who switched from No. 21 to No. 6, said he was just trying out the new digs for the spring. But chances are he will stick with it. Besides, where he’s from a single-digit number represents one of his best attributes.

“I’m from Florida and in Florida it’s known for the faster guys to wear the single-digit jerseys,” Cotton explained. “I might end up changing. I have to earn it, though. You definitely have to earn it because everyone is fighting for a single-digit number.”

The single-digit jersey numbers are a hot commodity, and Mack just doesn’t hand them over. Coaches watch how guys perform during winter conditioning, spring practices and fall camp. If you earn the right to wear a certain number, it’s yours.

“We compete at Central,” Corpening said.

Players on both sides of the ball can wear the same number as long as they aren’t on the field at the same time. For example, Hunter is currently wearing No. 2, the same jersey number as wide receiver Jacen Murphy. During a game, Hunter and Murphy wouldn’t be allowed on the same special teams unit wearing the same number. That’s where the competition part comes in. The best guy gets the jersey.

A couple of players who switched had to have special meetings with Mack before they even made the change. Corpening was one of them, but he feels pretty confident he will be wearing No. 4 once the season starts.

Davanta Reynolds might not be as lucky. Reynolds, a junior safety, switched from No. 22 to numero uno. All eyes are usually on No. 1 no matter what the position. Reynolds wore No. 1 in Pop Warner and stuck with it all the way through high school. When cornerback Mike Jones transferred, his old number became available, but first Reynolds, who finished with 38 tackles last season, had to sit down with Mack. The challenge was issued and Reynolds knew he had to be better — mentally, physically and vocally — if he was going to keep his old number. His first day of spring practice he got an interception and added two more in their first scrimmage.

The change in threads took him back to his high school days.

“It’s definitely a confidence thing,” Reynolds said. “I’m not trying to boost myself, but when I had No. 1 I was balling. It’s a different swagger about yourself, more confidence.”

Reynolds said the number won’t make him, he’ll make the number. Hunter said he feels bigger with just one number on his chest. Cotton is not certain he’ll stay with a single-digit, but he definitely looked faster in his new jersey. If it made him think back to his high school days and gives not only Cotton, but any of the players, a confidence boost, Mack supports it.

“I’m all for it, but they have to show up on the field during camp,” Mack said. “We got through spring and winter conditioning and if you want a number you have to show us you deserve it.”

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