The last time we saw the North Carolina Central defense in action, the unit turned in one its best performances of the 2016 season.
The Eagles held Grambling State University, one of the top offenses in the country, to just 10 points in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. The Tigers came into that contest averaging more than 40 points per game last season. N.C. Central was up to the challenge, holding GSU to just one touchdown in a 10-9 loss.
The Eagles’ defense, one of the best in the MEAC last season, returns eight starters from a year ago. Sure, the three starters they must replace - defensive end Freddie Henry-Ajudua, cornerback Mike Jones, linebacker LeGrande Harley - were pretty important pieces (all three were all-conference picks), but defensive coordinator Granville Eastman returns seven of his top 10 tacklers from last season.
With so many guys returning who have played a lot of football at N.C. Central, Eastman has spent this spring putting much more on their plates.
“We’re getting put in situations that we may not have been put in last season because he trust us now,” senior cornerback Nolan Corpening said. “We’re responding pretty well to it, I like how the defense is looking right now.”
Eastman said that’s been a battle each spring: to put more and more on his unit and grow from the previous season. Eastman added the spring was about the “racehorse theory.” They want to keep going and going, not looking back on what they did the previous season. He wants the defense to retain as much information as they can this spring and prove in the fall they were able to retain the information.
Corpening said Eastman has installed more blitzes and is applying more pressure. Adding pressure with the front four shouldn’t be an issue with all-MEAC seniors JaQuan Smith and Antonio Brown back, along with junior Cyrus Stanback. The secondary has been playing more man coverage this spring, putting extra stress on the defensive backs, Corpening added. But that group, which returns four starters, should be able to handle it. Corpening is the lone senior in the group. He will be surrounded by four juniors (DeMario Evans is expected to fill in for Mike Jones at the other cornerback position). Alden McClellon, Jaquell Taylor and Devanta Reynolds all finished in the top 10 in tackles last season under Eastman. Corpening, Reynolds and McClellon each started all 12 games in 2016, Taylor started in 10. Each returning starter on defense has been in the program at least three years, and with that experience, they have been thinking less, and doing more flying around this spring.
“It’s like a routine,” Reynolds said. “Nothing’s change, scheme hasn’t change, so we’re used to it now. It’s like getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth and washing your face, it’s a routine. That makes us more comfortable as a whole unit.”
Reynolds, however, has noticed Eastman putting more on the group. Reynolds, the most experienced player on the back end, said Eastman has even left him scratching his head at times with the new wrinkles.
“But it’s what I like,” Reynolds said. “I like to learn a lot, that’s what makes me a better player.”