N.C. Central defensive line built for speed

North Carolina Central defensive coach Jon Bradley talks to defensive tackle Cyrus Stanback before a game last season in Durham.
North Carolina Central defensive coach Jon Bradley talks to defensive tackle Cyrus Stanback before a game last season in Durham.

Three of four starters from North Carolina Central’s defensive line return in 2017. That spells bad news for the rest of the MEAC.

Not only do the Eagles, three-time MEAC champs, return experience, there is also depth. What makes the unit even scarier is the coaches are finding more creative ways to land in the opponent’s backfield. Not that they were a slouch in that department, anyway.

The Eagles were second in the league in total sacks (33) and had two of the top five sack leaders in the MEAC last season. Those same two players - defensive ends Freddy Henry-Ajudua and Antonio Brown - were also in the top five in tackles for loss.

Henry-Ajudua and his 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks are gone. Brown returns for his senior campaign after 14.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles in 2016. Defensive line coach Jon Bradley welcomes back not only Brown, but starters JaQuan Smith and Cyrus Stanback. Freshman defensive end Kawuan Cox was also in the rotation last season and should be called upon to expand his role as a sophomore. As if all that experience isn’t enough, during the spring the Eagles have been improving their methods of hunting quarterbacks. During their last scrimmage Brown, who came to N.C. Central as a defensive tackle, but has blossomed as a 250-pound defensive end, was back playing as an interior lineman. That gave Bradley and the defense more speed on the field to track down ball carriers.

Last season they ran the same package with a combination of Henry-Ajudua, Brown, Cox and Stanback.

“It’s one of those deals where you want to brush off that rust and just get them back going,” Bradley said. “It’s always a situation where we want to get more speed in the game.”

The scheme, more than anything is designed to keep up with mobile quarterbacks, which their are a slew of in the MEAC. The last time we saw the Eagles on the field, they were given the assignment of containing Grambling quarterback Devante Kincade, who was held to 1.8 yard per rushing attempt in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. That was no easy task considering how dangerous Kincade is with his feet. At the end of the day, Bradley said, it’s all about finding ways to get guys on the field who can rush the passer.

“We want guys who can not only get there,” Bradley said, “but get there in a hurry.”

Brown takes pride in his first step, and perhaps nobody has the footwork and change of direction like Henry-Ajudua. Not only does the faster package benefit the defensive ends, according to Bradley it puts pressure on the big guys in the middle, who want to stay on the field and get part of the action as well.

“They don’t want to come of the field,” Bradley said. “So they pick (their) play up.”

Bradley hopes the combination of Cox, also a good speed rusher, and transfer Randy Anyanwu, more of a physical rusher, can make up for the sacks Henry-Ajudua had last season. Cox had 1.5 sacks in 2016, while had the same number after appearing in 21 games at the University of Buffalo. The faster package isn’t just exclusive to pass rush, Bradley also thinks it fairs well against the zone read option, a popular offense in college football today.

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