Eagles’ defense edges offense in NCCU spring game

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas NCCU defensive back Jamarcus Johnson (3) breaks up a pass intended for Jalen Wilkes during the spring game Saturday.
The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas NCCU defensive back Jamarcus Johnson (3) breaks up a pass intended for Jalen Wilkes during the spring game Saturday. The Herald-Sun

Competition has not been an issue for the North Carolina Central football team this spring. And it hasn’t been limited to the gridiron.

It started during winter conditioning when the squad was split into multiple teams. Those teams competed in the weight room, on the field during workouts and even in the classroom. At the end of the winter the team with the most points won. Safety Davanta Reynolds, who was on the winning team, said it went back and forth right down to the end.

That’s why when the Eagles’ defense jumped all over the offense during their spring game Saturday at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, head coach Jerry Mack wasn’t worried. He knew it would be a battle to the end; he’d seen it during the cold winter months, and almost daily during their 15 spring practices. Eventually, the defense edged the offense 38-36 in a scrimmage that went down to the very last play.

The defense could earn points for interceptions (1 point), fumble recovery (1), forced three and out (1) and a stopped drive (4 points). The offense could earn points for a touchdown (6), field goal (3), first down (1) or PAT (1). For the offense, which must replace seven starters, nothing could go right. The black (offense) team was flagged three times for holding and called for two false starts. Reynolds also picked off a Naiil Ramadan pass, and on the next drive another holding penalty made it 24-2 in favor of the gray (defense) team. At the end of the day that’s Mack’s defense and he was glad to see them do well, but he knew the offense wouldn’t lay down.

“One thing I know about them so far is they are going to keep fighting,” Mack said. “If we keep that don’t quit attitude within our offense and our entire program we’ll give ourselves a chance to win games in the fourth quarter.”

Ramadan, who also threw a pick to junior safety Brandon Galloway, settled in and finished the scrimmage with 364 passing yards and four touchdowns. His first touchdown went to freshman Nique Martin (2 catches, 39 yards) and covered 30 yards. The Charlotte native, who backed up Malcolm Bell last season, threw two touchdowns to Jacen Murphy (7 catches, 176 yards) and one to David Miller (2 catches, 89 yards). His last strike to Murphy covered 77 yards, and pulled the black team to within nine in the third quarter.

The defense led 38-29 after forcing a stop, but the offense picked up enough first downs in the final drive to pull within two points. Ramadan hit Murphy on the last play of the game, but the senior wide out couldn’t make it to pay dirt as time expired. Had it not been for a slow start for the offense, they might have been in the lead instead of playing from behind in the fourth.

“We just started out slow,” Murphy said. “That’s it. We just needed to pick it up faster.”

The Eagles got behind the chains in the first half, but Ramadan’s first big play, a 38-yard pass to Xavier McKoy, seemed to light a fire in the black team. The defense still led by eight at the half. And even though the second half belonged to the offense, it was the defense crowned as the winners for the second consecutive spring game. Not that it comes with any extra perks, other than bragging rights.

“Maybe a pat on the back,” Reynolds said. “We feel like sometimes they (the offense) get the best of us, sometimes we get the best of them. For us to win, that’s huge. We always talk junk and they talk junk back, but we won. As a defense we pride ourselves on it, it’s a good way to end the spring.”

The defense, Reynolds said, knew they had to get out to a good start because this offense can “get popping quick.” Ramadan, who split reps with junior Vitu Chilongo, found a groove with his new set of deep threats. Once Torri Cotton found some creases in the running game, the Eagles were full steam ahead. It took some late stops from the gray team, including Galloway’s interception late in the third, to keep the black team at bay. Once Murphy was stopped short of the end zone on the final play, many defenders reminded the offense that this victory made it two in a row. As Murphy lay on the five yard line, so close, yet so far away from the offense winning, it was just a reminder of how evenly matched both sides of the ball have been this spring.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Mack said. “That’s what you saw today. I didn’t want to see any lopsided victories. I love seeing both (sides) make plays. It means our coaches are coaching hard, our players understand what’s going on and nobody is lying down and quitting.”

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