What we learned about NCCU football this spring

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas NCCU wide receiver Jacen Murphy (2) battles defensive back Jaquell Taylor (27) during the spring game at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas NCCU wide receiver Jacen Murphy (2) battles defensive back Jaquell Taylor (27) during the spring game at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. The Herald-Sun

The North Carolina Central football team wrapped up spring drills Saturday at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, with the defense beating the offense, 38-36.

When the Eagles broke from the huddle for the final time until fall camp, the word they all shouted was “Natty” as in National Title. N.C. Central, winners of three consecutive MEAC championships, have aspirations beyond another league title. Of course they want to win four in a row, which would mean another Celebration Bowl appearance. But the goal is clearly not only to make it to Atlanta for the second straight year, but win it and a Black College National Championship.

The quest for four in a row begins with fall camp in August, but the first step were the 15 practices in the spring. Here are some things we learned about the Eagles.

Eagles will soar downfield more

The offense was defined by big plays during the spring game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Naiil Ramadan threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns. Three of his touchdowns covered 30, 60 and 77 yards. He also hit freshman wide receiver Xavier McKoy for a 38-yard gain. The Eagles averaged 13.8 yards per pass play last season, but one of the offensive goals this spring was to take more shots down the field. The Eagles wanted more explosive plays and Ramadan was more than willing to air it out to his targets, led by Jacen Murphy who caught seven passes for 176 yards and two scores, including the 77-yard catch and run.

“Coach just knew we had the guys to do it,” Murphy said. “He believes in us, believes in our quarterbacks and offensive line. We made strides throughout the spring, that’s what we talked about doing, so we just wanted to go out here and execute.”

Murphy becomes more of a threat

Murphy, who caught 10 balls a year ago, was all over the field, also lining up in the backfield. Murphy averaged seven yards per carry last season on jet sweeps and as a wildcat quarterback. On his 77-yard reception, he showed some jets, pulling away from the defense for the final 30 yards. Murphy said his two scores were simply an example of him wanting to get in the end zone.

“I came out and wanted to lead my team and get the guys going,” Murphy said. “Anytime I get it they tell us to get in the (end zone) and that’s my mindset.”

Murphy was one of the first names mentioned by head coach Jerry Mack after the spring game, saying “Jacen Murphy played a heck of a game.”

The defense is still solid

The Eagles return eight starters and even with defensive tackle JaQuan Smith and safety Alden McClellon out this spring with injuries, the defensive unit didn’t miss a beat.

In the spring game coordinator Granville Eastman’s unit picked off two passes, one each for Davanta Reynolds and Brandon Galloway. The defense also recorded seven sacks. Antonio Brown, an all-conference selection last season, led the way with two sacks. Newcomer Jason Cascen, who filled in for Smith at defensive tackle, led the defense with five stops. Cornerback De’Mario Evans, finished with two pass breakups.

“Defensively, they came out and made some plays,” Mack said. “Caused some turnovers. We take pride in, both sides of the ball, attacking. You saw guys flying around faster, being more creative and trying to make plays.”

Quarterback battle takes a twist

Naiil Ramadan and Vitu Chilongo split time at quarterback Saturday. That’s because Redshirt freshman Shaolin McGuire, who was expected to battle for the starting spot with Ramadan, stepped away from the program for what was described as personal reasons.

McGuire is still enrolled at N.C. Central and could return to the program this fall. If not, Ramadan would be the front runner after his impressive performance during the spring game and have to hold off Chilongo, a junior college transfer and true freshman Chauncey Caldwell. Caldwell enrolled in January, but did not go through spring drills as he recovered from shoulder surgery.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun