Strength in numbers

Last month during the Pigskin Preview in Cary, North Carolina Central football coach Jerry Mack told the crowd he wasn’t worried about his 22 starters on offense and defense. His concern, going into his fourth season as head coach, was depth.

Mack and his staff want to make sure the guys behind his starters are quality guys, players he can plug in and not see a drop off in production. Tuesday, the first official day of practice for the Eagles, Mack looked over the practice field and saw more than 100 guys running around, the most players since he’s been at N.C. Central.

The Eagles, who won their first outright MEAC title last season, return 11 starters, including seven on defense. The guys who will fill those vacated spots are players who have been in the program for a number of years, but may not have seen a lot of snaps. That’s OK with Mack because those guys know the system. Once you get pass those first 22, it’s wide open for spots on the two-deep.

Building that depth, Mack said, starts in the meeting room. The players, especially the new faces, have to take what they learn in the meeting rooms and carry it over to the practice field. Whoever can process that faster will climb up the depth chart as the Eagles get closer to their Sept. 2 season opener at Duke.

“They are going to spend more time in meetings and walk-through than on the practice field,” Mack said. “That’s the great thing about camp, you have these days to focus and lock in with no other distractions.”

When the staff starts to build that depth chart, Mack and quarterbacks coach T.C. Taylor will have six quarterbacks to choose from to replace Malcolm Bell. That’s right, six guys will battle for position to be the signal caller for the Eagles, who went a perfect 8-0 in the MEAC last season. Junior college transfer Micah Zanders took first-team snaps Tuesday. Sophomore Naiil Ramadan, the only returning quarterback on the roster, and a pair of true freshman, Chauncey Caldwell and Dominique Shoffner, also saw plenty of reps. Depth shouldn’t be an issue with the quarterbacks, or the defensive line, or wide receiver, or any position on the field.

JaQuan Smith, an All-Conference defensive tackle, said he can’t remember a time when there were so many bodies in his position group, counting 17 players on the defensive line. He also realizes those bodies will be needed late in games this season. The important part, during the dog days of camp, is to push those guys and get them ready to play and contribute to, hopefully, another MEAC title.

“It’s basically getting them better, whipping them during one-on-one drills,” Smith said. “We’ll need them throughout (the season), so we tell them what to do to get better.”

And the players N.C. Central has to replace weren’t your average starters. Three of the starters lost on defense were All-Conference, another five All-MEAC guys are gone from the offense. The deepest unit returning on offense is wide receiver, with three players returning who caught at least 20 passes a year ago. That group gained some depth with the additions of UNC transfer Jordan Fieulleteau and true freshmen Nique Martin, who enrolled in January, and E.J. Hicks, who Mack said was one of the fastest players on the team. During one session, senior wideout Jacen Murphy was coaching up Hicks, bringing the young receiver up to speed in case he is thrust into action.

“I just want to put them in the best position to make plays,” Murphy said. “It’s huge for us to have that depth, it pushes everybody. Our position coaches are preaching to just compete. Nobody’s job is safe. We have to be on our A-game if we want to help those guys. When we get out there on Saturday’s we need those guys.”

The Eagles signed 22 players back in February, four offensive linemen. N.C. Central lost three starters on the line and a couple of freshmen might make the two-deep, whenever that is released. After day one, Mack couldn’t say how many of those freshmen would make the depth chart, he was just glad they made it through the first practice.

“They found a way to fight through some adversity and finish,” Mack said about his first-year players. “At the very least I know they have some fight in them. I will tell you this, though, from a talent perspective, I can see they do have the ability to step on the field as true freshmen.”

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