Zanders takes step forward, defense stands tall in Eagles’ scrimmage

The North Carolina Central football team held a two-hour scrimmage at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium Saturday morning. It was the first time coach Jerry Mack and his staff got a chance to evaluate the team under game conditions with officials and plenty of fans watching.

The Eagles, who start the season on Sept. 2 at Duke, have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, where they have to replace seven starters. Two of the main concerns will be replacing quarterback Malcolm Bell and four offensive linemen.

Here are some observations from the scrimmage:

Zanders makes case at QB

Transfer quarterback Micah Zanders took the majority of the first-team reps. A sophomore out of Hinds (Miss.) Community College, Zanders threw a touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Xavier McKoy on the second drive of the day. He also threw a long pass to David Miller to set up a short touchdown run by Dorrel McClain. Zanders, who arrived in Durham over the summer, said he is getting much more comfortable in the offense and with the coaching staff. Mack, however, won’t hand the reins over to Zanders just yet.

“I’m not ready to give him the title right now,” Mack said. “He did show some flashes, but we have to go back to the drawing board. He is starting to slowly separate (himself), but a lot of it is because of his maturity. He’s played a little bit more college football than some of these other guys.”

Zanders, who also threw one interception, said he would give himself a C for his performance during the scrimmage.

“We had a couple of explosive plays,” Zanders said. “But my reads, I have to get quicker, so I give myself a C, maybe a C-minus.”

Defense improving

Speaking of the interception thrown by Zanders, it came during a goal-line stand from the defense. After Zanders hit Miller for a big gain inside the red zone, consecutive penalties on the offensive line pushed the Eagles’ offense backward. On third down, Zanders was picked off by junior defensive back Mike Robinson. According to senior linebacker Reggie Hunter, who watched the play from the sideline, the stand was a big confidence boost for the defensive reserves.

“We had young guys doing that,” Hunter said. “Being able to sit the veterans and letting young guys go out and hold down the goal line, that’s an improvement to the defense. We know that guys can come in and take our spots and nothing changes.”

The first-team defense forced three-and-outs the two times it was on the field as a complete unit. The defense also recorded eight sacks.

Offensive mistakes costly

Penalties and dropped balls killed the N.C. Central offense during several drives. The two false starts took the Eagles off the goal line leading up to the Robinson interception, and N.C. Central dropped four passes, including one that would have been a sure touchdown by McCoy.

“We had too many penalties and that’s the thing I’m most disappointed in on both sides of the ball,” Mack said. “We have to clean up some of those things. From an overall perspective we have to clean up some communications issues and some of these penalties.”

Depth at running back

Mack has plenty of running backs to choose from, starting with junior Ramone Simpson, who was limited on Saturday. That led the way for McClain and redshirt freshman Isaiah Totten. In the spring, Totten proved he would be in the rotation this season, and McClain, who battled injuries a year ago, looks like he is back to the same player who was the 2015 MEAC Rookie of The Year.

“I think both of those guys have proven they are going to be quality backs for us this year,” Mack said. “Those guys are really explosive. With Isaiah, the more reps he gets he will start to get more comfortable behind that offensive line and gel a little bit. You can see the progress he’s making.”

Laster shows ability

Zanders wasn’t the only fresh face making an impact. Mack singled out the play of linebacker De’Niro Laster (transfer from Kentucky) and a couple of true freshmen – wide receiver E.J. Hicks, cornerback Marcus Martin – for their play during the scrimmage.

“De’Niro flashed today,” Mack said. “Marcus has been having a really good camp for us. There are about three or four freshmen we are depending on to come in and really help us.”

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