The North Carolina Central football team boarded a bus Tuesday morning and began a 10 hour, 562 mile journey to start the 2019 season.
The Eagles first game is Thursday night at 8 p.m., at Austin Peay University, located in Clarksville, Tenn. It will be a matchup of two new coaches - NCCU first-year coach Trei Oliver and Austin Peay’s Mark Hudspeth - and a pair of teams with identical records in 2018 (5-6).
“I think they are a spitting image of ourselves,” Oliver said at his weekly press conference. “It’s like looking in the mirror.”
Hudspeth came to Austin Peay after spending the 2018 season as the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Mississippi State, and has 16 years of head coaching experience at the FBS, NCAA Division II and high school levels.
Thursday’s game will be the first ever contest between the Eagles and the Governors. NCCU has gone 2-1 record on Thursday nights the last two seasons.
Here’s a look ahead to Thursday’s game:
New faces in the nest
A quick glance over the NCCU roster and one thing that jumps out is all the new names. Trei Oliver has 37 true freshman in the program and several of them will make the trip to Clarksville. Seven true freshmen are on the two-deep, with one - place kicker Adrian Olivo - starting. Two redshirt freshmen - Jessie Urbina and Devin Jordan - will start on the offensive line.
Since day one, Oliver has beamed about this freshman class and feels like many of them will help.
“We are looking forward to having a lot of these freshmen play,” Oliver said. “We are going to throw them in the fire and see what they can do. We are young, but our freshmen are a talented group. We just hope they can grow up fast.”
NC Central’s young offensive line
The offensive line might be the youngest unit on the team, with the two redshirts, one sophomore and two juniors starting. Only Ricky Lee at left tackle and right guard, junior Andrew Dale, started last season, forcing Lee to become a leader in just his sophomore season.
Lee, who’s from Jacksonville, Fla., started 11 games as a true freshman in 2018 and considers himself one of the vocal leaders up front. Before camp started he took it upon himself to pull the young players aside and give them advice.
“I told them at the end of the day they have to push through everything; injuries, fatigue,” Lee told the media at the Eagles’ weekly press conference. “That’s what football is all about.”
Lee will be making the switch from right tackle to left tackle this season, protecting the blindside of starting quarterback Micah Zanders, who is also from Jacksonville. Lee said he feels extra protective of Zanders since they are from the same hometown.
Micah Zanders wins starting QB role
Zanders, a redshirt senior, started the first three games of the 2017 season before suffering a season-ending injury. He missed all of 2018.
Zanders returned in the spring and beat out junior Chauncey Caldwell, who missed the entire spring with an injury, for the starting job.
“Chauncey was down in the spring so Micah got a bunch of the reps,” Oliver said. “I think that probably gave Micah a leg up as far as the race was concerned. Coming into fall camp it was a great battle and I think both of them are capable of being starting quarterbacks. When you have a battle like that, when you have two quarterbacks with that much talent I’m really happy where we are.”
Both quarterbacks will play against Austin Peay, but Oliver said he won’t have a package of plays just for Caldwell. Oliver will let offensive coordinator Moses Ware handle rotating the quarterbacks.
But it will be Zanders taking the first snaps after winning the team over in the spring.
“I think it’s more about taking leadership and stepping up and saying ‘let’s do this, be confident in the coaches,’” Lee said when asked about Zanders. “We want to be confident in him throwing the ball as the quarterback and taking his role.”
Players who didn’t make the trip
NCCU will head to Tennessee without some big pieces. A pair of preseason All-MEAC defenders won’t make the trip for the opener. Defensive end Kawuan Cox and linebacker Branden Bailey won’t play Thursday, along with redshirt freshman running back Jamal Currie-Elliott.
Currie-Elliott, who played at Hillside and transferred to N.C. Central from Oregon, is still recovering from off season knee surgery.
Currie-Elliott played in one game in 2018. Oliver said the staff doesn’t want to rush the play maker back.
“Jamal could probably play Thursday, but we’re not going to risk it,” Oliver said. “We have a couple of guys in that same situation. He’ll be just fine, we’re just taking our time.”
Bailey had surgery on his arm in the offseason. He started nine games in 2018 and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 51 and 1.0 sack.
Cox, who’s from Summerville, S.C., also started nine games as a junior, finishing with 26 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He won’t make the trip for undisclosed reasons.
NC Central at Austin Peay
When: 8 p.m., Thursday
Watch: ESPN +
Listen: NCCU Sports Network at NCCUEaglePride.com