Can the N.C. Central Eagles bring home a fourth straight MEAC championship title? Here's what contributor Parth Upadhyaya thinks.
Above, photo from NCCU Athletics via the News & Observer.
The North Carolina Central Eagles are coming off a 9-3 season in 2016. They were undefeated in conference play and took home the MEAC title for the third consecutive year. The Eagles have improved each year under head coach Jerry Mack, who is going into his fourth year with the program. But plenty of questions linger as Central seeks to four-peat as MEAC champions this upcoming season.
Here’s how the Eagles could lock down that fourth championship.
The Eagles return 13 starters from last year but have some major holes to fill on the offensive end. Star quarterback and All-MEAC first team selection Malcolm Bell graduated from the program. Bell holds the No. 2 all-time spot for all-purpose yards in school history and leaves some big shoes to fill.
Redshirt sophomore Naiil Ramadan is a likely replacement for Bell. Ramadan had a great showing in the Eagles’ spring game, throwing for 364 yards and four touchdowns. However, he has only seen action in five career games. If Ramadan doesn’t pan out, the Eagles could be in trouble, since he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any collegiate game experience.
The good news is that Ramadan will have proven receiving targets in junior Jalen Wilkes and redshirt senior David Miller. Wilkes was second on the team with 516 receiving yards and tied for first on the squad with five receiving touchdowns in the 2016 season. Miller also had a solid campaign last fall, tallying 364 receiving yard and three trips to the end zone.
Even with veteran receivers, it’s crucial for NCCU to put together a strong offensive line. One of the biggest losses of last year’s o-line is AFCA All-American center Carl Jones, who graduated from the program. Jones was a huge part of the offensive’s success, recording a team-best 91 percent on blocking assignments during last regular season. Redshirt sophomore left tackle Nick Leverett is the only returning offensive linemen. Leverett had a great freshman season and was voted third team All-MEAC. The coaching staff will need to find four reliable starters to build around Leverett in order for the Eagles to continue their success on the offensive end.
On the defensive end, NCCU returns eight starters. But the group did lose all-MEAC first team defensive back Mike Jones, who transferred to Temple. Jones chalked up 34 tackles, two interceptions, and five pass breakups last season and was a vital part of the Eagles’ secondary last year. Either redshirt sophomore defensive back De’Mario Evans or junior defensive back Ruben Saunders will be called upon to fill the open starting spot left by Jones. However, both will need to elevate their games as the pair combined for just 21 total tackles in 2016.
Up front, defensive linemen redshirt senior Antonio Brown and redshirt senior Ja’Quan Smith are two key returnees for NCCU. Brown was second on the team in sacks last season with 8 and Smith was third with 3.5 on the season. 2016 team leader in solo tackles, redshirt senior linebacker Reggie Hunter will also be back for a final season with Eagles.
Overall, the questions for the upcoming season arise from NCCU’s offense. The defense has plenty of returning veteran talent to remain solid, but the offensive is unproven at key positions. If Ramadan can have a breakout year and the offensive line can protect him, the Eagles could find themselves atop the MEAC once again.
8-4 (6-2 MEAC)
Losses: Duke, Gardner-Webb, Hampton, N.C. A&T