Aggies Earn Preseason National Ranking
Tarik Cohen (5-foot-6, 179, Bunn, N.C.), the face of North Carolina A&T football over the past four years, is gone. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft after compiling 5,619 rushing yards, 59 total touchdowns and numerous records.
Cohen’s departure leaves open the question of where does a program stand after a legendary player leaves. Unfortunately, that is not the only question mark surrounding the Aggies as they enter the 2017 season. After a second-team All-MEAC season, is quarterback Lamar Raynard (6-4, 185, R-JR, High Point, N.C.) ready to be the offensive weapon that will truly make the Aggies offense a threat on the ground and in the air? Can the Aggies fix the cracks that were found in their defense last season when they gave up 241.7 passing yards per game last season?
And yes, arch-rival North Carolina Central has been a nuisance and a hindrance to the Aggies gaining sole possession of a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. But N.C. A&T can’t ignore the rest of the league is getting better in addition to NCCU’s success. Therefore, can the Aggies get over the Eagle hurdle along with the other emerging teams?
The 2017 Preseason FCS Coaches Poll was released on Tuesday with the Aggies ranked No. 25. The Aggies finished ranked 20th in the nation in the coaches poll and the FCS STATS Media Poll following the 2016 season. N.C. A&T received 78 points to hold off Fordham (63 pts) for the final spot in the preseason poll. Grambling State, the defending Black College National Champions, and NCCU are ranked No. 21 and 24 respectively to make up the other two historically black universities in the poll. James Madison (defending FCS national champion), North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State makes up the poll’s top-5.
The Aggies are coming off another superb season where they went 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the MEAC. The season also included an NCAA FCS playoff berth, the school’s first since 2003. In the past three seasons, the Aggies have two MEAC titles, a Black College National Championship, a Celebration Bowl victory and the playoff appearance. Cohen played a big role by rushing for a single-season school record 1,583 yards in 2016, marking the second straight season he broke the school’s single-season rushing mark.
Cohen along with his tremendous gifts as a football player, and his incredible background story, made him a magnet for national media attention. The fact that he was small in stature, had only one scholarship offer out of high school and could come out of backflips and catch a football was unique alone. Couple that, however, with all that he accomplished on the field and the N.C. A&T State University brand reaped the benefits and the football program raked in the wins and the championships.
“I told our fans for probably the last two years, ‘You’re watching greatness and you should enjoy it, appreciate it,’” said N.C. A&T coach Rod Broadway who is entering his seventh season with the Aggies. “Players like Tarik don’t come around often. They’re a rarity. We were spoiled for four years.”
There are still some very good players remaining in the program who can still give Aggie fans the desires of their hearts – more championships. Plus, Broadway says the Aggies this is the most depth the Aggies have had in his seven-year tenure at the university.
Raynard will play a big role in that. Raynard had his season come to an end the week leading up to the Delaware State game in Dover, Del., on Nov. 12. A chest injury sustained in practice sidelined him for the final three games of the season. Included in those games was at Delaware State, a game for the MEAC title between undefeated teams in N.C. A&T and N.C. Central at NCCU on Nov. 19 and an NCAA FCS playoff game at Richmond on Nov. 26. Before the injury, Raynard was making the case that he should be a first-team All-MEAC QB.
In the four games leading up to the DSU contest, Raynard was a combined a 71-for-106 (.670) for 867 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions. His quarterback efficiency rating for that four-week span was an impressive 350.08. A score of 186.2 led the nation in 2016.
“I often wonder how different our season would have ended if Raynard stays healthy,” said Broadway. “He was really starting to get it. Teams could no longer load the box against us because he was getting the ball where it needed to be on time. But hey, that’s football.”
Raynard appears healthy and ready to lead the Aggies into the 2017 season. During the Aggies annual Blue & Gold Spring Game, Raynard completed 19 of 33 passes for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also has a few favorite targets back in MEAC Rookie of the Year wide receiver Elijah Bell (6-1, 221, SO, Wheeling, WVa.) and first-team All-MEAC tight end Leroy Hill (6-3, 249, RJR, Smithfield, N.C.).
“He’s starting to understand what we want him to do in terms of getting the ball out of his hand,” said Broadway about Raynard who completed 64.6 percent of his passes last season for a single-season school record. Raynard was ninth in the nation in passing percentage.
“I think he needs to put on some more weight so he can run the ball more because he is fast, and we need a double threat back there,” Broadway continued. “I don’t know if you can win just dropping back and throwing passes. I think you need a quarterback who can also beat you with his feet. That’s the way things are in today’s game. His arm has always been really good. But we want to develop him into a full quarterback.”
Once again Marquell Cartwright (5-8, 201, RJR, High Point, N.C.) will be Raynard’s starting running back. The two High Point Andrews graduates teamed together in 2013 to win the Class 2-AA state championship. Cartwright had 96 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in the spring game. When he replaced an injured Cohen in 2014 at Howard, he ran for 135 yards on 33 carries and scored twice.
As the Aggies try to regroup offensively, they are also looking to regain their edge on the defensive end. Before last season, the Aggies had not dipped below 16th nationally in total defense. Last season, they were 27th. That is due to the fact the Aggies were 11th in the MEAC in pass defense and gave up 300 yards passing four times last season.
“Here’s what people need to understand. Just because you’re giving up a lot of passing yards doesn’t mean it’s all the secondary’s fault,” said Broadway. “Football is a team game. You need to get a good pass rush, linebackers have to drop back properly, people have to be in the right place. Fundamentally, we were not very sound on defense. It’s not just about the coverage.”
N.C. A&T did get bigger in the secondary to help when facing big receivers inside the red zone. Mac McCain (5-11, 174, RFR, Greensboro, N.C.) and Zerius Lockhart (5-10, 175, RSR, Auburn, Ala.) who is moving from the free safety position, should add more physicality. Justin Philip (5-10, 197, RFR, Brooklyn, NY) and Timadre Abram (5-10, 168,RJR, Lakeland, Fla.) should also help. The Aggies will have a younger defensive line with the departure of All-MEAC defensive linemen Angelo Keyes (6-1, 270, Kinston, N.C.) and Marquis Ragland (6-3, 271, Fayetteville, N.C.).
The Aggies first challenge without Cohen will be 6 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 2 at Gardner-Webb. N.C. A&T, who has gone 14-2 in the conference over the past two seasons, will start the conference season at Morgan State on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. The Bears represented the conference in the NCAA playoffs in 2014. They also play on the road against perennial MEAC power S.C. State (Sept.30), an improved Florida A&M team for homecoming (Oct. 14) and an up and coming team in Norfolk State (Nov. 4). The Aggies will host another MEAC power in Bethune-Cookman on Oct. 21 at 1 p.m., on ESPN 3 and ESPNU tape delayed at 10:30 p.m.
“I think we have a chance to be a really good football team,” said Broadway. “We just have to cut down on the many mistakes we made fundamentally last year. Our league is good enough now to make you pay for those mistakes in a big way, so we have to be better.”