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GREENSBORO (April 4, 2018) – North Carolina A&T football will play their annual Blue & Gold Spring Football Game 1 p.m., Saturday, April 7 at Aggie Stadium to prepare for what looks to be a season where they will have a huge bullseye surrounding them every Saturday. The game will be played like a traditional game with some offensive and defensive players wearing blue and others on the team wearing gold instead of offense versus defense. That is subject to change depending on circumstances between today and Saturday, but right now that is the plan of the Aggies coaching staff.  

The bullseye will be there despite the Aggies entering the 2018 season with a first-year head coach who is replacing a legend. They must also replace four starters on the offensive line, two of them had multiple first-team All-MEAC honors and one of them will likely be drafted by an NFL team in three weeks.

Don’t expect too many sympathy cards to be sent to N.C. A&T's football office, however. After all, the Aggies will come into the 2018 season on top of the black college football world as its defending national champion. They are near the top of the Division I-Football Championship Subdivision world having finished sixth in the FCS Coaches Poll last season.

Plus, N.C. A&T opponents have seen this motion picture before. After the 2016 season, the Aggies sent one of the best players in school history to the NFL in Tarik Cohen. By the end of the next season, they were 12-0, MEAC champs, Celebration Bowl champs and HBCU national champs. Opponents will not be lured into taking the Aggies lightly because Rod Broadway, the school’s all-time leader in winning percentage, retired in January.

First-year head coach Sam Washington inherits from Broadway MEAC offensive player of the year in quarterback Lamar Raynard and first-team All-MEAC offensive standouts Elijah Bell at receiver, Marquell Cartwright at running back and Marcus Pettiford at tackle. The Aggies also have eight starters returning on defense including first-team All-MEAC cornerback Frank McCain and first-team All-MEAC defensive end Darryl Johnson.

 “A lot of people would like to have what we have coming back,” said Washington. “Lamar, Bell and Cartwright can play, play. They’re very powerful. It’s a blessing to have them back. Then we have eight starters coming back on defense and others who played a lot as backups. We have a good group upfront (defensive line), which makes it easier to do more things on the back end. It allows us to play at a very fast pace because of our vertical play of the d-line.”

Washington does have some holes to fill. In addition to losing All-MEAC linemen in center Darriel Mack and left tackle Brandon Parker (two-time All-American), the Aggies also must replace defensive end Kenneth Melton, third-team All-MEAC linebacker Marcus Albert and first-team All-MEAC linebacker/safety Jeremy Taylor.

The Aggies filled some gaps along the defensive line during the offseason with the signing of transfers Michael Branch (Presbyterian) and Justin Nwachukwu (Northern Illinois). In addition, the Aggies have a strong nucleus of defensive linemen returning in Sam Blue, Jermaine Williams, Justin Cates, Turner Echols, Julian McKnight, Kadarius Kendrick and Shomari Wallace.

Taylor and Albert will be tough replacements because they were excellent playmakers on defense who were routinely around the football, forced turnovers and disrupted offenses.

“There are some holes we have at different positions that we need to find out if we have the right person there,” said Washington about what he wants to take away from spring practice. “Can they and will they. That's what the spring is about. Who can and who can't. I think we want the players who can and who can’t and who will and won’t identified by the end of the spring. If we can say that, we would have done ourselves some justice.”

Washington is also looking for more leaders to emerge from the spring. He pointed to Raynard, safety Jamal Darden, Cartwright, Pettiford, Bell, Blue and fullback William Hollingsworth as the players who have filled that leadership role thus far.

“They’re doing a yeoman’s job here this spring,” said Washington. “They are raising the bar so that the other guys have something to aspire to.   They stand up and say something positive every day about repeating and playing at high level. They stress doing the little things right whether it's the classroom or walking down the street.”

In terms of what the 2018 Aggies will look like on the field. Do not expect them to be a far departure from what has been on the field the past seven seasons. It’s still about stopping the run, protecting the football and winning the kicking game. Something his mentor, Broadway, preached often.

“I’m not looking to quote, unquote, put my stamp on the program. I like to get the same results that we’ve had for the past 12 years,” said Washington who also worked under Broadway at Grambling State prior to working with him at N.C. A&T. “We are going to stay steadfast as the old folks would say, do what we do and do it well.”