by Mike Potter
N.C. Central will start practice for its Sept. 5 season football opener on Saturday at its field beside O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium, and coach Mose Rison's football team definitely has a lot going on.
The Eagles, who finished 4-7 last year and were probably a pair of fumbles away from their a winning season in their second campaign in NCAA Division I (Football Championship Subdivision), are preparing for what is probably the most interesting schedule in school history.
Not only are historic staples such as their archrivals from N.C. A&T and Winston-Salem State on the schedule, but they'll travel to cross-town rival Duke for the first "Bull City Gridiron Classic" and visit the best FCS team in the state when they go to Boone to challenge Appalachian State.
In a couple of weeks the new artificial Mondoturf will be ready to go at O'Kelly-Riddick, where the Eagles will host Morehead State on Sept. 19.
And there's also the one thing going on that makes anyone's fall football practice exciting - there's a hard-fought quarterback battle in progress.
"There are two ways to look at a quarterback battle," Rison (pictured) said. "Either the position is all set, or you have two guys ready to battle and they know they have to be sharp every day. Both of our top guys - Michael Johnson and Keon Williams - have won games for us, and we know both of them can definitely play.
"When you have a No. 2 quarterback who's ready to go, you as a coach don't have to manage the game so much. This is a physical game. If a guy gets hurt it doesn't have to be a season-ending injury like what happened to Stadford Brown last season. The No. 2 guy could come in for one series and make a difference in the football game."
The Eagles will return nine starters on both sides of the ball, and the only big question mark is in the kicking game, where Rison has brought in three newcomers to battle to replace the legendary Brandon Gilbert who for the last five seasons would have fit in nicely with any team in the country that plays in front of 50,000 or more home fans every week.
Two of the Eagles who have been getting the most attention are wide receiver Will Scott and defensive lineman Teryl White, who are consensus preseason offensive and defensive players of the year among the nation's four FCS independent teams.
"I'm looking forward to playing on that turf," Scott said. "We've played on it at other places and it makes you faster. And you don't have to worry about it when it rains."
White said the focus is currently on Hampton, which certainly looms as a tough opener that can go a long way toward determining which direction the Eagles' season will point.
"We're looking to Hampton right now," White said. "But you know A&T is always a big game on the schedule. And the Duke game is going to bring together people from both sides of Durham. I'm sure that's going to be a sellout."