by Mike Potter
(Disclaimer: while I am not a full-time employee of N.C. Central University, I have been paid by the university to write feature stories for the athletics website — nccueaglepride.com — on a regular basis for the past year.)
WASHINGTON DUKE INN/DURHAM Bill Dooley says this event is the biggest of its kind in the South.
And there’s no reason to doubt the Ol’ Trench Fighter, the legendary former coach at UNC, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech on that one.
Over 300 college football fans were on hand for a fancy lunch, a few jokes and plenty of information about the upcoming season on Thursday, at the Ninth Annual Pigskin Preview by the Bill Dooley Triangle/East Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame.
Five Division I coaches — UNC’s Butch Davis, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien, East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill and N.C. Central’s Henry Frazier III — were on hand to swap stories and answers to sometimes off-the-wall questions and generally be loose for one of the last times until fall practice starts in earnest.
UNC (8-5, 4-4 ACC last season) is looking forward to going into a season knowing who’s eligible to play after being under the NCAA’s investigational microscope all of last season. The Tar Heels, who will open at home Sept. 3 against James Madison, are just about a unanimous pick for third place in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Duke (3-9, 1-7) is generally picked last in the Coastal, but will have an experienced junior quarterback in Sean Renfree as the Blue Devils try for their first winning season since 1994. The Blue Devils will open at home Sept. 3 against Richmond.
NCSU (9-4, 5-3) is picked anywhere between second and fifth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, has a new question mark at quarterback. Mike Glennon steps in for Russell Wilson, who will play his senior season at Wisconsin. The Wolfpack opens at home Sept. 3 against Liberty.
ECU (6-7, 5-3 CUSA) is picked between third and fifth in Conference USA’s East Division, with the biggest question mark being how much last season’s worst-in-the-nation defense will improve. The Pirates open against South Carolina on Sept. 3 in Charlotte.
NCCU (3-8) will be in its first season in the MEAC since 1979, moving up from NCAA Division II to Division I-FCS under their first-year mentor Henry Frazier. The Sporting News picked the Eagles to finish seventh in the 11-team conference. The Eagles will open Sept. 1 at Rutgers.
They said it …
Davis: “This is a little bit of a transition year for us. We had 20 seniors on the football team last year, and probably 14 or 15 played a huge amount for us over the previous four years. We had a four-year quarterback in T.J. Yates, and Zach Pianalto and Johnny White who are familiar names. This is kind of a coming-out party to find out whether some of our young players can step up and accept the challenges of playing. The strengths of our football team may be for the first time in the offensive line, and possibly the defensive line. We’ve got some good young players who have got some size and talent and have gained some experience last year. The receiving corps returns intact. The biggest question mark is at the quarterback position. Bryn Renner played in the fourth quarter of the Virginia game and was the heir apparent to be the starter, and that’s his only major-college playing experience. We lost three running backs, and with the exception of Ryan Houston almost every single player at the running back positions are going to be truly untested young kids. One of our biggest concerns is the secondary. We lost several guys that had basically started for us the last 3-4 seasons, so that’s going to be a very, very young, green and inexperienced group of players. We really love (kicker) Casey Barth, but there are other areas in the kicking game and the punting game where we really need to improve.”
Cutcliffe: “This spring I was really pleased with our squad’s work ethic. We’re going to be deeper on both sides of the ball, and we’re certainly faster, which is something that we had woefully lacked. And that’s encouraging. With that said, though, we do have some returning players who are good players and have played a significant number of snaps on offense. There are a few less on defense. But I was looking at our squad this summer and there are about 15-16 youngsters, first- or second-year players on both sides of the ball, that need to play well for us to be as successful as we can be. But I expect them to play that well. We’re excited about our challenges, we’re also excited about the opportunity. Our biggest question going in is the defensive front, and we certainly need to be much-improved from what we were a year ago there. If we can do that, we’ll have a good, solid football team.”
O’Brien: “Certainly offensively our biggest losses come at the wide receiver position. We have no experience out there right now and that’s the biggest concern with the offense. On the offensive line we’ve got a lot of kids back. We don’t have a lot of depth but we’ve got a lot of guys that played. At running back we’re much better off than we were a year ago. Defensively, losing Nate Irving was tough. We didn’t know what we had in him last year at this time. He had such a wonderful year for us — in five years we got one year out of him, but it was a great year. We took Audie Cole from the outside linebacker and moved him in. One of (last year’s) freshmen D.J. Green who played safety we moved to our field linebacker. And if there’s an area of concern in would be our kicking game, because we have a freshman kicker and a freshman punter.”
McNeill: “We’re very excited about the season and looking forward to it. The spring was very good for us. The players were very enthusiastic in the spring, and I was very glad to see that. I think the biggest thing is that we have our main cog back in our quarterback Dominique Davis. Dominique is a great guy off and on the field. Offensive line has to be replenished since we lost three starters there. We lost both our senior running backs — we’ve got some youngsters who can really run, but we don’t have the size we normally have. We lost Dwayne Harris, who was one of the best receivers in the history of the school, but we feel good about the young kids we have. Defensively we’ve improved immensely. The kids accepted the challenges we put in front of them as coaches, and I’ll be anxious to see how they developed over the off-season. I’m excited about the young players and some of the J.C. transfers we were able to sign. The biggest thing we had to improve was our talent level, and I think we did that. The kicking game I feel good about with Michael Barbour and punter Ben Ryan.”
Frazier: “I’m the new guy. I haven’t lost a football game, so I’m pretty happy. I’m undefeated (at NCCU). We’re excited about what’s going to take place. The transition is almost complete. We had a very good recruiting class and an exciting spring. We’re trying to lay a foundation we’re going to be able to stand on for the next few months. Everything is wide open, and I think we have some good, young football players who are buying into what we’re selling. We’re hoping to surprise a few people. We’re scheduled for quite a few homecomings, so we’re going to have some fun this year. On the offensive side of the ball we’ve got some pretty good football players. I think the strength of our team will be in our wide receivers. We’ve done an outstanding job of recruiting at that position. We have a few seniors on the offensive line, but if they go down we’re going to have to play some freshmen. On the defensive side of the ball, our line is pretty strong. We need them to keep guys from running free and getting to our backers. And we’re going to go with a freshman kicker as well. We have some exciting return guys who we think will be able to change games for us.”