Coach: Shane Richardson
Last year: 9-2, eliminated in 2nd round of playoffs
Outlook: From a new coach to newer helmets, the Braves will be noticeably different this year as Richardson moves from the defensive coordinator spot into the head coaching role opened by Pete Shinnick’s departure. It allowed the Braves to keep much of the progress the former coach made in his final few months. The offense will have a new look with new quarterback Seth Owen setting up behind a new batch of linemen but the defense should hold its own. Like previous years though, the team has a challenging schedule and will need to make the most of it to even get to the playoffs, a challenge Richardson feels his team can tackle. “I think we have a great focus and I think our guys have really bought into the concept of who we are and how we do things,” he said.
Sept. 6 @ Winston-Salem State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Fayetteville State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 20 @ Shaw, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 27 @ Wingate, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. North Alabama, 4 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Catawba, 1 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. Newberry, 4 p.m.
Nov. 1 @ Tusculum, 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 8 vs. Valdosta State, 1 p.m.
Nov. 15 @ Limestone, 1 p.m.
PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team not only lost a game last November when it was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Division II football playoffs, it lost plenty of the team’s most recognizable names.
The Braves graduated 24 seniors from a squad that went 9-2, earning a first-round bye in the playoffs, and also saw Pete Shinnick, the coach who ran the team since its return to the field in 2007, leave for a new job in Florida.
Plenty’s gone, but those who remain want more.
“We are hungry,” said redshirt junior John Rich, a receiver who was the third-leading scorer for the team last season. “Of course losing in the second round of playoffs isn’t what we wanted to do. I feel like we have to bounce back.
“The goal is to go all the way, undefeated and try to get a ring.”
The 18th-ranked Braves open the season on Saturday night in a top-20 battle at Winston-Salem State, where they will debut their new black helmets. The drive for more is mindset that’s consistent among the upperclassmen who played a role on that team.
“It’s unfinished business,” said senior defensive back L.J. Stroman. “We plan to take it back to the playoffs and to go further and get to the national championship and win.”
Despite losing Shinnick in the off-season, the Braves stayed in-house for his replacement, promoting defensive coordinator Shane Richardson to the head position.
“It’s not really a loss,” Rich said. “It’s pretty much the same. I feel like we have good chemistry. That’s one of our strong points.”
Richardson stayed in house with his defensive coordinator, promoting O.C. Williams, who has been an assistant with the team since its reinstatement, to the role. Johnny Cox, who has been an assistant for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, jumped from his assistant role at North Carolina A&T to become the new offensive coordinator.
Richardson has been with the program since its reinstatement and said he is excited not only for the chance to build on what was done, but also for the improvements that have been made by some of the younger players coming up.
“We have made a lot of improvement,” Richardson said. “With the transition right before spring ball, and new coaches coming in, there was a lot of uncertainty that was taking place, but we got the spring underneath us and we were able to come back in the fall and our guys have been tremendously focused and really working hard for us and buying into everything we have given them.”
The Braves’ biggest questions this year come from the offensive line, where senior graduation hit them the hardest.
“I think at this level, big guys, you can never have enough of them,” Richardson said. “We are constantly evaluating that position and making sure those guys are fresh and healthy and ready to go, just because we do need more bodies at that position.”
The team is also going to be leaning on redshirt freshman quarterback Seth Owen to lead the new offensive system under Richardson.
“He is very smart, he’s very driven (and) he’s very poised,” Richardson said. “His personality in and of itself lends itself to being able to adapt to what we are doing.”
While the offensive side has plenty of adjustments to make, the defensive side of the ball has remained fairly steady, with only a few key seniors graduating.
“We have an opportunity to be one of the better defenses we have ever had here,” Richardson said. “I really think our defensive line is deep and we have a lot of guys that we can rotate and keep fresh and try to wear down offensive lineman.”
L.J. Stroman believes the defense will lead this year’s team.
“I believe the offense is going to handle their part, but I do feel like the defense will be the backbone of this team,” he said. “This group has been together for a while, so we have our technique down and we are very enthusiastic and we hustle to the ball.”
Richardson said the biggest advantage the team will have is in their upperclassmen who were a part of last year’s run.
This year’ schedule includes many of the same challenges, including Winston-Salem, Fayetteville State, Valdosta State and North Alabama, the team that beat them 37-13 in the playoffs.
“They know how challenging the schedule is,” Richardson said. “I think we have a great focus and I think our guys have really bought into the concept of who we are and how we do things, so every week just becomes the most important game that we play.”
For Richardson, as long as the team buys into that concept of playing week by week, the season can be a successful one.
“We don’t talk a whole lot about winning, we talk about the process more,” he said. “We want to be very premier in how we do things in the sense of our focus, our preparation, our work ethic and our execution. We feel like if we can do all those things working up to it, the wins will take care of themselves.”