PEMBROKE — With new faces all around The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team, the Braves face an uphill battle this season in more ways than one.
Along with a young roster that takes on a talented schedule as the No. 19-ranked Braves enters the first of a four-year scheduling alliance with the South Atlantic Conference, the program is fighting history. In the seasons following the first two NCAA playoff appearances, a playoff hangover season has hit the Braves in 2010 and 2014.
Fresh off the program’s first playoff victory in three tries, the 2017 team hopes to do better than the 2010 team that went 5-5 and the 2014 team that had a program-worst record of 2-8. Coach Shane Richardson enters his fourth season as head coach and 11th season with the program and has been along for both of those years and that concern has been addressed to the team.
“We’ve talked about it as a team and they’re aware of that,” Richardson said. “This team is hungry to prove who they are and what they can prove this year. Obviously, we will have to see if they can step up to that.”
With nine starters returning, this year Richardson sees this team as more impressionable with its lack of returning players. He feels that will be better for the program in the long run.
“What makes this group click pretty good is that they’re very impressionable,” Richardson said. “With our youth, there’s a lot of guys that are hungry to learn it the right way and stick to the process. We’ve got guys that are willing to stick the course and latch on to all of our messages that we are talking about.”
The experience that does return will mostly be on the defensive with three of the four captains coming from that side of the ball. Defensive linemen Alpha Lamin and Tyler Hinton, along with middle linebacker Chris Ploch were voted as captains by the team and three will be big pieces for a defense that lost seven starters from last year.
“There’s a really good feel on the defensive side,” Richardson said. “It’s going to be really exciting once we get on the same page and can put it together. Our defense is really flying around practice right now.”
Lamin and Hinton lead a deep group on the defensive line, joining returners senior Khalil Vance and juniors Tajai Liles, Nathan London and Lucas Brim. Vance leads that group with 38 tackles last year. Hinton and Lamin led the team in sacks with Hinton collecting 7 1/2 to Lamin’s six.
The secondary also brings back experience with junior Josh Manns and sophomore Bikembe Kearney coming back to go along with a host of battle-tested corners, led by sophomore Shawn Everett, the team’s top returning tackler from last season. Ploch will be joined in the linebacking corps with senior Al Wright and sophomore Cameron Williams.
On offense, the Braves have the shoes to fill of its top passer, rusher, and top four receivers. In the backfield, Richardson said that is the area that will rebound the quickest with a trio of local running backs in sophomores Miles Grant, Josh Sheridan and Quadrin Williams.
“Our backfield is really explosive. We’ve got a lot of play-making ability in the backfield right now,” he said.
Grant was the team’s second-leading rusher last season behind Rontonio Stanley.
Two receivers return back that caught a pass last season and filling the shoes of B.J. Bunn and others will be the job of sophomore Quay Threatt, senior JoJo Spann, junior JoJo Grant and senior E.J. Williams. Williams and Grant transferred in from Winston-Salem State.
“There’s some guys that can be very, very good with the ball in their hands,” Richardson said. “Obviously, we will have to block for them and get the ball in their hands and make smart decisions on offense.“
Getting the ball to those receivers will be a bit of an inconsistent schedule with junior quarterback Reggie Pinner serving a team-enforced two-game suspension and Dominick Samson will start in his place to start the season. Pinner is the only quarterback on roster with in-game experience.
With such a young group, the learning curve will hit the team hard at times, but what Richardson hopes will stay with the team through those times of adversity is the drive and yearning it has shown through camp.
“I just want to see a team that can stay hungry. If they play their best, it’s a great success,” he said. “We may be young and be a little inexperienced on paper, but we’ve got a lot of heart and we’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry. If they can stick to our process, it will be a great success for us.”
The Braves have four home games this season as they open up the SAC alliance. Three of the first four games will be at home in night games, opening with Winston-Salem State on Thursday at 7 p.m. The SAC schedule starts with back-to-back home contests with Catawba at Tusculum on Sept. 16 and 23, then the season closes with five road games in seven weeks.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.