PEMBROKE — The nine total turnovers that The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team has amassed this season have came in the last two weeks in two losses by wide margins.
Five have came on interceptions in the second half from freshman quarterback Dominick Samson and the rest on fumbles, with a pair on special teams in last week’s 31-10 loss to Tusculum. The approach has been simplistic for coach Shane Richardson and the coaching staff when getting the message of ball security to the team as it hits the road Saturday for a 4 p.m. kickoff at Newberry.
“Ball security is a really big deal to work through. We had two in the special teams, one in the punt return game and one in the kick game,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to be better at just focusing on it. Something that we talk about that is the most important part of the game of football is the football.”
UNCP (1-3) hits its road stretch of the schedule that has the season ending with five of its last six games away from Grace P. Johnson Stadium. The change of scenery has bid the Braves well already this year. They are 1-0 on the road with the win over Elizabeth City State, but 0-3 at home.
Newberry (2-2) finds itself in the same boat as UNCP when comparing this season and last. Both teams were NCAA playoff teams a year ago, but are still working on getting their footing with personnel changes from senior-driven teams last year.
Offensively, the Wolves have a similar breakdown as far as passing and rushing yardage per game as Tusculum. Richardson sees similarities in the two South Atlantic Conference schools, but also feels there’s more than meets the eye with Newberry.
“They do a lot on offense to keep you on your toes. They run similar sets that we saw a week ago, but I think they’re very unpredictable so we have to be very sharp to how they align to them,” Richardson said.
On top of turnovers, mistakes aligning on defense has been an issue that has been a tale of the tape for the Braves, according to Richardson.Another focus in practice is precision and making sure perfection is not optional.
“We want to make sure that everyone is doing their jobs with a little more precision,” he said. “What we have seen on film is that one guy is out of position here, one guy has a mistake here, one guy has a bad technique on the next play. You can’t operate at a 99 percent efficiency level in terms of everybody doing their jobs except for one or two guys on every other play. That’s been the focus.”
The Braves’ defense has the job of containing sophomore Nick Jones at quarterback and his dual-threat tendencies. A first-year starter, Jones has thrown four interceptions and is the team’s leading passer and rusher as well and has totaled 815 yards of total offense in four games.
“They’ve got a quarterback that’s going to keep us on our toes so we have to be disciplined,” Richardson said. “If we’re in coverage we’ve got to make sure we stay in coverage and not let our eyes get caught in the backfield. If they stay disciplined I think they might have some opportunities to make plays on some balls.”
Jones has formed a connection with junior receiver Markell Castle early this season and the duo has 16 completions for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
UNCP’s running backs totaled 51 yards rushing last week, but looks to fare better this week against a Newberry defense that comes in allowing 209 yards rushing per game to its opponents and has sacked opposing quarterback five times total. Josh Sheridan comes in second on the team in rushing yards with 135 and has scored three touchdowns in the last three weeks.
Coming into the season the defensive line was expected to lead the team having the most experience. While it has got the quarterback consistently, averaging over three sacks a game for a total of 13, Richardson thinks the group can still can do more like the rest of the team.
“I think they have got great chemistry, but I still feel like the defensive line can play even better than what they have,” he said. “I hope that they can be the steady constant that continues to be the foundation for our defense, but all positions on defense have a lot to improve on.”
Junior Tajai Liles leads the team with 2 1/2 sacks, and Tyler Hinton and Alpha Lamin have two apiece.
UNCP has lost its last two games against Newberry, and the lone loss in the regular season in 2013 came on the road against the Wolves.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.