After closing the 2015 season with seven straight wins to earn a share of the MEAC championship for the second consecutive year, N.C. Central has its eyes on making history in 2016.
The Eagles have never won three straight conference titles — not since their football program began in 1923, and certainly not since moving from Division II to the FCS in 2011. The Eagles have also never beaten an FBS opponent, a streak that they’ll have two opportunities to break this season.
“That ball is very funny, and it bounces a lot of different ways, so as long as we try to continue to improve and control the things we can control ... hopefully it goes in our favor in trying to make history,” said head coach Jerry Mack, who returns 15 starters from last season’s 8-3 squad.
Here are four things to know about N.C. Central this season:
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1. Survive FBS tests
The Eagles open their season against two FBS schools, playing at Duke on Sept. 3 and at Western Michigan on Sept. 10.
N.C. Central has been outscored 203-31 in four all-time meetings with Duke and has never lost to an FBS opponent by fewer than 25 points.
The Eagles are hoping to gain experience against the faster defenses and potentially pull off an upset this year — Western Michigan in particular could provide an opportunity — but, most important, they’re hoping to stay healthy for MEAC play, which begins Sept. 24 at Norfolk State.
2. Focus on passing game
Dual-threat senior quarterback Malcolm Bell (6 feet 1, 190 pounds), a third-year starter who ranks sixth in school history in career all-purpose yards, has run for almost 1,000 yards over the last two seasons but hopes to focus more on the passing game in 2016.
“The coaches give me opportunities to have designed quarterback runs, and I make the best out of those, but the focus this year is to take away those carries and prove to everybody that I can throw as well as run,” Bell said.
Two of last year’s top three receivers, senior LaVontis Smith (5-10, 170) and junior David Miller (6-0, 175), return along with two targets who missed most of last year with injuries — senior Quentin Atkinson (6-2, 205) and junior Khalil Stinson (6-2, 200). Atkinson was the team’s leading receiver in 2014, earning second-team All-MEAC honors, but he suffered a season-ending injury just one game into the 2015 season.
“We lost a couple of receivers last year, so there wasn’t a lot of trust out there to pass all the time,” Bell said. “This year, we’re sticking to more of a vertical passing game.”
3. Big impact from linebackers
N.C. Central’s blitz-happy defense, which ranked third in FCS in tackles for loss last season and 17th in sacks, will rely on a trio of experienced linebackers in 2016.
A pair of former teammates at Southern Durham, seniors Jeremy Miles (6-1, 230) and South Florida transfer LeGrande Harley (also 6-1, 230), will anchor the unit, while junior Reggie Hunter (6-0, 225) will step into a starting role after ranking fifth on the team in tackles last year despite starting only two games.
“Our linebacker corps, we feel like that’s probably one of the strengths of our defense right now,” Mack said. “The physical aspect is what I see improving these last few weeks of camp.”
4. Maintain kick return success
Punt and kick returns, which Mack calls “one of the hidden gems in football,” were a massive weapon for the Eagles last year. No FCS team returned more punts for touchdowns than N.C. Central (3), and the Eagles also ranked among the top 15 in both punt and kickoff return average yardage.
Return specialists Jonathan Williams, a senior track team dual-athlete, and Smith are both back for another year, hoping to put N.C. Central over the top in its quest for a third consecutive conference championship.
Sept. 3 at Duke
Sept. 10 at Western Michigan
Sept. 17 vs. St. Augustine’s
Sept. 24 at Norfolk State
Oct. 1 at Bethune-Cookman
Oct. 8 vs. Florida A&M
Oct. 15 vs. Savannah State
Oct. 22 at Morgan State
Nov. 5 at Delaware State
Nov. 12 vs. Howard
Nov. 19 vs. N.C. A&T