N.C. Central recently wrapped up its fourth spring practice under first-year head coach Trei Oliver, who accepted the job in December, replacing interim head coach Granville Eastman.
Oliver, a former defensive back for the Eagles, takes over a team that finished 5-6 overall last season and 3-4 in the MEAC, donned maroon and gray from head to toe, back home able to sport school colors after coaching stops at Southern University, Grambling and North Carolina A&T.
Again, it’s only been four practices, so Oliver wasn’t ready to boast about how crisp the team is, but there were some things he definitely liked. Things you can’t coach.
“Effort and attitude,” Oliver said. “I give it an A-plus. Technique and fundamentals, knowing what to do, we have a long way to go, so I’d say probably a C-minus right there. I think we have a lot to build on because the guys have a great attitude, they come out here with a lot of energy and they want to be coached, they want to be good, so we are excited about that.”
When Oliver arrived all he had to judge his new team was game film from last season. He didn’t want to talk to any of the former coaches, graduate assistants or trainers about the players, he wanted him and his staff - all new - to make their own opinions based on what they saw on the field.
“I think I’m a little more pleased on what I’ve seen here live than what I’ve seen on film,” Oliver said. “I tried not to grade them and come up with assessment off watching film with the rest of the staff.”
Oliver did a complete overhaul of the old staff but his new one includes some coaches with ties to N.C. Central and the Triangle.
Offensive coordinator Moses Ware is the fourth-leading receiver in school history, and comes back to Durham after spending eight seasons at Bowie State. High Point native and former N.C. State linebacker Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay will serve as the defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. His former teammate at N.C. State, Dovonte Edwards, originally from Chapel Hill, will coach the safeties.
Here are some early observations from spring practice:
AN EVEN SLOWER PACE
Spring is about teaching fundamentals. There isn’t a game looming, so coaches don’t have to worry about putting in a game plan for their next opponent.
Spring is a time to get players healthy, while getting additional reps for athletes who didn’t see the field as much the previous year. Basically it’s a time for coaches to slow things down, and teach. But with a new staff, Oliver has to take it slower than normal while putting an entirely different offensive and defensive philosophy in place.
“I told both of the coordinators we just want a couple of things that we are going to come out the spring and say yeah we improved in three areas,” Oliver said. “So we’re not going to have the whole playbook in, obviously, we’re just going to try to get a couple of schemes in and defensively it’s going to be a couple of different fronts and packages in. But we’re not going to try and have everything in in 15 days.”
Wide receiver Daeshawn Stephens, who caught 15 passes for 167 yards and two scores last year, said Ware’s playbook is “lengthy” but the staff is taking their time with the players, giving them a chance to digest it all.
“He is doing a good job helping us getting all the terms down and concepts,” Stephens said. “He’s a good teacher, I just feel like we need a little bit more time on the field.”
A CLEAN SLATE FOR EVERYONE
A new staff means a chance for everyone on the roster to make a good first impression. Returning starters and walk-ons all start with a clean slate. Positions are up for battle and coaches will choose starters based on performance, not what anyone did last year.
“Everybody is fighting for positions and that was one thing we said when we came in, from day one,” Oliver said. “I’m not cutting anybody, not taking any scholarships, you are my guys. But at the same time we start with a clean slate and all positions are open.”
One problem for Oliver and his staff, though, is so many players are missing the spring with injuries that it’s hard to get the competition he wants. Oliver estimated that 17 players are missing the spring with injuries, making it hard to build depth at any group.
ADJUSTING TO NEW ROLE
The players aren’t the only ones doing any adjustments this spring.
Oliver has spent his career as a coordinator and position coach until now. Being the head coach means he has to oversee the entire operation instead of focusing on one group or side of the ball. It’s been an adjustment.
“It’s a little different, you’re not in the mix and calling stuff and have your own segment when you’re coaching every snap,” Oliver said. “You observe a lot, you see a whole lot from a different point of view now. You have to go in the office after practice and talk to the coaches about what you see and get it corrected. It is different, though.”
Oliver, who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball as a coordinator and position coach, does have one group he works with at N.C. Central. And it’s not the one you might expect.
“I have a group I coach, I have my punters and my kickers,” Oliver said.
The head coach working with the punters and kickers? Oliver was dead serious.
“I give my punters a good 30 minutes a day,” he said. “Then I have to go snoop and see what (the defensive coaches) are doing.”