Friday, August 22, 2014
MEAC/SWAC Challenge: Aggies-Bulldogs
By Donald Hunt
Having won all but two of the previous nine matchups in this series, the MEAC comes into the 10th annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney (11:45 am ET Sunday, Aug. 31, on ESPN) with some understandable swagger.
The North Carolina A&T State Aggies, who finished 4-4 in the conference and 7-4 overall, understand that better than anyone as they prepare to face the SWAC's Alabama A&M Bulldogs.
First-year Aggies head coach Rod Broadway has a bit of an advantage on this stage, having been here before. In 2009, he was the head coach of Grambling State, though his Tigers dropped a 34-31 decision to South Carolina State.
While this matchup isn't poised to be a battle of coaches, it will feature two teams that have never before met on the gridiron but know that winning this nationally televised game has implications bigger than just a win in the record books.
Like Broadway, Alabama A&M first-year head coach James Spady got a good taste of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge while he was an assistant at Alabama State. In 2005, South Carolina State topped Alabama State 27-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
And unlike any previous two coaches who've dueled in this series, Spady and Broadway are well-acquainted. Spady was an offensive coordinator on Broadway's staff in 2009.
"Coach Broadway has done a good job," Spady said. "He has established a good system. He's always prepared. I remember being a part of his staff. I know him very well."
North Carolina A&T State: High-power offense
Averaging 27.5 points a game in 2013, which ranked third in the MEAC, the Aggies were one of the most explosive teams in the league. Led by running back Tarik Cohen and wide receiver Desmond Lawrence, their offense is potent.
Named the MEAC Rookie of the Year last season, Cohen has proved that he can run between the tackles and get to the edge. He led the MEAC in rushing with 1,148 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards a carry and 104.4 yards a game. At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, he is diminutive in size but giant in talent.
Lawrence is a real speedster at wide receiver. An NCAA track and field All-American, he was A&T's leading receiver, with 37 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama A&M defensive backs should expect to see a lot of the Durham, North Carolina, native.
The Aggies' maestro on offense is quarterback Kwashaun Quick. A 6-foot, 185-pound junior, Quick was listed as the No. 1 signal-caller on the team's depth chart this spring. Last season he played in seven games, completing 14 of 28 passes for 115 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
He's also not afraid to tuck it and go. Quick had 14 carries for 58 yards, averaging an impressive 8.3 yards a carry.
The Aggies will receive excellent run and pass blocking from offensive lineman William Robinson, an All-MEAC selection who has NFL size at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds.
On the other side of the ball, the Aggies were second in scoring defense last season, giving up just 16.8 points a game. Much of the credit can be attributed to the outstanding play of senior linebacker D'Vonte Grant. Truly a playmaking linebacker, Grant accounted for 102 total tackles (58 solo), leading the team. He also ranks seventh in the conference with 9.3 tackles a game, playing the run and the pass, as his three interceptions attest.
Grant is projected to get plenty of support from the Aggies' other defensive stalwart -- outside linebacker Marcus Albert. A 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore, Albert is lightning-quick against the run. Up front, defensive lineman Daniel Pinnix, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound junior who had seven sacks and 22 total tackles last season, is the team's best pass-rusher.
Special teams should also be strong again for the Aggies. Gastonia, North Carolina, native Cody Jones -- a former standout soccer player at Huss High School -- is one of the best place-kickers in the MEAC. He connected on 9 of 13 field goals and made 30 of 31 PATs to lead the team in scoring with 57 points.
Alabama A&M: Defensive-minded
Spady is looking to put his stamp on the Alabama A&M program. The former assistant at Nevada, where he was the tight ends and co-offensive line coach, knows he is tasked with rejuvenating a Bulldogs program that finished 4-8 last season (4-5 in the SWAC). His expectations are high, and he is looking forward to the MEAC/SWAC Challenge being a springboard for the season.
"It's a great honor for them to have chosen us," said Spady, who began coaching in 1995 at his alma mater, UTEP, and served as Grambling State's offensive coordinator from 2007-09. "It's a great classic to be involved in. We're thrilled to be a part of it. North Carolina A&T is a quality opponent. It will be a tough game and a real challenge for us."
On offense, the Bulldogs had trouble putting points on the board last season, tallying just 16.4 points a game, ranking ninth in the conference.
The Bulldogs will rely on quarterback Jaymason Lee to change that tide. He'll have a great teacher in quarterbacks coach Willie Totten, the former Mississippi Valley State University great (1981-85) whose main target at wideout was Jerry Rice.
With Totten's tutelage, Lee, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior, will certainly put the ball in the air. As a sophomore, he connected on 99 of 212 passes for 1,561 yards, with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. He brings leadership and pocket presence, and will rely on All-SWAC receiver Montaurius Smith to make him look good. Smith had 55 receptions for 779 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging a respectable 14.1 yards a catch. Lee and Smith should be able to elevate a passing game that ranked eighth in the SWAC.
Alabama A&M will employ a running attack to keep the defenses honest. The Bulldogs will depend on Bryan Brower and Brandon Eldemire to grind out some first downs. Eldemire, the team's top returning rusher, had 72 carries for 550 yards and three touchdowns last season. With an eye-popping 7.6 yards a carry, expect Brower to be featured often.
On D, the Bulldogs should shine brightest. The team was ranked fourth in the league, and Spady is excited about linebackers William Pritchett and Brower, and defensive lineman Quentin Parks and defensive back A.J. Clark, two key returning starters who have 73 tackles between them.
"Alabama A&M Football is thrilled to be a participant in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge," Spady said. "Anytime you play against a Rod Broadway-coached team, you better be ready to play technically sound, error-free and physical football. We look forward to the challenge."