There’s a lot of learning going on for the UNCP football team this season. Young players are having to step up into bigger roles than they might have expected to be in months ago. Consequently, the Braves have struggled to execute in many phases of the game as those athletes learn the ropes of college football.
One thing the Braves have been able to count on consistently is their ability to keep opposing quarterbacks under pressure.
That is due in part to the efforts of UNCP’s defensive line, one of the most experienced units for the Braves. After contributing to the team’s 35 total sacks last season, the linemen are on pace to close in on that mark with an average of roughly three sacks through four games this season.
Their ability to be disruptive in the backfield is a byproduct of excellent chemistry and close friendships between the players both on and off the field. Together, they form a unit that is worthy of their nickname: Death Row.
“The thing that is probably one of their biggest strengths is that they have a togetherness about them,” head coach Shane Richardson said. “They really enjoy being around each other. There’s good chemistry and unity that they are able to feed off each other with.”
Experience runs deep on the defensive line. Khalil Vance, who finished with eight tackles for loss and 2 ½ sacks last season, is the team’s only true senior. Vance’s sack total was the fifth-best mark on the team, just behind fellow lineman Tajai Liles' 3 ½ quarterback hits.
Vance joined the program in 2014 along with redshirt junior Tyler Hinton, the team’s leader in sacks last season with 7 ½.
With the level of seniority on the defensive line, Hinton knows that his unit is expected to showcase its experience on the field.
“Having a younger team, we know the pressure is on us,” Hinton said. “We know that everything starts up front. That’s really driven us this season and made us want to play at a higher level.”
Junior Nathan London understands how significant of a role they play in generating and sustaining momentum for the team, especially in the early stages of games.
“The team goes as we go,” London said. “If Death Row doesn’t come out hard and fast from the start of the game, the rest of the team follows. We set the standard higher than anyone else.”
The defensive line’s play can impact the course of a game for the Braves. However, their influence on their younger teammates extends beyond how well they perform.
Having experienced many triumphs and disappointments in their careers at UNCP, the athletes on Death Row have the responsibility of helping the team through whatever scenarios they face.
“They’ve been here through different times and different challenges and different ups and downs,” Richardson said. “I think they can draw on that experience to be able to pull guys aside and be able to communicate messages individually.”
Not all of the players in the unit started their collegiate careers at UNCP. Four of the linemen – Lucas Brim, Domenique Davis, Alpha Lamin and Cyrus Stanback – came to Pembroke from other programs.
Brim is one of the team’s three transfers from Winston-Salem State. Davis played at Shaw, Lamin came from Elizabeth City State, and Stanback is in his first season with the Braves after coming from North Carolina Central.
As a group, the linemen are capable of making a difference on the field. What’s even more impressive, however, is the camaraderie they share off the field.
“We do everything together,” Vance said. “We eat before the game, we play video games, we study together. It’s just an amazing connection. When we go out there, we’re ultimately having fun. It’s like playing with your best friends.”
That connectedness has been a characteristic of Death Row for years. Graduated players continue to be part of that bond long after they leave Pembroke.
“Death Row here is a big tradition,” Lamin said. I don’t think a lot of people know that. Our defensive linemen last year, we still talk to them. I’m still good friends with linemen from two years ago.”
The talent on the defensive line has garnered attention from scouts at the next level. Alumnus Mike Keck earned an invitation to the Buffalo Bills rookie minicamp last year after setting a team single-season record with 11 sacks.
It’s only a matter of time before another member of Death Row gets an opportunity to take the next step in their career.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage at the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter @Tester_Brandon