At this time last season, the UNCP football team was preparing to make history. The Braves staked claim to a 4-1 record, with the only loss coming on the road against nationally ranked Tuskegee.
That team went on to go undefeated in its last five games before securing the first postseason victory in program history. With a 10-2 overall record that included a perfect 5-0 clip at Grace P. Johnson Stadium, the Braves set a high standard for UNCP football.
Many key players on that team graduated or transferred after the record-breaking run, which resulted in a new look for UNCP this season. That new look brought about an increased reliance on younger, inexperienced athletes. Consequently, the team’s status as a postseason contender gave way to the growing pains that are characteristics of a rebuilding program.
Coming off their most recent loss, a 28-6 shortcoming against Newberry, the Braves are now 1-4 and have yet to win at home. The season has panned out much differently than they might have anticipated, but head coach Shane Richardson is pushing his team to learn and make improvements through the adversity.
“We’ve been talking a lot about just staying simple with focusing on the right things, and not letting too many things get away from us, and not trying to look too far into our record.” Richardson said. “We want to make sure that we’re still training great habits, sticking to the fundamentals and making sure that the process is better these last five weeks than it was the first five weeks.”
UNCP will be away from home for four of the five games left on the schedule. Their last home contest is slated for Oct. 28 against Lenoir-Rhyne.
Being on the road might prove to be beneficial for the Braves. Their only victory to this point came in the form of a 66-14 blowout at Elizabeth City State on Sept. 9. They haven’t had much luck in Pembroke, coming up winless in three games.
Richardson has been encouraging the Braves to focus on playing well and be less concerned about where they compete.
“It’s just a mentality of making sure that you stay focused on what’s important for four quarters,” Richardson said. “You don’t let the environment or a different fan base or a different color jersey get too far inside your head.”
Several players have posted impressive numbers defensively for UNCP, especially along the defensive line. One of those linemen, redshirt junior Tyler Hinton, currently leads the team with five sacks. In the secondary, redshirt junior safety Josh Manns has a team-high 33 tackles to go along with an interception.
Offensively, five running backs – Miles Grant, Josh Sheridan, Quadrin Williams, Jo Leake and Brian Staton - have been sharing snaps. Grant has compiled a team-high 174 yards with one touchdown, while Sheridan leads the unit in scores with three touchdowns of his own.
Williams, who has 54 yards on eight carries, caught Richardson’s attention as a leader for the team in the first half of the season.
“[Quadrin] has played a great role,” Richardson said. “He brings energy and enthusiasm every single day.”
After a relatively smooth start to the season, Redshirt freshman quarterback Dominick Samson has struggled with consistency in his first year under center for the Braves. He currently has six touchdowns and seven interceptions with an average of roughly 161 yards per game.
There’s still plenty of time for Samson and the Braves to find some momentum, but their schedule isn’t going to get any easier. UNCP makes the short trip to Wingate this weekend to take on the undefeated Bulldogs (4-0). The game will be streamed nationally on ESPN3.
That widespread coverage could give the Braves a chance to prove that their identity isn’t defined by a 1-4 record.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage at the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter: @Tester_Brandon