The UNCP football team will welcome another first-time starter under center for the football team this year. Every young quarterback’s best friend is a strong and stout defense to relieve some of the pressure in games.
A young passer’s second and third best friend are a sturdy offensive line to provide protection as well as pave the way for the running game and stable of running backs that can make plays and keep passing downs into shorter manageable situations.
Offensive line struggles may have been the Black and Gold’s most significant reason for the offense’s inability to move the ball on a consistent basis, provide ample protection for passers and simply score points in general.
While those struggles are well documented and reflected in many of the stat lines from last year, injuries as well as overall inexperience was the main catalyst for those discrepancies which led to questions about them coming out of last season.
“They were young, they were behind the eight ball and they were very inexperienced. If your offensive line can not block and they cannot execute and perform well up front that’s going to hurt the offense and hurt the football team,” Head Coach Shane Richardson said.
After having just one upperclassman in the starting line up for not even the entire year in guard Jared Johnson, who is now serving on the coaching staff, the young pass blockers were forged and molded by the crucible of adversity last season.
Emerged is a group that has exhibited the potential in the off-season to be a balanced offensive attack in both the ground game as well as the aerial attack and has garnered the confidence of the coaching staff.
“They’re a year older, they’re a year more mature, they’re a year stronger and I think there are some guys there that really want to prove who they can be this year,” said Richardson. “They’ve really owned that, and they’ve taken great responsibility to try to fix that and I really like the attitude they’ve shown to try to get that right this year.”
While this year’s starting five in the trenches will be comprised of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and redshirt sophomores, many of those linemen received invaluable experience last season and will carry those lessons into this year’s campaign.
“I think they have a better mentality than they did last year. I don’t know if it’s with the new team of whatever it is they’ve just been doing a really good job this year,” said Quarterback Josh Dale.
Despite the overall struggles of the offense as a whole last year, one of the brightest spots and some of the most impressive plays came from the talent rich stable of running backs. The Braves returning rushing leader from last season is redshirt junior Josh Sheridan, who finished with a team high four rushing touchdowns.
Sheridan exhibited the potential of being a dynamic weapon in the run game, with his most impressive play coming on a 29-yard score against Catawba College.
On the play he displayed a low center of gravity as well as excellent body control before scampering up the sideline in front of the home crowd.
He also showed great vision and the ability to make would be tacklers miss and grasp for air, leading to the assumption that his skill set could be utilized coming out of the backfield as an extension of the passing game.
Richardson has seen glimpses of what his other backs are capable of bringing to the table over the course of the off-season, and he expects contributions from players such as redshirt junior Quadrin Williams, redshirt freshman Travis Prince and freshman McKinley Nelson. He believes that Prince has a unique running style and that Nelson possesses all the intangibles and ability to be key contributors in the rushing attack.
“There’s some great options that we have at running back and we’re looking forward to just seeing how all of them contribute in their own ways. We’re going to use the right guys at the right time and just try to be smart about it,” said Richardson.
Even though Williams only appeared in seven of a possible 10 games last season and didn’t even eclipse a fifth of Sheridan’s carries, he still managed to lead all backs with a minimum of 10 touches in yards per attempt with 7.7 a tote on just 15 opportunities.
“We really pride ourselves on wanting to run the ball so that’s got to be something that we’re able to do very well and it is extremely hard at this level to just only rely on one guy,” Richardson said. “You want to be able to have a few guys that are able to share the load a little bit and I think they’re all kind of different back there.”