The UNCP football team held their annual Black and Gold inter-squad scrimmage on April 11 at Grace P. Johnson Stadium. Plays were made on both sides of the ball when the Black squad faced off against the Gold squad, but it was the Gold squad that came out of the defensive bout victorious in a 10-9 triumph.
The Braves held a draft earlier this week where they elected captains to chose which players were going to be on which team. While the Black squad got starting quarterback Josh Jones, the Gold Squad led by Head Coach Shane Richardson went defense heavy in the early rounds of the draft and it ultimately paid off.
Their defensive backs on both teams were outstanding in coverage for most of the night, limiting the impact of the receivers by playing tight coverage, breaking up passes and forcing turnovers. Both of the front seven units were extremely disruptive as well, applying a lot of pressure on each of the quarterbacks, making plays at and behind the line of scrimmage, racking up several sacks and coming up with some highly instinctive and acrobatic interceptions.
“I thought both defenses played very well, and the thing was there was still some things out there that were left on the field where there were some plays that we probably could have been better at,” said Richardson.
The overall play of all the defenders was tremendous on the night especially in some of the areas where the Braves struggled the most last season which was secondary play and tackling in the open field at the second and third levels of the defense.
Defenders made the offensive skill players on both squads work hard and fight for every yard that was gained and every catch that was made. They flew around all over the field, swarmed to the ball, hit hard and hustled on every play.
A great example of the amount of effort and heads up play that was being exhibited on the night was when freshman receiver Trey Dixon made a great adjustment to a pass from Jones and made the first defender miss only to have the ball punched out just before he crossed the goal line and it would wind up being recovered by the Gold squad defense in the endzone for a touchback.
“I thought the corners did a great job…It was really good to see them to make plays on the ball,” said Richardson.
The offense wasn’t totally inept on the evening however, they showed flashes of big-play capability and several players routinely displayed their playmaking ability on multiple occasions. Both Jones and converted wide receiver Rodney Smith made plays from the quarterback position with their arms and legs by escaping, rolling out and standing tall in the pocket to make throws on the run as well as off platform.
Smith, in particular, looked really good operating the run-pass-option offense and showed great judgment as well as athletic ability when he did decide to pull the ball and take off to pick up first downs and some additional yardage.
“I think Rodney has a great opportunity here ahead of him,” said Richardson. “I think he does bring a different dynamic than Josh obviously but I think he is a guy that continues to embrace his role, he continues to show up every day, he continues to show up every day, he continues to work and stay after practice. I’m really excited about what he can bring to the table.”
He was a quarterback in high school, and he was brought in and changed to wide receiver, but the team did not have enough quarterbacks to run their scout team, so he ran the scout team offense as a freshman this past season. Richardson says that he earned the No.2 quarterback spot with his work last season and throughout this offseason.
A position group that prominently stood out among the offensive skill players was a pair of underclassmen tight ends. Sophomore Tyzaiah Eller and freshman Faheem Diaab were dynamic in the passing game catching passes across the middle, down the seam and even down the sideline on vertical routes. Diaab, in particular, made a beautiful catch down the right sideline to set the Gold team up with a first in goal.
“What a great threat when you have tight ends that can catch, that block and can run and can go up and get it,” said Richardson. “It brings another element to the offense and I think it really helps us to be a little bit more balanced and spread out and be able to use different weapons.”
Both Jones and Smith threw for a touchdown on the night with Smith’s coming on a roll out to his right when he threw a dart to Cory West who had uncovered in the back of the endzone for the game’s first score and Jones’ came on a pass to Aaron Whitaker where he threaded the needle and zipped the ball between two defenders for what would have been the tying score had the ensuing extra point not been blocked.
The improvement of the offensive line was one of the biggest question marks following last season and while the unit wasn’t dominant, but they were able to get some good push at times, open a few holes for running backs and provided quite a few clean pockets for Jones and Smith to throw from.
“I think we got some guys that can move some people,” said Richardson. “There were some good performances on the O-line. That unit has really gelled together well. They have done some really good technical work this spring to be able to just move their game forward.”
He pointed to redshirt sophomore Gage Baldwin as the leader of the unit who has really embraced that role well by taking charge and leading the other guys as the group continues to develop and build continuity.
As for the running backs, they were able to find some creases, holes and cutback lanes to hit and run through. One back that stood out with his downhill running style was freshman Jerry Roberts who didn’t spend to much time trying to bounce the play to the outside or try to cut back. He got north and south without hesitation, ran hard behind his pads and picked up decent yardage and first downs with most of his carries. Starter Josh Sheridan ran well off tackle picking up nice gains on a few occasions.
It was a night of high energy and excitement for the Braves from start to finish as players on both squads played with a lot of intensity and enjoyed playing under the lights for the first time since last fall. The Black and Gold will kick off their 2019 season on Sept.5 against Winston Salem State at Grace P. Johnson Stadium.
“The competitive spirit was really high and on display tonight,” said Richardson. “I thought there were plays being made on both sides, a lot of great individual efforts, a lot of energy.”