#41 North Carolina Central FCS Football 2016 Preview

North Carolina Central Eagles
Overall Rank: #41
For the second year in a row, North Carolina Central shared the MEAC title. After falling in their conference opener to Bethune-Cookman, the Eagles reeled off seven wins in a row. Still, it was not enough to reach the Celebration Bowl since North Carolina A&T earned the spot after joining NCCU and Bethune-Cookman at 7-1 in MEAC play. This year should have another thrilling conclusion and Coach Jerry Mack will have his team right in the mix yet again.
2015 Record: 8-3, 7-1
2015 Postseason: None
Coach: Jerry Mack (15-8 at North Carolina Central, 15-8 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: T.C. Taylor, Jason Onyebuagu
Defensive Coordinator: Grandville Eastman
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Dorrel McClain, RB, 958 yards
Passing: Malcolm Bell, QB, 1,581 yards
Receiving: LaVontis Smith, WR, 372 yards
Tackles: Reggie Hunter, LB, 48
Sacks: Darius Spruill, DL, 5.0
Interceptions: Davanta Reynolds, DB, 2
Other Key Returnees: WR David Miller, WR Quentin Atkinson, WR Kahlil Stinson, OL Carl Jones, OL Desmond Cooper, DL Antonio Brown, DB Mike Jones
Key Losses: WR Armani Lanier, TE Nathan Scruggs, OL Clevonne Davis, DB Ryan Smith, LB Theo Livingston, DB C.J. Moore, LB Jordan Miles, DL Richard Mitchell, DL Tre Smith, K Nigel Maccauley
With seven starters returning and a couple injured players also expected back, the offense should be more potent in 2016. Quarterback Malcolm Bell threw for 1,581 yards and eight touchdowns, while adding 509 yards and five more scores on the ground. Bell needs to boost his 51.9 percent completion percentage and reduce his nine interceptions from a season ago and that should be pretty easy with a couple key wide receivers back from injury. Quentin Atkinson caught 49 passes for 615 yards and five touchdowns back in 2014 before getting hurt in the season opener and missing the rest of the season. Khalil Stinson is also back after playing in just three games last year. In the three contests, he caught 10 passes for 98 yards and a score. Atkinson and Stinson would be enough, but Bell found new targets in LaVontis Smith and David Miller and now suddenly this is a very deep and experienced group of receivers. Behind a strong offensive line led by Carl Jones and Desmond Cooper, Bell should have plenty of time to operate. The ground game should excel too with Dorrel McClain coming off of a great freshman campaign. The reigning MEAC Freshman of the Year rushed for 958 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015.
Overall the defense was solid last year, but the pass defense was an issue at times. This time around, the pass defense should be better, but the rush defense could take a step back. The line is very experienced with Darius Spruill, Ja’Quan Smith and Antonio Brown leading the way, but there are some questions at linebacker. Jordan Miles and Theo Livingston, the team’s second and third leading tacklers, are gone and the pressure will be on Reggie Hunter to emerge as a leader in the middle of the defense. The secondary lost leading tackler C.J. Moore and Ryan Smith, but welcome the return of Mike Jones who missed the entire MEAC portion of 2015 with an injury. He is a superb cornerback and has All-American talent if he can stay healthy. There is still work to do though. Smith was a great cornerback too and was drafted in the fourth round by Tampa Bay, but the pass defense continued to struggle even with him on the field.
The Bottom Line:
North Carolina Central has a very, very promising offense. Bell is a good dual-threat quarterback and he should be able to show that more this year with the talent at wide receiver and a year of experience under McClain’s belt. The Eagles schedule shakes out much like it did last year. Two of their non-conference opponents from 2015 are back on the slate in 2016 with Duke and St. Augustine’s. NCCU will also head to Kalamazoo, Michigan to face Western Michigan. After that the big game against Bethune-Cookman is early in the MEAC schedule and, of course, the season ends with North Carolina A&T. Those are the two games that will decide if North Carolina Central can earn their third straight MEAC title for the first time in school history.
Projected Postseason: None
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 173.6 (46th in nation, 3rd in conference)
Passing Offense: 180.6 (83, 7)
Total Offense: 354.3 (78, 4)
Scoring Offense: 29.7 (38, 3)
Rushing Defense: 126.2 (21, 2)
Pass Defense: 229.0 (86, 9)
Total Defense: 355.2 (38, 6)
Scoring Defense: 21.2 (26, 3)
Turnover Margin: 0.55 (22, 2)
Sacks: 2.73 (17, 2)
Sacks Allowed: 1.00 (11, 2)
Madness 2016 Recruit Rankings:
#107 Joshua Varona