EAST GREENSBORO — The North Carolina A&T football team is looking for a mantra heading into the 2022 season. Two stand out to head coach Sam Washington, who enters his fifth season as the head coach of the Aggies program, and his fourth year on the sideline.
Bounce back. One heartbeat.
Both of Washington’s mantras fit as the Aggies try to return to championship form after posting a 5-6 record overall and a 3-4 mark in their first season in the Big South Conference. It was the Aggies first losing season since 2011 and their first time without a postseason appearance since 2014.
Therefore, the Aggies certainly need to bounce back. The tenacious defense fans had grown accustomed to cheering was not as ferocious in 2021. In addition, the Aggies offense that bludgeoned Alcorn State in the 2019 Celebration Bowl in Atlanta never got into a good rhythm last season.
“I would say 85 percent of the things that went wrong with our team last year were self-inflicted,” said Washington, who is 24-11 as Aggies head coach. “That’s what made it so disappointing.
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That’s why this season is important to me personally. We will get back to what we have become accustomed to doing, and that’s winning football games. We have to learn to play as a team. We had too many individuals last year. We lost the team concept.”
That’s where the one heartbeat comes in. Washington wants the Aggies program to return to the formula where leaders lead by example, and one class passes the championship pedigree down to the next. There are still plenty of championship players remaining.
Players such as cornerback Amir McNeill, wide receiver Zach Leslie, defensive end Devin Harrell, linebacker Joseph Stuckey, offensive lineman Lawrence Lagrone, center Dacquari Wilson and linebacker Kyin Howard have been around for multiple HBCU national champions and conference titles.
“When I look up and down our roster, it is exciting to see how much experience we have coming back,” said Washington. “So, we have the personnel to be successful. But we need to be more detailed and remain focused. Mostly, lack of focus makes you do something out of character. If you stay focused, stay in the moment, understand the situation, and apply what you do well, you can stay away from mistakes.”
But as lovely as bounce back and one heart sound, mantras will not earn the Aggies a Big South title. According to Washington, who had to defend Hall of Famer Jerry Rice when they were teammates at Mississippi Valley State, who was an NFL cornerback and who built a reputation as a defensive guru as a college coach, what will get the Aggies back to the postseason is simple.
The Aggies had the 39th-best defense in the nation last season. That is fine for most programs but not for one used to finishing in the top 10 nationally. The Aggies even failed to lead their conference in rushing defense, which has not happened since 2014.
The three highest totals the Aggies surrendered to FCS opponents last season were the 34 points to North Alabama, the 35 they surrendered to Monmouth and the 35 Gardner-Webb scored in the season finale for a total of 104 points.
When you compare that to the 190 points that gave up all season in 2019 and the measly 149 opponents scored against them in 2018, it is easy to see why a defensive coach like Washington can’t wait to correct what happened last season.
“If they don’t score, they can’t win,” said Washington. “That’s where I am right now, mentally. We do not want to give up anything after last year. It’s hard to lose a game if they don’t score. So we’re going back to what we were in 2017, 2018 and 2019. We’re going to stop people. We’re going to punt the ball and make them go 80, 90 yards, and make no mistakes in the process.”
It will be a new-look Big South. Kennesaw State, Monmouth, North Alabama and Hampton departed the Big South for new conferences during the offseason. Therefore, the Big South added Bryant as a football school, while the Aggies will get rematches against Robert Morris, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb.
Even though Campbell was in the Big South last season, the Fighting Camels did not play the Aggies. The two schools will play football against each other for the first time atTruist Stadium on Oct. 29.
“It was pretty much what I thought it would be,” said Washington about the Big South. “It was good solid football, and they don’t beat themselves. They play a very disciplined brand of football. They’re not overly physical, but some teams will come straight out you, and others will finesse and try to beat you schematically.”
Courtesy: North Carolina A&T athletics