GREENSBORO — It’s been a week now. One week of grass stains, sore muscles and sweat in the hot summer sun as N.C. A&T prepares for another football season.
And one week into his second season as a head coach, Sam Washington likes what he sees.
What’s not to like?
His Aggies have won back-to-back MEAC championships and back-to-back black college national championships after Celebration Bowl victories over the SWAC’s best teams.
But none of that means much under the summer sun. Like every team in the nation, A&T is starting over.
“I’ve seen some signs of improvement,” Washington says, his head covered by a floppy bucket hat, his eyes hidden behind wraparound sunglasses. “There’s some talent out here, but we still have quite a bit of work to do.
“I don’t know if there’s a particular area that needs the most work. The way I see it, every position must get better. That’s the truth. There’s no one area that needs more help than any other. Not at this point, at least. Maybe that will change next week, when we start working on specifics. Right now all the work is on basic fundamentals.”
A&T starts fundamentally sound.
The Aggies went 22-2 the last two seasons, and although they lost 13 of 22 starters — seven on offense, six on defense — they remain preseason favorites to win a MEAC title because of their vast depth from a year ago.
“It can be hard to deal with expectations, especially if you allow it to be hard,” Washington says. “We try not to be concerned about what other people think. We’re going to do what we do, and we’re going to do it well. And then we’ll see what happens.”
On offense, bookend starting tackles Marcus Pettiford and Dontae Keys are back. And A&T returns three of its top four receivers, a deep group led by starters Elijah Bell and Zach Leslie.
Bell, a senior, played through ankle and foot injuries last year and finished with 48 catches for 541 yards. He is on pace to break school career records for catches, yards and touchdowns. Leslie, a junior, led the team with 50 catches and 676 yards last year, while Ron Hunt, a senior from Southern Guilford, averaged a team-high 15.5 yards on his 22 catches.
But who will replace quarterback Lamar Raynard? He went 35-2 as A&T’s starter and set school records for completion percentage and touchdown passes.
Fifth-year player Kylil Carter leads a quarterback group that also includes sophomores Jalen Fowler and East Carolina transfer Kingsley Ifedi.
“Kylil is absolutely our starter. Absolutely,” Washington says. “It’s his job to lose. If somebody beats him out, well, that’s on him. We’re going to play the best guy, and it’s Kylil’s position right now.”
Carter played in 11 games last season, missing the Celebration Bowl with a broken leg suffered in a car accident. He passed for 397 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions, and he was the Aggies’ third-leading rusher, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
“This could be a great team," Carter says. "Coach Wash says this could be the best team A&T’s ever seen, and we believe him. We’re just out here trying to put it all together right now, focusing on the next game. (Elon) is a good challenge. We like challenges around here."
On defense, the Aggies are proven in the secondary with three starters back: cornerbacks Mac McCain and Amir McNeil and safety/linebacker Richie Kittles.
McNeil, a sophomore, stepped into a starting role after All-America McCain, a junior, tore a knee ligament at Bethune-Cookman. Kittles, meanwhile, was the defensive MVP of the Celebration Bowl.
Outside linebacker Antoine Wilder and defensive tackle Justin Cates, both seniors, were also starters last year. Wilder was A&T’s leading tackler last year.
A&T expected All-America defensive end Darryl Johnson to return, but he left for the NFL draft after his junior year and is in training camp with the Buffalo Bills.
“Obviously, you’re going to see a lot of new faces up front,” Washington said. “That’s true at the linebacker position, too. But I think we have the right people to replace what we lost.
“The hardest thing to replace is the game experience. All those kids we lost, most of them played three or four years. But I do like the talent we have. We have some unanswered questions about what they do well and what they don’t do well. That’s why we practice, you know? To get answers to those questions.”
The Aggies have three weeks to find their answers as they work under the summer sun.