CIAA football teams, in general, are much younger this season. The conference saw seniors and juniors graduate, combined with numerous transfers in and out of the conference occurring since the 2019 season. That means fresh talent has the opportunity to thrive this season.
Here are five players to be on the lookout for as conference play unfolds:
RB Jada Byers, Virginia Union – Has Virginia Union found an heir apparent in its rushing attack? Byers had a release party against Virginia University of Lynchburg, as the true freshman ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday. Byers now leads the conference in rushing yards (333 yards in three games), rushing yards per game (111) rushing touchdowns (three).
Honorable Mention: Others to look out for at the RB slot include JCSU’s true freshman Davion Nelson, the only other conference player rushing more than 100 ypg, and Virginia State’s redshirt freshman Kimo Clarke, who has scored both of VSU’s touchdowns while in a crowded backfield.
QB Khari Lane, Fayetteville State – Quarterback transfers can really make or break an offense (see Bowie State’s Ja’rome Johnson as a good example). A former Arizona quarterback, Khari Lane is panning out as another example of a transfer that has strengthened an offense. Lane is second in the conference in passing yards per game (266), and has passed for five touchdowns in two games. Moreover, Lane has the highest completion percentage at this point (68 percent). It will be interesting to see how Lane’s numbers adjust once he enters into the softer part of the schedule. Honorable Mention: The CIAA Southern Division has a plethora of new signal callers, and Shaw’s Christian Peters is the other standout here. Peters redshirted in 2019, and supplanted former-starter-turned-backup Torrin Campbell in running the offense.
WR Laurence King, Chowan – Over the last few years, CIAA football has seen an influx of transfers from the Mountain East Conference (anyone remember Nyme Manns? Trenton Cannon?), and that trend continues with King. King was the MEC’s freshman of the year in 2016 (and Bowie State actually has the 2017 MEC freshman of the year in RB Calil Wilkins – a trend, anyone?). King restored Chowan’s recent tradition of having two threats at the wide receiver slot (along with Imeek Watkins), and that’s CU has been most potent on offense. While Watkins leads Chowan in receiving touchdowns, King actually leads the conference in receiving yards and receptions.
Honorable Mention: Elizabeth City State’s true freshman Cameron Saunders is a legit pair of reliable hands, and has had some big catches. JCSU’s Reggie Bryant, another true freshman, has been a home run hitter (five receptions, two touchdowns in two games).
Defense: DL Raevon Freeman, ECSU – Freeman is in elite company. ECSU’s defense has been on the field a lot this season, and he has certainly made the best of the opportunity. Freeman, a redshirt freshman, has his name with the likes of Fayetteville State Keyshawn James and ties with Bowie State’s Joshua Pryor. He’s also forced two fumbles in this first three starts of his collegiate career.
Honorable Mention: Chowan’s redshirt freshman DL Isaac Anderson is another standout in this category, with 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks to his credit.
Special Teams: K Jobanni Esparza, Winston-Salem State – WSSU has had a very inconsistent kicking game over the past few years, but junior college transfer Esparza has quickly become a stabilizing force. Esparza has converted all four field goal attempts this year, far more than any other kicker in CIAA football. Actually, that statistic would make Esparza sixth in the country in field goals made, and only one of 12 kickers in the country who have attempted more than one field goal and having missed one yet.
Honorable Mention: There’s a lot of good kicking this year. I mean A LOT. Shaw’s Devin Versteegen, a true freshman, has been a reliable leg so far, and two freshman are in the country’s top 30 in yards per punt: Lincoln’s AJ Laudet (44.8 ypp) and VUU’s Marvin Holmes (41.2 ypp).