WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. _ In the most recent meetings between NC Central and North Carolina A&T, the Eagles were in a bit of bind in the trenches. On the verge of their meeting in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Saturday, coach Trei Oliver says his offensive line is in a much better place.
“The last two years we’ve played them, we were really beaten up really bad,” Oliver says. “Last year, I think we only had seven offensive linemen healthy when we played them. We started one or two redshirt freshmen.
“It feels really good to go in here with the full deck and all our guys ready to roll,” he adds. “It’s good to have a healthy team going into this one.”
A&T and NC Central are marking the 100th anniversary of the first game in the rivalry by playing in Charlotte for the first time since they met in Memorial Stadium in 2008. This time, they’ll clash at the 70,000-plus-seat home of the Carolina Panthers. North Carolina A&T has won the last four games in the series and seven of the last 10.
It was in late September 2021 that the Eagles faced a winless A&T team. NC Central fell into a 27-3 hole at halftime and dropped a 37-14 decision in which it only managed 52 yards rushing on 17 carries. There was some comfort from a 225-yard passing night by Davius Richard. Ryan McDaniel caught nine passes for 179 yards and a touchdown.
But as opening night approaches this year, the joy of having healthy offensive linemen has Oliver glowing with optimism. He has junior Corey Bullock, redshirt seniors Kideam Diouf and Robert Mitchell, sophomore Torricelli Simpkins III and redshirt sophomore Da’Quan Thomas. Mitchell only played in two games last season and Thomas missed one.
“We have some experience up front. We’re healthy up front,” Oliver says. “And we haven’t been that since I’ve been here. And that’s where it starts.”
Oliver feels his is an explosive offense that’s equipped in the backfield and at wide receiver. But he wants to be sure Richard can find his targets when he starts his junior season against the Aggies.
“We have some playmakers. We had playmakers before,” Oliver said. “If you can’t win up front, you’re going to have a long day. I think we solidified that. The bigs is where it starts.”
Oliver says he’s pleased with the development of his defense and the direction it’s headed in, reiterating that the play along the line will dictate how that unit fares. Last season, the Eagles surrendered just under 400 yards a game.
Part of the tradition of the Duke’s Mayo football games is for the winning coach to take a sideline bath in the sponsor’s signature product. Although he feels good about his chances on Saturday, Olive is not feeling good enough to endure that celebration if the opportunity arises.
“I’ve already talked to a couple of folks about it. I think I’m going to let our chancellor or our athletic director step in there and take my place with that. I’m going to give those guys the first opportunity to go ahead and do that.”