NORFOLK, Va. – With a third-year starter at quarterback, experience along both sides of the line of scrimmage and experience back at every position, the Spartan football team is eager to improve on last year’s 4-7 overall record as the 2019 season nears. Following is a look at the Spartans’ roster heading into the season, which kicks off Saturday at Old Dominion University:
The Spartans bring back nine starters to their offensive unit. NSU is positioned to be as experienced as any of its teams in recent memory under center with the return of junior signal-caller Juwan Carter. Carter will be entering his third year as the starter for the Spartans. He is coming off a 2018 season in which he passed for 2,302 yards and 13 touchdowns. He threw for the fourth-most yards in a season in school history despite missing one game. He will look to cut down on miscues this year, as he threw 14 interceptions a year ago.
“Our quarterbacks have had a good camp,” head coach Latrell Scott said. “As an offensive unit, we want to improve this year in our red-zone production and ball security, and it starts with those guys.”
The Spartans are similarly experienced in the backfield, as two of the team’s top three rushers from last year are back. Senior Aaron Savage (400 yards, 2 TDs in 2018) has led the team in rushing each of the past two years. Classmate Gerald Hulett (206 yards, 2 TDs) also proved capable of providing a boost last year.
Those two will be joined by freshmen Rayquan Smith and Kevin Johnson in the NSU backfield. Smith was an accomplished ball carrier and track athlete at Highland Springs High School, while Johnson was a standout at Nansemond River High. Both will push for time.
The Spartan receiving corps took a hit after 2018, as the team lost its top three pass catchers. Isaiah Winstead, Marcus Taylor and Chuma Awanna combined for 1,710 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season, with Taylor also serving as one of the MEAC’s most dangerous return men.
Despite those departures, plenty of talent remains, starting with juniors Justin Smith and Marcque Ellington. Smith proved to be the team’s top deep threat last year, averaging 21.8 yards per catch and scoring two touchdowns. Ellington also proved capable of big plays, averaging 13.2 yards per catch in limited opportunities.
“I like our depth at receiver,” Scott said. “Though we have some new faces in there, I feel like we’re deeper at those positions than we were a year ago.”
Reserves Stuart Anderson, Quentin Greene, Vincent Jarvis and Zane Killgo will look to play bigger roles this year. The team will also look to Coastal Carolina transfer Da’Kendall James, Delaware transfer Tylan McElhenie and true freshmen Da’Quan Felton and Tremayne Talbert to build depth.
NSU appears to be in good shape at tight end. Junior Anthony Williams has two years’ experience under his belt. He has made 17 catches in his career and is a threat as a receiver. Junior college transfer Shawn McFarland also brings experience to the group, and second-year Spartans Kareem Burgess and Sean Rettzo give the team a strong four-man group.
The Spartans are experienced and deep along the offensive line. Four starters from the 2018 unit return in tackles Taro Lipscomb and Craig Rodwell and guards Justin Redd and Jalen Powell. Dominic Jordan, who will battle to replace Wes Jones at center, is a senior with 11 career starts as well. In addition, redshirt junior Kenneth Kirby, a 2017 All-MEAC third-team selection, returns after sitting out last season.
“Our offensive line has had the opportunity to grow up together,” Scott said. “Several of those guys played a lot early in their careers and have matured a good bit. It has shown during the preseason.”
Much like the offensive side, the NSU defense sustained a couple of key losses, yet still returns most of its unit in tact from 2018. Seven starters are back from last season’s team which ranked third in the MEAC in total defense (345.1 ypg allowed).
NSU will switch to more of a four-down lineman look this year and appears to have the bodies to make a smooth transition. Defensive ends De’Shaan Dixon(31 tackles, 4.0 TFL) and Ricky Thomas (18 tackles, 1.5 TFL) combined to start all 11 games at one defensive end spot, and both may see the field at the same time more this season in the new-look front. Middle Tennessee transfer Chris Myersand redshirt freshman D.J. Djonkam will also make an impact at defensive end.
Three interior linemen are back from last year’s team. Kyron Speller saw the most time of the group last year, starting 11 games at defensive tackle. He made 20 tackles, four for lost yardage. Junior college transfer Remy Feltes will also challenge for time. Senior Josh Bryant (2.0 TFL) and junior Tavien Blackwell (4.0, two sacks) will all compete for time at nose guard.
Four players with starting experience return to the NSU linebacking corps, led by 2018 first-team All-MEAC selection Nigel Chavis. Chavis has led the Spartans in tackles for loss and sacks the last two seasons, notching 13.0 hits behind the line of scrimmage and 5.5 sacks a year ago. In his first year as a starter, outside linebacker Tyre Givers-Wilson amassed 38 tackles, 7.0 for loss in 2018.
Senior Dale Craig started seven times last year and tallied 56 total tackles, including a trio of sacks. Sophomore Marquis Hall (47 tackles, 4.0 TFL last year) is also back after making five starts in 2018.
NSU ranked sixth in the country in pass defense a year ago. Two stalwarts from that secondary return, in safeties Nhyre’ Quinerly and Bobby Price. Price was an All-MEAC third-team selection last year following a season in which he posted 59 tackles and two interceptions. Price has made 25 starts in his career. Quinerly has started all 22 games over the course of his two seasons at NSU and has made six career interceptions.
The Spartans will break in a pair of new starting cornerbacks to replace the departed Aaron Chandler and J.T. Wahee. Two sophomores, Brandon Savageand Shaviaea Williams, are the favorites to earn those starting spots. Both played in all 11 games last year and made an impact on special teams. NSU also has the luxury of three returning reserves with experience in junior safety J.J. Givens, sophomore safety Johnathan Gregory and sophomore cornerback Rashard Russell.
“One of our goals defensively this year is to not wear down,” Scott said. “We need to make sure we get off the field on third down.”
The Spartans bring back kicker Josh Nardone, who was 10-of-11 on field-goal attempts as a sophomore last year. Long snapping duties will fall to sophomore Zac Denton, who redshirted last season but capably filled the role in 2017.
NSU must identify a replacement for Taylor in the return game and also for Taylor Goettie at punter. Junior college transfer Ryan Richter will get the first crack to man that spot. Richter punted and kicked for Reedley College (Calif.) last year.