GREENSBORO — A new football season at A&T begins Saturday with new faces in familiar places and a common theme to take the Aggies from one season to the next.
“Our motto is humble but hungry,” Sam Washington, the A&T coach, said this week.
The Aggies are coming off yet another black college national title, and while the Celebration Bowl victory is still ringing in their ears, this isn’t that team. And for the first time in several seasons, A&T will feel some pressure this time.
The pressure from inside the MEAC is familiar, but the pressure from within, to keep moving at a championship pace, is something a new roster will deal with all year long. The Aggies are chasing themselves now.
“We’re prepared for the pressure,” Washington said. “The guys work hard. We’re focused. Everybody, even the equipment managers and the trainers. Everybody understands what’s at hand. We appreciate what we’ve done, but it’s in the past. So it’s very important that we have that same appetite, that thirst, to be great.”
A large group of seniors left after last season, a group that carried A&T to multiple national titles, a core of seniors who took the school to a place it had never been and then rebuilt itself when Washington replaced the retired Rod Broadway.
That’s easier said than done. And now a new group of leaders and younger players have to follow a tradition of winning, knowing everybody’s coming after them now.
“There’s always pressure coming into a new season with a target on our back,” said senior running back Darius Graves, a Dudley graduate. “We’re coming in with a good squad, but everybody will want to see if we can repeat the performance from last year. We want to be even better. We lost a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of young guys who will step up along with this year’s seniors.”
The program has won 32 of its last 36 games, winning MEAC titles and national titles and sending players to the NFL, all the while raising expectations and making the schedules harder and harder.
The Aggies open with No. 21 Elon and will travel to Duke a week later. Next year, they’ll add Liberty and FCS super-power North Dakota State. And earlier this month, Chancellor Howard L. Martin told faculty members that the university should consider moving its athletics department into the ranks of the FBS.
The pressure cooker only got hotter on the football field.
“I’m taking that as talk,” Washington said. “When it happens, if it happens, then we’ll deal with it. Right now, I’m preparing for Elon.”
Washington has kept his team focused since the departure of Broadway, but now he has to replace the greatest quarterback in school history, Lamar Raynard, along with wholesale changes in the backfield, the offensive and defensive fronts and positions throughout the two-deep.
“It’s going to be a different kind of team,” Graves said. “We watched last year and saw the mistakes, and our approach this year is to do it ourselves and do it better. It’s a different approach. Or at least it’s the same approach but with new leaders.”
He said this team wants to make its own mark on A&T football.
“It’s a whole new era,” Graves said. “We’ve been working hard since January. We’ve got some new guys out here, and we’re taking our own approach. Last year was last year. We have some new faces, but everybody’s ready to compete.”
Humble but hungry.
“We’re still cooking the same way,” Washington said. “We’re going to use the same chicken and fry it the same way. Everything’s going to stay pretty much the same. Our philosophy will be to stop the run, protect the football and win the kicking game.”
That’s a formula that has served the Aggies well in the past, back to Broadway's days, and Washington is about to change the recipe now.
Though the kitchen seems a lot hotter now.