PEMBROKE — Bulletin board material is candy to a head coach, individually wrapped pieces of vitriol that are displayed throughout the locker rooms and fieldhouses at every college football program.
Players at the 10th-ranked University of North Carolina at Pembroke didn’t take the label of homecoming opponent lightly last weekend in Charlotte.
“We felt like they underestimated us as far as our status as a Division II university,” said senior wideout Te’Vell Williams. “We came in there really trying to prove to them and the people that were watching that we’re better than your average DII program. We think we have a lot of Division I level players.”
The Braves executed to near perfection inside Jerry Richardson Stadium like they’ve done all season, downing the first-year FBS team behind a record-shattering 403-yard passing effort from Luke Charles. If the season-opening win over nationally-ranked Winston-Salem State in September was the ‘program-changer’, UNCP’s considering Saturday’s blowout of the 49ers as the ‘statement’.
While nine-year assistant Shane Richardson’s defense has done a good job getting teams off the field and limiting big plays through the first five games, it’s the Braves’ offense that has kept opposition on its heels. UNCP’s uptempo attack is averaging 37.4 points per game and its 315 yards passing each contest is 15th-best in the nation, tops in the Pete Shinnick era in Pembroke.
Screens and short routes to the reliable Ben DeCelle and Williams has worked as an efficient run game for the Braves as Charles’ 9.8 yards per completion is lowest in Division II among the Top 25 passers despite the senior quarterback being on pace to set several additional single-season school records.
Behind an offensive line that’s giving up less than two sacks a game, Charles and 24 other seniors have led UNCP to its first 5-0 start in program history.
“It starts on Mondays, coming in and studying film with (offensive line) coach (Steve) Saulnier,” said Marquell Rozier, a St. Pauls native and Bethune Cookman transfer. “He’s a great coach and does a good job breaking down and teaching us defensive schemes. As an offensive line, we know our job’s to protect the quarterback so he can spread the ball out to our wide receivers. Luke and those guys make the plays.”
UNCP’s largest blocker at 6-foot-7, 360 pounds, Rozier’s been a welcomed addition up front and made his first start as a Brave at Charlotte. His decision to return home with a year of eligibility remaining as a two-time All-MEAC performer has bolstered the right side of the line and enabled UNCP to become a relentless force with the football.
Rozier arrived in the spring and felt a special buzz with his teammates.
“We’ve had a tight bond all summer and coming into camp we thought that this was our year,” Rozier said. “We’ve worked really hard to get where we are and the focus is there to keep getting better.”
Backed by their highest regular season ranking in program history, the Braves are only halfway through their journey in getting back to the DII playoffs. They’ve avoided the polls and incessant “look ahead” to late-season dates with Valdosta State and Newberry — the only ranked opponents remaining on the schedule — in the early going.
Gathered around his players Tuesday, Shinnick mentioned the importance of finishing strong over the final five games and delivered a speech on the “good ones being remembered for wins, not mediocrity” following a spirited two-hour practice.
Williams says the Braves have adhered to that mindset thus far and must continue to do so.
“Coach put in our head that we were an average team (before the season) and that we had to earn the respect,” Williams said. “Now that we’re 5-0 and No. 10 in the country, he wants us to play like that and consistently get better.”
Brad Crawford works for Civitas Media as a staff writer for The Robesonian. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.