(Photo: UNCP Athletics) From left: Alpha Lamin, Khalil Vance, Nathan London and Cameron Williams line up against Catawba
Senior defensive lineman Khalil Vance knows how valuable game experience is for young players. That’s why he sees good things ahead for the UNCP football team as they get closer to this weekend’s game at home against Tusculum.
“Practice reps and game reps are two different things,” Vance said. “The young guys are getting game experience. I feel like it can only get better from here on out.”
Those reps are key for a team that includes 37 true freshmen on its active roster.
“It’s a continual learning process for those guys,” head coach Shane Richardson said. “There’s a lot of things those guys have to learn still, but they’ve done a good job of just being great followers.”
While learning the ropes of college football, those newcomers have experienced adversity through UNCP’s first three games of the season. The Braves narrowly fell short of a comeback in week one, losing 34-31 at home to rival Winston-Salem State.
The team rebounded with a 66-14 stomping of Elizabeth City State in the next game, but a loss to Catawba last week kept the Braves winless at home this season.
Richardson is optimistic about the team’s ability to compete for their first victory at Grace P. Johnson stadium. Despite the pair of early losses, he has seen his team continue to work hard and make improvements.
“When you’re facing a 1-2 record right now to start the year off, a lot of guys could be extremely disappointed and let that effect their body language and the way they approach the game and prepare for the game,” Richardson said. “I don’t see that. I see a group that continues to stay hungry. They want to come out and practice hard every day, and stay attentive to the coaches in their meetings every day.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Dominick Samson will take the field for his fourth collegiate start on Saturday. Samson experienced his first significant rough patch of the season against Catawba, throwing three interceptions after not tossing any in the first two games.
“One of the things Dom has been very good at in his own right is being very resilient,” Richardson said. “I think his mentality is extremely steady and extremely stable.”
Tusculum comes to Pembroke after falling to Limestone 30-24 in overtime last week. That loss dropped the Pioneers to 1-2 after they lost their opener to North Greenville 34-33 and topped Shorter 39-12 the following week.
Junior quarterback Alex Ogle has been under center for the Pioneers, averaging 220 yards through three games. He has three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Sophomore Maxwell Joseph spearheads Tusculum’s rushing attack. He is averaging 80 yards a game, including a 123-yard performance against Shorter. Joseph found the endzone three time in that contest.
Ogle’s favorite targets through the air so far have been seniors Evan Altizer and Evan Gates. Both have 13 total receptions, with Altizer averaging roughly 56 yards and Gates not far off with 54.
UNCP will need to keep pressure on Ogle in order to be successful. Tusculum’s offensive line has been porous at times, giving up five sacks against North Greenville and four against Limestone.
With a talented rotation of defensive linemen that includes Vance, Tyler Hinton, Alpha Lamin, Tajai Liles, Nathan London and Donovan Wirt, the Braves have the tools to be disruptive in the backfield.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday night.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage at the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter @Tester_Brandon