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No. 4 N.C. A&T keeps winning behind star defensive back Mac McCain

Celebration Bowl winner surprises with an undefeated start

North Carolina A&T’s All-American sophomore defensive back Franklin “Mac” McCain III has staked claim on a piece of real estate.

It’s known as “McCain Island.”

The name, inspired by future NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Darrelle Revis, means opposing offenses are so fearful of a player that they rarely throw to that person’s side of the field.

It started early last season after McCain became a national leader in interceptions. He eventually finished the season with six interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. One of those was a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Morgan State, which comes to N.C. A&T on Saturday for a 6 p.m. matchup at BB&T Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN3 and Watch ESPN.

McCain duplicated the 100-yard return act this season in a 28-23 victory over FBS opponent East Carolina, which dared to throw his way several times.

“I look forward to teams throwing my way. I want them to throw my way because I can make plays. Any side of the field I’m on, that’s my island. I take care of my own.”

A week later, in a 45-6 victory against Gardner-Webb, few passes were thrown in McCain’s neighborhood.

The notoriety is helping McCain step out of the shadows of his grandfather Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four who helped integrate lunch counters in their college town, a pivotal point in the nation’s civil rights movement.

“Mac,” as he likes to be called, is all too familiar with the strategy that teams use against him. And he says it’s boring to be closed out of the action for much of a football game. “The percentage of throws toward me has been going down, so I just try to stay alert,” McCain said. “They try to lull me to sleep, then they try to throw it my way late in the game.”

In the Aggies’ season opener, a 20-17 victory over FCS power Jacksonville State on Aug. 25, McCain said: “They threw it my way maybe about three times.

“I was surprised that East Carolina threw it my way so much,” he said. “I look forward to teams throwing my way. I want them to throw my way because I can make plays. Any side of the field I’m on, that’s my island. I take care of my own.”

McCain is just one of the stars on a loaded Aggies team that is ranked No. 4 in the STATS FCS Poll and FCS Coaches Poll, the highest in school history. The Aggies also return conference Offensive Player of the Year Lamar Raynard, now a senior quarterback, all-conference junior wide receiver Elijah Bell, leading running back Marquell Cartwright and eight regulars on defense.

And that’s helping first-year coach Sam Washington, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator since 2012, to step out of the shadow of his predecessor, Rod Broadway, who retired after last season’s unbeaten campaign, which climaxed in a Celebration Bowl victory for the black college national championship.

Looking at the Aggies’ schedule at the start of the season, some folks had difficulty imagining the Aggies riding so high in mid-September. But not Washington, who was asked following the Gardner-Webb game what his response would have been if someone had told him in preseason that the Aggies would have a chance to be 4-0, particularly with a road game at ECU.

“I would have said, ‘You’re probably right,’ ” Washington said, explaining that his team returned just that much talent.

Still, things might look different if not for McCain stepping in front of that pass in the end zone in Greenville against ECU and taking it to the house.

Washington, who spent four seasons in the NFL with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, explained what makes McCain so special.

“What he has that most don’t is instinct,” Washington said. “He just has an ability to see the ball thrown and react in a very positive way. And he’s able to transition his feet and his hips in coordination with his eyes and hands, and a lot of people just cannot do that.”

McCain, a former high school track star, has 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash, a 34-inch vertical leap, 94.5-inch reach and a nearly 10-foot broad jump.

Washington, who has built the Aggies into the pre-eminent defense in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference since 2012, says he feels blessed to be able to put so much talent on the field, including on defense, which he continues to manage with co-defensive coordinator Courtney Coard.

“I thank God for it most of all,” Washington said, “and my success is based on these young men and their willingness to be successful and the time and the hard work that they’ve put in. It was a very easy transition for me, honestly, just moving one office over.”

Despite a few days of missed practice because of Hurricane Florence, Washington expects his team to be ready, and he says the Aggies are not taking the Morgan State Bears lightly.

To start the season, Morgan State lost 36-10 to Towson, 41-7 to Akron and 30-27 to Albany.

Morgan State, coached by Ernest T. Jones, is led by sophomore defensive back Donte Small, who has three interceptions and six pass breakups, junior wide receiver Manasseh Bailey and junior quarterback DeAndre Harris, the team’s leading rusher.

“That’s perhaps the best 0-3 football team in the country,” Washington said. “You can actually see the growth from week to week. I think they do a lot of good things, and Coach Jones has those kids playing hard, and I’m sure he’s very excited to get in conference play.”

“We understand we’re going to play the No. 1 team, in our minds, in the nation, at their place,” Morgan State’s Ernest T. Jones said. “So we’re excited about this football game.”

Jones said that his team has prepared for McCain — and hasn’t forgotten the 100-yard return from a year ago. Jones said that in practice, the Bears receivers have been “going against [Morgan State defensive back] Small as much as they can so that they can try to get an idea of what it might be like going against McCain.”

“He’s really, really good,” Jones said of McCain. “We know he’s going to be out there. We’re not going to run away from him, but we’re not going to give it to him and let him win the football game on defense.

“We’re going to pick when we want to go after him.”

While the Aggies are strong against the run, Jones said, the Bears’ philosophy on offense is to run the football.

“If a team wants to beat us, all they have to do is stop us from running the football,” Jones said. “That’s who we are. That’s who we want to be. We’re not trying to trick anybody, fool anybody.

“Their front seven is the best front seven we’ve seen … but we’re not going to run away from it. Our guys are going to have to bow up, strengthen up, courage up, whatever they have to do.

“We understand we’re going to play the No. 1 team, in our minds, in the nation, at their place,” Jones said. “So we’re excited about this football game.”

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.