PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team begins its season Thursday night with an opportunity to make a statement against a familiar foe.
The Braves will welcome 20th-ranked Winston-Salem State to Grace P. Johnson Stadium for a prime-time matchup, kicking off the 2015 season for both teams.
For UNCP coach Shane Richardson, it’s an opportunity to forget about the 2-8 season last year that included a 38-7 loss at the hands of the Rams.
“What we have to do as a team, we can’t worry worry about what the score was last year,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to do what we do well for four quarters in a relentless manner.”
In five all-time meetings between the teams, the Braves are 1-4, with their only win coming in 2013.
“We fully expect a great matchup,” Richardson said.
“(WSSU) has been extremely competitive. If you look at the series, they’ve had our number. They’re going to be big, physical, athletic, energetic and well-coached. I fully anticipate them to be ready for us.”
But Richardson is hopeful his squad will rise to the occasion, showing how far it has come this offseason.
“We want to see competitive nature and spirit come to the top out there,” he said.
“If we fight every single play and show resilience, we’ll have a great opportunity to be in the game and to be successful. I expect that to happen.”
Coming off a 9-2 season, the nationally ranked Rams enter the year as the favorites to win the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
But after losing 30 seniors from last season, including all 11 defensive starters, second-year coach Kienus Boulware isn’t sure about what to expect from his squad.
“It’s hard to say,” said the Winston-Salem State coach.
“We lost a lot. Last year it would’ve been pretty easy for anyone to take over the program. This season it’s going to be more rebuilding as opposed to reloading.”
The Rams are replacing two quarterbacks in Phil Sims and Rudy Johnson that were very successful in a duo-package last season. Sims is currently with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
“I think some of our guys can step up,” Boulware said.
“It comes back to us coaches helping (the players) do what they can to be successful.”
Plenty of talent is on the roster with 13 Division I transfers, including quarterback Rod Tinsley, a transfer from Gardner-Webb that is expected to start against the Braves. Newcomers Justin Pickett — a Tennessee transfer — and Malik Moseley giving the Rams more depth at the running back position, with Reggie Wilkins (North Carolina) and Brandon Ojikutu (a former walk-on at Ohio State) adding depth at wide receiver.
“All it takes is one stroke of luck with a recruiting class,” Boulware said.
“Those are always question marks. You never know how an offseason will go on the recruiting trail.”
As for the returners, Boulware expects senior Tyree Massey leads the charge in the backfield, with senior wideout Marcel Caver Jr. and junior Eric Williams leading a strong receiving corps. Offensive lineman Jac’que Polite and defensive lineman Michael Bloomfield will be the leaders in the trenches. Bloomfield led the team with eight sacks last season.
Boulware said the key to success rests on his squad’s ability to gel and offensive balance.
“The biggest thing is our chemistry right now,” he said.
“Our main thing is keeping teams off balance. It’s hard to be one dimensional this day and age. It will be a challenge for us to get things like they were.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.