PEMBROKE — The No. 1 jersey is a high distinction within The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s football program because the player wearing the jersey represents hard work and leadership, among other things.
As the Braves embark on a new year, senior wide receiver B.J. Bunn takes the jersey and will occupy the locker that has been vacant for two seasons. Selected by the staff as someone who personifies what the jersey represents, he will take some responsibility on a veteran team that has a bulk of leaders returning.
“It’s a prestigious number in my opinion, and to wear that number you’ve got to embody what it means to come out here and work everyday,” UNCP football coach Shane Richardson said. “B.J. Bunn’s work ethic and competitive spirit are far and above a lot of other guys. … I thought it was worthy of him to wear that number this year. He understands the expectations of what it’s all about.”
One of the top returners from last season’s 6-4 squad, Bunn is ready to step into responsibility on the team and fulfill a goal he set for himself.
“That was one of my goals coming into my senior year was to be a captain, to be looked at by my teammates as a leader and be a guy that represents the program,” he said.
Bunn is coming off a school-record setting season in 2015 with his 952 receiving yards, passing Te’vell Williams for most receiving yards in a single season.
Along with Bunn, Richardson sees potential in a team that returns its leading passer, rusher and tackler from a year ago with plenty of leadership to boot.
“I think it gives us great potential to be very, very good.” he said. “If those guys don’t utilize their influence and experience then it doesn’t really matter.
The leadership starts at the top with quarterback Patrick O’Brien, linebacker Elijah Williams, defensive lineman Marquin Hill and Bunn being named captains, with all but O’Brien being seniors. The area that the four have made an impact on this preseason is one area that Richardson feels was missing late last year.
After a 4-1 start to the season, UNCP lost three of its next four games before a win to close out the season. Through the rough stretch, the coaching staff was able to find out the glaring issue that wasn’t there to help prevent it.
“We talked about it earlier in the offseason that one of the reasons we lost four games last year was we didn’t have the leadership we needed in those moments,” Richardson said. “I really like our leadership on this team. We have the right idea of what that needs to look like.”
Bunn sees the four captains and various other leaders of the team as an extension of the coaching staff.
“I just feel like going into this year we have great leadership and the guys returning had such a big role last year that they demand a lot from the guys,” he said.
Playmaking on top of the leadership is what the four captains are expected to bring after standout seasons last fall.
“Those four guys have a great future as far as this season goes if they can play very well, and I really anticipate all four of them to play really well,” Richardson said.
On the defensive side of the ball last year, the secondary proved to be the weak point as the Braves’ opponents averaged 246 yardz per game through the air. Richardson expects junior Matthew Thomas-Quick to lead a defensive backfield that has a mixture of youth and experience from transfers.
To help take the pressure off the secondary, Williams feels it is the front seven’s job to help them out by preventing the run.
“In order to help out our secondary, we’ve got to take out the run,” said the senior linebacker. “If we can take out the run, we can help out our secondary by making teams one-dimensional. When they are one-dimensional, us linebackers can help out our DBs and everything.”
Williams is coming off a 66-tackle season that led the team in that category and has set goals for himself and the defense as a whole.
“Last year, we gave up too many points per game and I’m trying to reduce that by far. Our goal is to hold teams to under 10 points per game,” Williams said. “I’m trying to go for 100 tackles this season.”
Tyler Hinton, Ed Hopper and Hill will provide depth and leadership in the trenches for the defense.
With O’Brien starting his second year under center, the Braves’ offense features familiar weapons with Bunn at receiver and Rontonio Stanley in the backfield. After starting many freshmen and first-year starters on the line last year, Richardson expects to see growth and wisdom with his offensive front.
“I expect us to be able to run the ball,” he said.
Bunn finds himself 474 yards from breaking Williams’ school record for career receiving yards in a career and said he feels “better than ever” after surgery and rehab for a broken leg suffered in the season finale last year.
“I just feel like I can pick up where I left off in the last game,” he said.
Nine players, including Bunn, are left from UNCP’s last team that made the NCAA playoffs in 2013. After a coaching change, several recruiting classes and transfers coming in and leaving out, Bunn sees similarities in that team to this year’s squad.
“One of the goals for us is to get back to the playoffs and I feel pretty good about that,” he said. “That team we had that year, the coaches didn’t have to say much. The players came out here motivated and the leaders just demanded so much out of the guys. I feel like that same atmosphere is around here this year.”
Richardson was defensive coordinator of that team before then-head coach Pete Shinnick left in the following offseason.
The current coach of the Braves sees some characteristics that are similar, but is quick to say there is still work to be done this fall.
“There are certain qualities and dynamics that this team has that does remind me of that team,” he said. “It’s kind of something that everybody has in the back of their mind — to get to the playoffs — although we just don’t talk about that much. We want to try and focus on the details and the process of what that’s going to look like.
The road to reaching the postseason will be a treacherous one with games at Winston-Salem State, Tuskegee and Lenoir-Rhyne and a home game against Catawba. Tuskegee was ranked 17th and Catawba 22nd in the American Football Coaches Association preseason poll.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.