PEMBROKE — Many of the expected returners and leaders for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team stood and watched from the sidelines and atop the visitor bleachers of Grace P. Johnson Stadium that overlook the practice field for the first spring practice on Thursday.
For the second spring practice season in a row, the director of UNCP’s offense was not on the field as quarterback Reggie Pinner was one of the Braves who is either hurt or sitting out this spring for disciplinary issues. Last spring it was quarterback Patrick O’Brien who was out before taking over the offense in the fall.
Also on the sidelines was rising junior linebacker Garrett Barnett, one of the top returners on the defensive side of the ball. With all the absences, coach Shane Richardson hopes spring practice breeds competition with the younger players looking for playing time.
“We’re just working the young guys and we’re going to make sure they get plenty of reps in,” he said. “A lot of guys have got to improve out there and it’s a great opportunity for a lot of guys to step up and see what they can do.”
The Braves are coming off a program-best season on the gridiron that included a 10-win season for the first time in program history and their first NCAA playoff win. The energy and momentum coming off a historic run has bled over from workouts in the winter and now back onto the practice field.
“I was pleasantly surprised with just how we looked and how our attitude was,” Richardson said. “We went through eight and a half weeks of hard training and it got to be a grind and I think they kind of saw the light at the end of the tunnel to know that they finally get to go on the field and actually do football stuff.”
This fall the Braves are expected to return 12 starters, six on both offense and defense. O’Brien was expected to return to play quarterback in the fall with one semester of eligibility left, but he and the program parted ways, leading to a void that Pinner is expected to take with some competition from the young crop of passers on the roster. O’Brien passed for 2,992 yards while completing 62 percent of his passes and tossing 22 touchdowns last year.
Fatigue and physical unpreparedness hit the team hard at the start of fall camp last year, and Richardson sees this 15-practice session as a way to instill the right mindset going into the summer.
“We’re just really training a good culture and atmosphere of how we do things,” he said. “I think we’ve got them in a great understanding of the accountability and the discipline, and what they should look like. They know the expectations and I think it would be good to take the momentum that we have from training this spring and take it with them into the summer months and come back in August ready to go again.”
Spring practice wraps up with the spring game, which serves as the 15th practice, on April 13.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.