PEMBROKE — Since its rebirth in 2007, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team has prided itself on being a program that embodies a particular spirit.
Coach Shane Richardson refers to it as: The Spirit of the Brave.
“It’s our foundation,” said Richardson, who has been with the program since its renewal. “It encompasses everything we believe in as a program.”
“It’s more about how we play, not who we play. Being excellent all the time. I want our foundation to be strong.”
As he begins his second season as the head man on the sidelines for the Braves, Richardson is hopeful his squad can get that “spirit” back after a disappointing 2-8 season in 2014.
In his first seven seasons with UNCP as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Richardson was a part of four seasons with a least eight victories and two playoff appearances.
The Braves hope to return to that level of prominence in 2015.
“I think the mentality of the program needed to get back to the tradition,” Richardson said.
“The 2-8 season really opened our guys’ eyes and kind of lit a fire to burn some hunger into them.”
That burning passion to get better took form when the 2014 season ended.
“This offseason really produced a lot of great work ethic — getting back to fundamentals of what we do very well,” Richardson said. “It’s going to take shape a little better this fall.”
As a redshirt senior, Kendall Jacobs is familiar with the spirit that breeds success.
For Jacobs, it embodies “hard-working, hard-nosed, blue-collar guys.”
“Playing hard, playing fast and playing the best we can as a family,” said Jacobs, the only returner among UNCP’s top 10 tacklers from last season. “As brothers, it’s knowing what each guy is supposed to do.”
The journey back to prominence for the proud program begins Thursday night when the Braves open the season at Grace P. Johnson Stadium against 20th-ranked Winston-Salem State as part of Military Appreciation Night.
For Richardson, the turnaround comes from accountability within the program.
“As a coaching staff we’ve tried to implement a level of accountability — guys understanding that each individual’s responsibility was to each other,” he said.
“We really focused on leadership (this offseason), trying to cultivate leaders from within the team that would help hold other guys accountable.”
“It’s starting to take shape.”
Looking for vast improvements on both sides of the ball, Richardson said four guys have come to the “top of the leadership group” heading into the season.
Among those is quarterback Patrick O’Brien, a redshirt junior who came to UNCP as a freshman, transferred to UNC-Charlotte and came back to Pembroke to end his college career where it started.
“I was set on coming back,” O’Brien said. “It felt more like home than anything.”
As for his leadership, O’Brien said it starts with words that lead to action on the field.
“I’m just trying to lead by example every day,” he said. “Showing everybody to practice what you preach. It’s my time to take the reigns and really step up. It means everything to me. I always wanted to be a starting quarterback in college.”
One of O’Brien’s top targets, wideout John Rich, also received high praise from Richardson as an offensive leader.
“Pat and John have really stepped up in a great way to lead,” Richardson said. “Their voices, their maturity, their perspective on what it’s supposed to look like…it’s been huge.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Jacobs and senior defensive lineman Mike Keck are filling the leadership role.
“Those guys really know how to do things the right way,” Richardson said of the defensive duo. “Our guys look to them for their example, but there are certainly others that are capable (leaders) as well.”
Offensively, the Braves struggled last season, averaging 12 points per game. But with added experience and a group of newcomers, Richardson is confident the scoreboard will look at a lot different this season.
“I think last year we dealt with a lot of transition,” he said. “We were really young on the offensive side of the ball.”
It starts with the experience of O’Brien under center.
“Pat brings a great ability to lead and manage the team on offense,” Richardson said. “He brings a lot of attributes you want in a quarterback. The offense will be a lot more mature. The guys have confidence in Pat as a leader. I think we can bring stability to that side of the ball.”
But as much as Richardson emphasized the importance of stability on offense, defense is still at the forefront of his mind.
“On defense we talk about the motto of ‘Code Black,’” said Richardson, whose team gave up nearly 22 points per contest last season.
“Whether you’re right or wrong, you can always play defense well if you play your hardest, play your fastest and play together. Of course we want them to know their assignments, but we want total effort out of everyone.
“We want relentless hustle and pursuit. We want tremendous enthusiasm on the defensive side of the ball. If you have those things, you can be successful, even if you’re missing some pieces.”
Richardson said the defensive group is “a lot different than last year.” Joining Jacobs in the secondary will be veterans Mike Lawrence and Tirek Holloway, with Keck anchoring the front seven.
“We’ve got to find what units are working with each other,” Richardson said.
“We’ve got to try to continue to build a mentality into them.”
After signing what Richardson called “a phenomenal (recruiting) class,” the Braves will look to a some new faces to help fill voids at key positions on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got some guys that have really stepped up to the plate,” Richardson said.
“I would consider us a young team. I didn’t know how well these incoming freshman would respond, but they’ve responded very well.”
Among those newcomers is a trio of offensive linemen in Jared Johnson, a 6-foot-4 275-pounder, Joe Legg, at 6-foot-4 310 pounds and Daniel Butler, a 6-foot-2 310-pounder.
Running back Demontay Rhem, an East Wake product, has also impressed thus far in practice.
“Demontay really has a unique ability to be an all-purpose back,” Richardson said.
“He’s big, fast, strong…now we’ve just got to get him used to the college speed.”
Defensively, Richardson highlighted linemen Tajai Liles and Nate London as players to watch in the trenches, with Jonas Johnson joining a veteran secondary.
He was also quick to point out the addition of Ben Utter, a freshman kicker and punter from Scotland County.
“Those guys have a real chance to step up for us,” he said. “I think all of them will be exciting to watch and they’ll have great futures here.”
Jacobs has enjoyed mentoring the young guys, acknowledging the impact it had on him as a young player.
“I’ve seen great leaders and what they can do for teams,” he said. “This team is a little younger than last season so guys are more open and eager to learn. We’re buying in faster this year. I’m really impressed.”
“I just want to do the best job I can to help the team.”
As for the spirit of what he hopes to provide Braves fans with this season, Richardson said a few things come to mind.
“I’d like our team to really be able to exude being fundamentally sound,” he said. “I’d like people to see a team that plays hard until the whistle blows and never gives up. A team that is disciplined, tough, but also has class, character and handles themselves well on and off the field.
“A team they can be proud of.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.