College Football: UNC-Pembroke players come home
By David Shaw
SALISBURY — It wasn’t a perfect homecoming for the four area players on UNC-Pembroke’s football team Saturday night.
But that didn’t stop Ben DeCelle, Cadarreus Mason, T.J. Johnson and Jonathan Efird from making themselves comfortable at Shuford Stadium.
“I was excited this whole week, preparing for this game,” said Johnson, an A.L. Brown graduate who caught two passes for the Braves in a 42-33 loss to Catawba. “It did feel like a homecoming, like old times.”
DeCelle, a 2009 East Rowan grad who started at wideout, had 27 friends and family members cheering him on from the visitors’ grandstand. His high school coach was on the Catawba sideline.
“It’s going to be a little weird coaching against him,” Brian Hinson, Catawba’s offensive line coach and East’s head coach from 2007-09, said before kickoff. “But I’m glad he’s there and I’m glad I’m here. You talk about ‘Slash’ — in high school he was it for us.”
Hinson actually helped DeCelle get recruited by UNC-Pembroke. The redshirt sophomore was a do-it-all performer for the Mustangs during the ‘07 playoff run and a 1-10 train wreck of a season a year later.
“Playing under Coach Hinson was awesome,” DeCelle said after making two receptions for 33 yards. “He’s such a great coach. I’ve got nothing but nice memories of those two seasons.”
DeCelle also received offers from Wingate and Newberry, but he was an ideal match for UNC-P and the program coach Pete Shinnick was piecing together.
“We wanted Ben DeCelle, number one because he’s a great person,” Shinnick said after the 3-2 Braves fought back from a 28-3 deficit. “He fits what we want in a recruit — a 4.0 student who’s a tough son-of-a-gun. We’ve got nine wide receivers who do whatever we ask them to do. Ben’s role is to keep us rolling.”
DeCelle — now a chiseled 5-foot-10, 195 pounds — has maintained a high GPA while double-majoring in political science and criminal justice. He said the trickiest adjustment to playing Division II football has been the size and speed of the game.
“I was able to outrun kids in high school,” he explained. “Now that I’m out, everybody’s got my speed and a lot of them have more. You have to spend more time working on technique.”
He used a clever move to snag a 24-yard pass across the middle from quarterback Luke Charles midway through the fourth quarter. It gave the Braves a first down on Catawba’s 34.
“They were playing man coverage and I had a safety about eight yards off me,” he said. “I just gave him a stick and it was wide open.”
So was Mason, a former all-state linebacker out of South Rowan who came off the bench and played like his supper depended on it. He recovered two Catawba fumbles in the fourth quarter and finished with four tackles, a forced fumble and a QB hurry.
“The linebacker coach (Shane Richardson) said he needed me to get in there, step up and make some plays,” Mason said, flashing a 150-watt smile. “He told me to do what I do at practice and be a warrior out there.”
Mason was a sideline-to-sideline patrolman, providing instant energy to a Pembroke defense that has yielded 169 points in five games. Each of his recoveries led to a TD and helped the Braves stay in the game.
“I didn’t care about the score,” he said. “I just wanted to do my part. We made it closer than we thought it would be.”
Johnson played a small-but-pivotal role on a night when Charles passed for a school-record 362 yards and four touchdowns. He reeled in a 23-yard throw in the second quarter and made a 9-yard grab in the fourth.
“Our quarterback was amazing tonight,” Johnson said. “He got it done.”
Efird, a junior quarterback from A.L. Brown, is waiting for his chance. He didn’t play last night and has seen only spot duty one season after transferring from Western Carolina.
“I’m the backup, but I’m always one snap away from playing,” he acknowledged. “I have to prepare all week like I’m going to start. I know my time is going to come — and when it does, I’ll be ready.”