ROCKINGHAM — What most programs consider the “second season” begins this Friday for first-year head coach Bryan Till and the Richmond football team, who are preparing for their first conference game of the season.
After evenly splitting their first four games, which were all versus non-conference opponents, Richmond opens Sandhills Athletic Conference play with a home game against a Purnell Swett team that’s off to its best start in eight years.
“Every (conference) game is important. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rivalry game or not,” Till said. “I just don’t think you can overstate how big of a deal it is to win every week…especially now that they’re using MaxPreps rankings (for seeding in the playoffs).”
The Raiders are well-rested heading into this week’s game because of their bye last week. They were able to sit idle after the “week of true game prep” while Purnell Swett suffered a 38-14 loss to Hoggard on Friday.
The break gave seniors Dante Miller (running back) and Jeren Stuart (free safety) time to pay more attention to their nagging injuries. Till says Miller’s ankle “is a lot better than it has been since Week 1” and Stuart — who sat out against Butler — is “about 85 percent” after spraining his ankle at Pine Forest.
“I’d still like to see some improvement there, but we got better. There’s been some really positive things,” Till said of the team’s health. “We’re just ecstatic about getting back on the field. We loved being out there with the boys last week, but you want to go out there and compete on a Friday night.”
Now that the hype of the new season has died down, and the team will be halfway through the regular season after Friday, Richmond is no longer that inexperienced team Till talked about before the start of the season.
Its defensive secondary may have undergone many changes, as senior cornerback Tony McRae is the only Raider who still lines up at the same position he played during summer practices, but that unit is expected to display their growth.
“I think, now, we’re starting to get a better understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing defensively,” Till said.
And the same thing goes for the offensive unit, although it hasn’t seen as much change. Freshman quarterback Caleb Hood has progressed throughout his first four games and is being counted on to continue his trend upward.
“I don’t think he’s reached his ceiling or anything, but he’s at a point now where the varsity games shouldn’t shock him. He’s been there before and has played two really good teams at home,” Till added.
Purnell Swett (3-1) is coming into Raider Stadium looking to defeat Richmond for the first time since 1994. The visiting team will be led by senior quarterback Luke Oxendine, senior running back Aldrique Thompson, junior wideout Chandler Brayboy and what Till dubbed the biggest offensive line they’ll play all season.
The Rams will also be aggressive in their approach on defense, as senior defensive tackle Kalan Locklear continues to provide a spark on the front line.
“They’ve got some big-time kids up there — some big playmakers. So we’re preparing for another dog fight,” Till explained. “It’s typical Swett, a hard-nosed football team. They know blue-collar work over there in Pembroke, and they get after it.”
Richmond (2-2) is still looking for its first home win of the season after falling to Wake Forest and Butler in Weeks 2 and 4, respectively. It fed off the home crowd’s energy during the second-half comeback a couple of weeks ago and hopes to see that kind of turnout and enthusiasm this time around.
“I know we’re 0-2 the first two home games, but I think our folks here realize those were two good football teams,” Till said. “We’re still trending upwards right now, so we’d love to have a big crowd on Friday. It’ll be a big thing for our kids.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. at 910-817-2673 and follow the sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.