August 28th, 2021 8:00am
Two of the SAC’s top programs, both of whom are ranked in the D2Football.com preseason top 25, have new coaching staffs. After two remarkable seasons in Hickory, Drew Cronic left Lenoir-Rhyne for an opportunity at Division I Mercer. Mike Jacobs took over the job in December, 2019 and is entering his first full season with the program. Jacobs was previously the head coach at Notre Dame College for four seasons, compiling a 42-8 record, two conference championships and a handful of playoff wins. At Carson-Newman, Mike Clowney was elevated to head coach following the retirement of Mike Turner. Clowney is a SAC hall of famer for his playing career at Carson-Newman and has spent the majority of his 25-year coaching career with the Eagles. Also in coaching news, Bobby Lamb was named the first head coach of Anderson’s new football program. Anderson won’t be on the field until 2024 but Lamb, previously head coach at Furman and Mercer, is a perfect fit for Anderson and a big addition to the SAC coaching fraternity. More on Anderson shortly.
From a player standpoint, there has been a lot of turnover all around college football since the end of 2019. To begin with, some athletes have graduated and opted to move on to the next phase of life, with eligibility remaining. We must remember that in Division II, very few athletes are on full scholarship so there is a significant cost to prolonging student life if graduated studies are not part of your plan. The transfer portal has been the busiest it’s ever been, partly due to the NCAA extending eligibility for all athletes because of the lost 2020 season. That was unquestionably the right thing to do, but when adding in the graduating high school class of 2021, it has created a surplus of eligible athletes but no increase in available scholarships or roster spots. That has created a lot of movement in all levels of college football and it may take another year or two for that to level out. It’s a very complicated time in college athletics.
SAC expansion on the horizon
Over the next three years, the SAC will add as many as four members for football. This growth began in late 2019 with SAC member Anderson University announcing the launch of a new football program. Anderson will not play its first game until fall, 2024, but the program is starting to take shape. As mentioned, a head coach is now in place and Anderson is also in the early stages of facility enhancements. This will include construction of a new football field house and additions to the existing field to support football gamedays.
In late 2020, the SAC announced that Emory & Henry, currently a member of the ODAC in Division III, will reclassify to Division II as a full member of the SAC. E&H, which is located in Emory, VA, will play a Division III schedule this fall and join the SAC in July, 2022.
Most recently, the SAC announced that new Division II programs Barton and Erskine will join the SAC as associate members for football beginning in 2022. Both are currently full members of Conference Carolinas, which does not sponsor football.
Divisional play coming in 2022
The addition of Emory & Henry and inclusion of Barton and Erskine will boost football membership to 12. This will allow the SAC to form two divisions for football, which is good for scheduling, logistics and expenses. Oh, and a conference championship game! Details on the divisions and conference championship are still to come, but this is all positive news for the SAC.
The Barton and Erskine arrangement is currently for 2022 and 2023. By 2024 Anderson will be the SAC’s 11th full member for football. I suspect the members will want to have an even number of programs, and for divisional play, more is better. It will be interesting to see where this goes because there are many possibilities that could involve adding more full members, continuing associate member agreements or just going forward with the 11 projected members in ‘24. This is just me dart-boarding, but I don’t think the league is done growing. We’ll leave that for now and revisit in the off season.
Enough with the fluff, here is a look at the challengers for the 2021 SAC Championship
1. Lenoir-Rhyne Bears
Head coach: Mike Jacobs (1st year)
Spring Record: 3-1
2019 Record: 13-1, 8-0 (SAC Champions, NCAA playoffs – quarterfinals)
Top returning players
WR Dareke Young, S Eric Jackson, WR Ryan Carter, QB Grayson Willingham, K Chase Allbaugh, C Blake Jefferson, DT Amari Houston, DT Dan Louba, RB Caine Crews, S Malik Taylor
Lenoir-Rhyne’s 20 game SAC winning streak came to an end on April 10 when the Bears lost at home to Tusculum in the first ever SAC Championship game. Despite the loss, it is hard to overlook the Bears as the preseason favorites to win another title. There has been a lot of talent turnover since the end of the last full season but based on performances in the spring, the new names and faces in the starting lineup will quickly become familiar. And don’t mistake this for a rebuilding year. There is a lot of All-Conference talent on the roster.
Offensively it begins with QB Grayson Willingham who enters his third full season as a starter. Willingham is already in the top three in most of LR’s career passing records and is the record holder in passing touchdowns…by a margin of 21. His number one returning target is senior NFL prospect Dareke Young who has been equally deadly as a wide receiver and ball carrier in his previous three seasons, with 12 career receiving touchdowns and 8 rushing touchdowns. Young played in only two of the spring contests which opened the door for Deondre Lester and Ryan Carter to step up. Both should be ready for bigger roles this fall.
The backfield is young due to graduations and transfers, which might have been a concern had we not seen freshman Dwayne McGee in the spring. McGee was one of the standout newcomers with 128 rushing yards per game. He did the bulk of the work in the four-game schedule so the Bears will need to work out the depth chart.
The spring was also a great workout for the offensive line. The Bears started the same five linemen in all four games, with three of those players made their first career starts. Around them, senior Ian Brinson is heading into his third year as a starter and Blake Jefferson started most of 2019 at the Center position. Finding depth among the underclassmen will be important but the starting lineup appears to be established. Adding to the strength of the offense is kicker Chase Albaugh, who set a Division II record in 2019 for most PATs in a season without a miss by hitting all 76 attempts.
The defense has a lot of new names in the starting lineup, but if their performance in the spring is a fair representation, this unit won’t miss a beat. The Bears have two of the best defensive linemen in the SAC in Dan Louba and Amari Houston. Louba is a two-time first team All-SAC selection and will be one of the top returning defensive linemen in the country. The Bears are a little shy on experience at the linebacker positions but freshmen Jon Ross Maye and Percy King were standouts in the spring. Maye led the team in tackles and King was as impressive as any defensive newcomer I saw in the spring season. Eric Jackson leads the secondary and I expect him to be a strong candidate for the SAC’s defensive player of the year by the end of the season.
Bottom line: A lot of things have changed since the Bears won back to back SAC titles in 2018 and 2019, but this is still the most talented looking roster in the league.
Schedule notes: The schedule is tough. The Bears play only four at home and six on the road. Included in the road schedule are stops at Carson-Newman, Wingate and Newberry
2. Wingate Bulldogs
Head coach: Joe Reich (20th season)
Spring Record: 2-2
2019 Record: 10-2, 7-1 (NCAA playoffs)
Top returning players: DB Matthew Ellis-White, QB Shaw Crocker, LB Kendrick Hicks, RB Nijere Peoples, WR Kamal Desor, K McLean Robertson, OL Andrew Strickland, OL Hunter Jolly, OL Xavier Kelly, TE Ryder Martin, DL DJ Horn, DL Jordan Anderson
Wingate is in the thick of the most successful era in program history. Since 2016, no SAC team has won more games overall or in conference play. Past success doesn’t mean future wins, but the standard has been set and expectations remain very high.
The spring wasn’t really up to par for the Bulldogs but they got what they needed out of the spring schedule. The defense needed game experience, not so much as individuals but as a unit. They lost a lot to graduation following 2019 but there is a lot of experience among the players slotting into new starting positions. LB Kendrick Hicks stepped up as a leader and a productive tackler, leading the team in total and solo tackles. Hicks is heading into his fourth full season with the program and has appeared in 37 contests. Jesiah Carlton is also very experienced and has played in every game since 2018. The defensive line has a host of seniors in Jordan Anderson, DJ Horn, Ricky Smith, and Sirod Cook. Anderson should be among the best interior linemen in the SAC and as I’ve said in this space many times, I really like having veteran upper classmen in the defensive line rotation. The secondary is led by one of the team’s most proven players in graduate Matthew Ellis-White. Daquan Mosely is entering his junior year but the spring was his first opportunity to get on the field. He led all defensive backs in tackles and pass breakups so watch for him this fall.
Offensively, I didn’t really take much away from the spring season. The team was significantly down on numbers due to injuries in the O-line and a few players deciding to sit out until fall. They will be back to full strength with a veteran O-line that should be best in the SAC. The Bulldogs should have at least three linemen that will be solid candidates for post season honors. The group is anchored by Andrew Strickland, one of the top linemen in the SAC and one of only three D2 players to be named an All-American athletically and academically. Hunter Jolly and Xavier Kelly are also back as graduate students. The running back room will be full again with the return of Nijere Peoples, who did not play in the spring. Peoples is one of the best running backs in the league and his return will make a huge difference for an offence that was a little inconsistent in the spring.
The receiving corps needs to establish its starting rotation as four of the team’s top five receivers from 2019 have moved on. Redshirt senior and team captain Shaw Crocker is back under center. The All-SAC performer is set for his third full season as a starter. Crocker has also been named to the Commissioner’s Honor Roll in each of his academic years.
Bottom line: Wingate should be very good at the line scrimmage on both sides of the ball and that can take them pretty far. The offense has to be more consistent and show that it can step up in big games.
Schedule notes: The schedule sets up nicely. Four of the first five games are at home, followed by a three-week road stretch against teams from the bottom half of the 2019 standings.
3. Carson-Newman Eagles
Head coach: Mike Clowney (1st season)
Spring Record: 1-0
2019 Record: 9-3, 6-2 (NCAA playoffs - 2nd round)
Key returning players
DB Damarkus Jones, WR Braxton Westfield , WR Romain Kelly, LB Rondrow Peebles, RB Troy Dendy, LB Daniel Dixon-Brooks, K Nate Craft, DL Wycleff Phanor, DL Nick Owens
No team teased us more in the spring than Carson-Newman did. Why do I say they teased us? Because we saw a different looking offense in their lone contest at UVa-Wise. An offense I was very curious to see more of, but, following injuries and losses to COVID tracing, the Eagles opted to cancel the balance of the season, leaving us with just a one game sample size.
To give you some perspective, Carson-Newman threw 38 passes in the win at UVa-Wise. That was the most attempts in a single game since 1978. To help ignite the passing game, the Eagles turned to Junior QB Trey Mitchell, a transfer from East Tennessee State with 11 division I starts on his resume. Mitchell connected on just 50% of his attempts but averaged nearly 24 yards per completion. The Eagles still showed the traditional veer offense with Tyler Thackerson under center, but Thackerson has since graduated and departed the program.
If they are in fact moving towards a more modern offense, the receiving corps will command a lot of attention. Braxton Westfield is back after proving himself as a big play threat in 2019. In his only season of college football to date, Westfield was a first team All-SAC receiver. Partnering him, watch for Romain Kelly to have a breakout season. Kelly has been a steady receiver for two seasons and could be poised for a major breakthrough with more touches potentially coming his way. The Eagles also have high hopes for senior transfer Gorel Soumare who appeared in 39 games at Division I Austin Peay. In total there are 15 wide receivers on the roster including some transfers that have played in passing offenses, so there will be a lot of competition for playing time. Troy Dendy should be the featured running back and contribute in the passing game as well. There will be competition for reps behind Dendy, but expect to see a lot of Ryan McCarthy, a senior transfer with starting experience at New Haven.
The Eagle defense is usually strong but showed some areas they need to work on following UVa-Wise’s 600 yard performance in the spring. They’ll be well established at linebacker with several upper classmen returning, led by All-SAC player Rondrow Peebles and Daniel Dixon-Brooks. Nearly two dozen players will be competing for reps in the defensive line rotation but Wycleff Phanor, with more than 30 game appearances, Nick Owens and Brandon Tiassum (who began his career at Notre Dame) should have starting spots nailed down. The secondary will be young. Most of the contributors in the lone spring game at UVa-Wise were seeing their first live action with the Eagles.
Bottom line: I said Lenoir-Rhyne has the most talented team, but Carson-Newman may prove me wrong. They lost 25 seniors to graduation following 2019 but some very experienced transfer talent has joined the program since then.
Schedule notes: The season opener at home against West Georgia will be one of the premier matches up in the Division II week one schedule. Later in the season, the Eagles get Wingate and Lenoir-Rhyne at home.
4. Newberry Wolves
Head coach: Todd Knight (12th season)
Spring Record: 5-1
2019 Record: 5-6, 4-4
Key returning players
QB Dre Harris, WR Bobby Irby, WR Bryson Woodruff, RB Mario Anderson, OL Lewis Johnson, Jr, OL Deshun Tate, DB Anthony Blue DL Ty Kelly, LB Alex Smith, LB Nick Yearwood, DB David Vereen,
The spring season was met with mixed enthusiasm among the teams that played but Newberry was unquestionably one of the programs that embraced the opportunity and made the most of it. The Wolves won more games (5) than any SAC team, came within one play of competing in the championship game and defeated the Tusculum team that went on to win the title. The success of the spring campaign delivered some much-needed momentum for a program that has endured three straight losing seasons since winning the SAC in 2016.
There were a lot factors leading to the success of the spring, but it starts with stability and production from the quarterback position. The Wolves had a recent history of shuffling quarterbacks in and out of the lineup but that was not the case in the spring. Dre Harris took nearly all of the meaningful snaps and delivered with a 64% completion percentage as well as 310 rushing yards. His improv skills and ability to extend plays were on full display in the win at Catawba and the OT loss to LR. It helped to have a strong rushing threat out of the backfield with Mario Anderson and Catriez Cook both averaging over 5.5 yards per carry. They’ll operate behind an offensive line that has a lot of starting experience across all five positions. The group is led by Deshun Tate and Lewis Johnson, Jr. heading into their third full seasons of starting. The receiving corps could become the deepest in the SAC. Deshun Kitchings led the team in receptions and yards in 2019. He’s back along with veterans Bobby Irby and Bryson Woodruff. Irby is especially dangerous in the open field on receiver screens. Junior Andre Banks is also in the mix after establishing himself as a big play threat. He averaged nearly 25 yards per catch in the spring.
The defense, which is traditionally strong at Newberry was very good in the spring. The Linebackers will be worth watching with Alex Smith, Nick Yearwood and Kegan Crowell all expected to be back. Each had more than 20 solo tackles in the six game spring season. The secondary has All-SAC talent in David Vereen and Anthony Blue. Vereen was a second team All-SAC selection in 2018 but missed 2019 due to injury. The defensive line has a very good starting lineup with Ty Kelly, Devante Gambrell and Ty’ran Dixon. They need to find depth but if that comes together, the Wolves will have a very good defense.
Bottom line: It’s been a few years since Newberry was a real threat for the conference title. A more consistent offense will change that and this year’s team has the right pieces in place.
Schedule notes: Newberry will have to find mid-season form early. After the opener at Barton, the Wolves have North Greenville, Lenoir-Rhyne and Tusculum in consecutive weeks.
5. Tusculum Pioneers
Head coach: Jerry Odom (5th year)
Spring Record: 4-1 (SAC Champions)
2019 Record: 5-6,4-4
Roster (not available)
Key returning players
RB Thurlow Wilkins, WR Justice Parham, WR Tory Ponder, WR AJ Belanger, DB Nick Jackson, LB Jackson Cauthen, K Eli Shepherd, C Bailey Herring, OL Christrian Coulter, DL Xavier Clemmons
If any program took advantage of the opportunity to compete in the spring, it was Tusculum. The Pioneers had not had a winning season since 2014 so an opportunity to come out of the four or five game spring with a winning record meant something, and would give them much needed momentum. On top of that, they had a new offensive coordinator calling plays and had shocked Division II by landing Harlon Hill finalist and national champion transfer Rogan Wells from Valdosta State. Working out kinks with those new components would be a great set up for the fall. The result was not only a winning season but a victory in the first ever SAC championship game.
That win had a lot eyes looking at Tusculum as a favorite for the SAC title in the upcoming fall season. But if the Pioneers are going to challenge again, they’ll have to prove that their championship team was built around more than a standout quarterback. Because Rogan Wells left Tusculum nearly as quickly as he came. Earlier this summer, Wells’ former coach at Valdosta State, Kerwin Bell, landed the head coaching job at Western Carolina. Shortly after, Bell’s son Kade who was the offensive coordinator at Tusculum, left to join the WCU staff. Those moves opened the door for Wells to make the jump to Division I that he was probably looking for (and deserved) when he left Valdosta State. Unfortunately, the migrations from Greenville to Cullowhee did not end with Bell and Wells. Leading running back TJ Jones, receiver Raphael Williams and the Pioneers ‘ best defensive player, Ivan Hogans, are also in camp at WCU.
So what does all this mean for Tusculum’s 2021 prospects? They will be a strong defensive team again, as they usually are. Losing Hogans’ productivity hurts, but they’re solid at linebacker with Jackson Cauthen and John Smith. The defensive line is deep and if you’ve been reading my columns for the past few years, you know how much I like defensive line depth. Xavier Clemmons, Logan Cowart and Amaad Gandy have all been in the program for several years and they have a trio of big bodies from the 2019 recruiting class that saw a lot of reps in the spring. This unity played really well and if the younger players continue to mature, Tusculum could have a very dominant defensive line.
Offensively, they learned in the spring that they have a lot of talented players. Rogan Wells’ passing yards also equal receiving yards and there were a lot of players that contributed. Tory Ponder, AJ Belanger and Derrick Wright are all very experienced and freshman Tyler Ajiero stood out in the spring. Perhaps most importantly, VSU transfer Justice Parham, we led all receivers in the spring, will be back. The offensive line is mostly in-tact, which will be a huge asset for whoever steps in at quarterback. There will be an intense battle for the job among three players that have started games in the SAC. It appears Ivan Corbin, a former All-SAC player at Limestone, is expected to be the week one starter. Corbin played for Limestone in 2016 and 2017, followed by two years in the Georgia Southern program.
Bottom line: It might be tempting to discard the success of the spring because a lot has changed since then, but they still have more talent on offense than they’ve had in recent years and the defense is always good.
Schedule notes: Tusculum opens the season with St. Augustine’s, Chowan and Limestone. That presents an opportunity for a good start to the year before a three week stretch against Newberry, Wingate and Lenoir-Rhyne.
6. Limestone Saints
Head coach: Brian Turk (2rd season)
2020-21 Record: 1-3
2019 Record: 3-8, 2-6
Key returning players
RB Jerko’ya Patton, QB Dustin Noller, WR Juwan Scott, WR Quay Brown, K/P Austin Kemp, DB Kris Williams, LB Will Kelly, DL Zane Boozer
The Saints are still in building mode as they work towards earning the program’s first winning season and they worked hard to maximize their opportunities in the spring. Limestone attempted to schedule as many as eight games, but ultimately ended with four. Job number one for the spring was to determine the depth chart at quarterback. Veteran starter DJ Phillips left the team following the 2019 season and back up Alec Morton graduated in May, leaving the spot open for competition. The starting nod went to freshman Dustin Noller. In his first four college appearances, Noller was productive, passing for 764 yards and nine touchdowns. He needs to work on consistency and bring the completion percentage up, but he was smart with the ball and showed a lot of big play potential. Watch for him to take big strides this fall. He has a lot of skill talent around him in veteran RB Jerko’ya Patten and reliable receivers Juwan Scott, Quay Brown and Cedric Smith.
Defensive end Zane Boozer was a standout in the spring, racking up a handful of TFL and sacks in just four games. His growth will be exciting to watch. He contributed as a freshman in 2019 and now has more than two full years of college weight training and could emerge as one of the more dominant linemen in the SAC. The back half of the defense looks very strong and the Saints should have depth that they have lacked in past seasons. Will Kelly, Dedric Lewis and Coastal Carolina transfer Jaiden Clayton all saw a significant amount of reps at linebacker in the spring and veteran D’Mecko Pryor is back after seeing very limited action. The secondary gained a lot of experience as well, with Kris Williams, Jermiah Bogan and Ray’Quan Ryant all returning to staring positions.
Bottom line: I really like what Limestone has at the offensive skill positions. Noller is young and while has a lot to work on, the spring experience was just what he needed heading into a full season. There is a lot of talent around him and the defense has a lot to work with in the secondary and the linebacker spots. A lot will come down to line play on both sides of the ball. If they can establish some depth in the defensive front and just be solid in the O line, I think they can have a pretty good team this year.
Schedule notes: The opener at North Greenville will be a good test and tell us a lot about this team.
7. UVa-Wise Highland Cavaliers
Head coach: Dane Damron (8th season)
Spring Record: 1-2
2019 Record: 2-9, 1-7
Key returning players
QB Lendon Redwine, WR Caleb Martin, WR Dorien Goddard, TE Keishon Jarrett, OL Daric Cotman, OL Kyle Kruszewski, DL Chavon Fields, DL Rondre Knowles-Tener, DB Logan Jenkins
Prior to the spring season, head coach Dane Damron said his primary goal was to see the players compete. Wins and losses mattered, but the focus was on being better prepared for the fall season heading into the program’s second year in the SAC. 2019 was a harsh introduction and Damron knew they needed to improve at the line of scrimmage to compete with the top half of the league. To that end, the Cavaliers emphasized continuity and depth. For the first time in a long time, they will head into week one with a solid group of linemen that have played together and, have added depth with junior college transfers.
The results have been encouraging. In three spring games, they made some big strides forward offensively. They still need to work on the rushing attack, but the passing game which had been a weakness for a few years, was significantly better than what we saw in 2019. The Cavs split time at quarterback but Lendon Redwine separated himself from the competition and will be the undisputed starter in fall camp. WR Caleb Martin and TE Keishon Jarrett showed play making ability and the coaching staff is very high on UVA transfer Dorian Goddard.
Defense has historically been a strength for the Cavs but they do have a lot of competition for starting positions. The interior line will be the strength of the unit with veterans Chavon Fields, Rondre Knowles-Tener and Joel Burgess returning. They need to work out the rotation at defensive end and linebacker. The secondary will be young but Logan Jenkins has staring experience and freshman Markel Dailey was a leading tackler in the spring.
Bottom line: It’s unusual for UVa-Wise to have more question marks on defense than offense, but that’s not a bad situation for this program. They have an established defensive system that should help rebuild the depth chart. Having some returning experience and production on offense is a huge asset. Establishing the defensive front rotations will be critical for camp and they really need someone to step up as the number rusher.
Schedule notes: The Cavs have an opportunity to open some eyes with a three game home stretch in weeks four through six with Carson-Newman, Lenoir-Rhyne and Newberry coming to town.
8. Mars Hill Lions
Head coach: Tim Clifton (28th year)
Spring Record: 1-2
2019 Record: 5-6, 4-4
Key returning players
RB Christopher Roberts, QB Jimmy Urzua, LB Dexter Fitzpatrick, DB Trey Giles, RB Malike Prescott, LB Tyson Daniels, TE Ty Snelson, OL Seth Branham, WR Gilbert Johnson, DL Earl Adams
If there is one thing that has been consistent at Mars Hill over the past several years, it’s offensive production. The Mountain Lions have been able to move the ball with an efficient passing game, sparked by a host of speedy pass catchers that were really good at finding open space. But if Mars Hill is going to earn its first winning season since 2015, they will need a lot of new talent to emerge. Nearly all of the receiver that led the team in 2019 are gone. TE Ty Snelson is the team’s leading returning receiver but the Lions will need to work out the depth chart at wideout. They will be depending on seniors Marquis Williams and CJ Thompson to step up as starters and both played well in the short spring season. Behind them, there will be a lot of underclassmen competing for reps.
The good news for offense is that they will have an experienced leader at quarterback with Jimmy Urzua who enters his fourth year in the program and second full season as a starter. Christopher Roberts was a solid producer last fall at running back and a primary weapon in the spring. Nearly everyone behind Roberts is a freshman, so the Lions will need a lot from him as they work out any kinks with the revamped receiving corps.
On the defensive side the ball, the Lions may have the deepest defensive line they’ve had in quite a while. They have several big, run-stopping bodies in Earl Adams, Da’Shawn Goings, Tyler Sims and RJ Acevedo. Behind them is a host of under classmen, including several with game experience. If this group can develop into a robust two-deep, its possible for Mars Hill to have the best defense they’ve had in a long time. The linebacking unit returns experience in 2019 SAC freshman of the year Dexter Fitzpatrick, Senior Tyson Daniels and sophomore Landon Honeyutt, who had an outstanding spring season leading the team in tackles, TFL, and sacks. Senior Trey Giles is a standout in the secondary but the Lions have some work to do to establish the starting lineup around him.
Bottom line: The Lions could have the best defense they’ve had in a long time but the offense has to come a long way in a short time.
Scheduling notes: The first three games of the season are at home against Chowan, UVL and UVa-Wise. The path to a winning season begins there.
9. Catawba Indians
Head coach: Curtis Walker (9th season)
2020-21 Record: 0-2
2019 Record: 1-10, 0-8
Key returning players
QB Ken Avent, WR Kolby Easley, WR Will Sheehan, LB Jeremiah Ferguson, DL Robert Cherry, DB Jordan Gregg, DL Joe Camara, OL Demetrius Blackwell, OL Darius Jackson
By the time the season kicks off on September 4, it will have been nearly two full calendar years since Catawba’s most recent victory. Obviously that’s largely due to the cancellation of the 2020 fall season, but still a harsh reality for a program with a proud tradition. The Indians need results this fall more than any other team in the SAC.
Catawba played only twice in the spring and those games delivered a mix of familiar struggles but also some encouraging signs of growth. The downside was that the offense struggled with inconsistency in the passing game and lack of production from the backfield. The good news was that QB Ken Avent returned after missing all of 2019 with an injury. Avent’s passing accuracy was a little rusty but he was throwing to a group of receivers he’d never played with before and countered those struggles with some eye-popping improvisation. In his return to action against Newberry, he ran for over 100 yards and all three of Catawba’s touchdowns in leading the Indians back from a 21 point deficit.
The follow up game at Wingate was dreadful but let’s go back to that Newberry game for a moment. Catawba lost in the final seconds but they did rally from a 21-0 halftime hole to come within a play of snatching victory. They had a choice to make at halftime and they chose to compete. A loss is a loss but that was a character building game and when you’re trying to rebuild, that’s definitely something to work with.
Catawba should be a more mature team in 2021 but will still be short on experience compared to the top half of the league. They have good leadership at all three levels on defense with Robert Cherry, Jeremiah Ferguson and Jordan Gregg but there is a lot of work to do to fill out the lineup around them. Offensively, Avent brings a lot to the table but they need a rushing threat out of the backfield. The offensive line will be young in the two-deep but three-year starter Demetrius Blackwell is back after missing 2019 due to injury. There is some promising talent at the receiver position with Kolby Easley, Dominic Burnham and Will Sheehan but they must get their hands on the ball to make an impact.
Bottom line: Nobody likes the term “rebuilding year” but that’s most likely what this season will be.
Schedule notes: For a team in need or momentum, playing the first three games at home helps. Two of those games are against start-ups Erskine and Barton. Those are must-win games if they are going to have a shot at winning season.
Barton and Erskine will not officially join the SAC as associate members for football until 2022, but they’ll be prevalent in the schedule this season as well. There is still a lot we don’t know heading into the fall but we’ll be watching both programs closely throughout the year in preparation for their inclusion in the SAC schedule in 2022 and 2023.
Head coach: Chip Hester (1st season)
Spring Record: 0-4
Barton will not officially join the SAC as an associate member for football until next year, but that’s just a formality. Barton is very much a part of the SAC footprint this fall as they will play all nine of the current SAC members.
The Bulldogs’ program may be new, but head coach Chip Hester is no stranger in the South Atlantic Conference. Hester spent 18 years on the staff at Catawba including 11 as head coach (2002-2012). Nearly his entire football career has been in the North Carolina, making him a good fit for this new era of Barton football.
It’s nearly impossible to gauge expectations for a first-year program. The spring season did give us a glimpse of what they have but there are still a lot of unknowns and the biggest question will be how fast they can improve since April. The Bulldogs played four official games and although they lost all four, they competed well in three of those, including their first ever road game at Lenoir-Rhyne. The 44-13 final did not indicate how well Barton played in that game. The defense stood tall in several situations and QB Jaquan Lynch stepped up as the offensive leader. He shared time with Tyler Flippen for most of the spring, but expect Lynch to be the full time starter this fall. RB Jordan Terrel also emerged as a reliable running back and pass receiving threat. They need to work on developing wide receivers and line play will be a huge challenge. They will be very young in the line with most of the two-deep being freshmen. That will be the case on defense as well but they do have a couple of transfers to bring some experience to the D line rotation.
Bottom line: A few wins would be great but this year is all about experience and growth. They’ve had a lot of practice time, but it is still a very young roster.
Schedule notes: The schedule is tough. Although they are independent for 2021, they play a full SAC slate. The out of conference games are fellow start-up programs Erskine and Bluefield State.
Erskine Flying Fleet
Head Coach: Shap Boyd (1st season)
Spring Record: 1-5
The spring season went about as expected for the Flying Fleet. The most important objectives were to get some live game experience, evaluate talent and see how they measure up. The Fleet were able to accomplish those goals and earned the program’s first victory with the season opening win at Barton.
Other major milestones from the spring included identifying their leaders, most importantly at the quarterback position. Erskine initially split time with multiple players but Craig Pender quickly separated himself and played quite well, starting all six games and averaging 236 passing yards per contest. He had a solid 58.7% completion percentage with 8 touchdowns and was intercepted just four times. WR Senika McKie was one of the top performers in all of Division II in the spring, snagging an amazing 54 balls in just six games, with a 110 YPG average. His numbers overshadowed everyone else, but Kevon Catoe and Javian Bellamy also played very well in the Fleet’s extremely fast paced offense. Each had more than 200 yards receiving in the short season. The rushing attack struggled, but that was predictable with an offensive line facing its first live action. Line play will be the most important growth area between the spring and fall.
The same can be said on the defensive side of the ball where the Fleet showed some promise but also some indications that it may be a struggle this fall. Most of the unit that played in the spring was comprised of freshman so its going to take time. They took some lumps, surrendering more than 250 yards per game on the ground. That number will have to come down in order to contend for wins in the fall. They did show well at Linebacker with junior transfer Brandon Lane emerging as the defensive leader and an extremely productive player. Freshman Tyler Hayes showed a lot of promise with four sacks in six games. They also have some very athletic players in the secondary that should be pretty good DBs by the end of the season. Jamal Barron stood out in the spring with 40 total tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Bottom line: As with Barton, this year will mostly be a learning experience.
Scheduling notes: There are winnable games in the schedule, including a few opponents that they faced in the spring.
Thanks for reading, I know it was a lot. If there are any mistakes with player references, I do appologize. The research for this has to start months in advance but fall rosters are usually not confirmed until after camp begins. With that sait, talking season is over now. Time to get after it!