College Football: Catawba Preview
SALISBURY — With his first game as a head coach rapidly approaching, Catawba coach Curtis Walker isn’t upset about being picked to finish seventh in a South Atlantic Conference in which the Indians once were one of the big dogs.
“I picked us seventh myself,” said Walker brandishing a grin and python-like forearms. “But I picked us seventh for all the good reasons. Seventh place is just preseason, and it’s great motivation. I believe in our staff and in our young men enough that I don’t think that seventh is going to be the final verdict for Catawba.”
Carson-Newman, Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate, a familiar threesome, is picked at the top of the league.
Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne blew out the Indians last season as they trudged wearily to a 4-7 finish.
“Those are the two teams that require you to play with the most discipline,” Walker said firmly.
Discipline is one of the three core values on which Walker hopes to revitalize the program and restore Catawba’s place among the SAC and the region’s elite teams. The other two are hard work and accountability.
Catawba had a reasonable chance to prevail against everyone except Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne in 2012, but losing five games by a touchdown or less cost Chip Hester, region coach of the year as recently as 2007, his job. It also caused a staff shakeup. Offensive coordinator Kevin Brown and defensive coordinator Keith Henry are key new faces. Like Walker, they’re both former Catawba Indians.
It’s not like Walker is facing a massive rebuilding project, and it’s not like Catawba can’t have a winning season.
“This program was not left in a shambles,” Walker said. “We’ve got a lot of good players and we’ve got a lot of good young men.”
Walker didn’t reveal any X’s and O’s secrets at Tuesday’s press conference, but the Indians likely will attack more on defense out of a 3-4. Offensively, they’ll still try to establish the run and use it to set up their passing game. Catawba is not going to be all-run or all-pass like some of its SAC foes.
Three products of Rowan high schools are expected to figure prominently in determining Catawba’s fortunes in 2013. Former West All-Stater Tim Pangburn is expected to start at right guard. Trey Mashore will return kicks, and don’t be surprised if he gets some carries and catches passes. Former South standout Mark McDaniel is set to start at strong safety.
“Mark is just a quiet man who comes to work,” Walker said. “Old school.”
Defensively, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about Catawba’s roster, even with C.J. Barksdale, SAC Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2011, out for the season with an ACL injury.
“Barksdale played as a true freshman, so now he’ll get his redshirt year,” Walker said. “He’ll be a great leader for us when he gets back.”
Damein Lee, SAC Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2010, will play defensive end, Lee, inside linebackers Jacob Hanes and Jason Taylor, and free safety L.J. McCray are preseason All-SAC picks.
Taylor was Catawba’s No. 2 tackler last season, while McCray was third. Lee and Hanes had three sacks apiece.
“We’ve got some guys who have been good players, but we want them to reach for greater heights,” Walker said. “L.J. has been an All-American as a kick returner, but he hasn’t been All-SAC as a safety yet.”
Other familiar faces on the defense belong to nose guard Jonathan Jean, tackle Gabriel Evans and outside linebacker Dennis McFatten.
The new guys are McDaniel, freshman cornerback Terence Williams, freshman outside linebacker Jalen Forrest and sophomore corner Gary Williams, who was used as a receiver in 2012.
Ed Robinson is another linebacker with experience.
Offensively, you’ll see lots of new faces. You’ll usually see three receivers and one running back.
Nate Charest caught 52 passes and scored five touchdowns last season and is a preseason All-SAC pick. He’s the marquee returner offensively. Catawba also has two experienced tight ends back in Vincent Beam and Tyler Hamilton, who had 19 catches and two TDs.
The rest of the pass-catchers are new, with former West Iredell flash Quan Rucker, who played at Wake Forest, and Chase Kellum, a former Shrine Bowler, joining Charest. The offensive line has a veteran look, with left tackle Lewis McCormick, left guard Taylor Fender, center Tim Buck and right tackle Corey Raven penciled in to join Pangburn as the starters. T.J. Olsen also is in the mix at right tackle.
“We’ll be more experienced on the offensive line than Catawba has been in a while,” Walker said. “We need to get the running game going, and it starts with those guys.”
Who will run the ball? That’s the biggest mystery.
Since Williams is playing defense, the leading returning rusher is actually third-team QB Richard Shuping, who rushed for 14 yards.
Walker has high hopes for soph Cary Littlejohn, who carried twice last season. Other possibilities are freshmen Tre Ford and David Burgess.
There’s excitement about quarterback, with 6-foot-3, 220-pound Danny O’Brien, who started games at Maryland and Wisconsin, coming to Catawba for his final season of college football. Offensive coordinator Brown has known O’Brien for a while.
“What I’ve liked about Danny is that he’s made friends, he’s felt his way and he’s let his teammates welcome him,” Walker said. “He hasn’t come in here with the idea that he’s owed anything. He’s fit in well.”
Walker explained that the starter in 2012, B.J. Sherrill, has a knee injury, but Catawba has another capable QB in redshirt freshman Mike Sheehan, who looked good in the spring.
“It’s been a good battle at quarterback,” Walker said.
As far as special teams, Catawba should win that phase more than it loses it, with McCray, Mashore and Charest on returns, and Chad Hollandsworth, another preseason All-SAC pick, handling the kicking and punting. McCray had over 1,000 yards in kick returns in 2012.
“I know our guys are tired of hitting each other and are ready to hit someone else,” Walker said. “I expect us to play sound and I expect us to play confident.”
The wait is almost over. Catawba opens at home at 1:30 p.m. against West Liberty.