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College Football: Catawba picked third at SAC Media Day

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com.
Catawba’s golden 2007 season in which it averaged 45 points and 478 yards on its way to 11 wins, a league championship and the second round of the Division II playoffs officially became yesterday’s news at SAC Media Day at Salisbury’s Holiday Inn.
Catawba received one first-place vote but was picked to finish third in 2008 behind Carson-Newman (six first-place votes) and Newberry in a poll of SAC coaches.
That’s not a slap on the helmet, just a reality check that can be summed up in nine letters: Brad Roach.
The larger-than-life Roach will be in camp with the Baltimore Ravens instead of the Indians, and as Lenoir-Rhyne coach Fred Goldsmith offered at Friday’s gathering, “Quarterback is a huge, huge part of your football team.”
This looks like the Year of the Quarterback in the SAC. No fewer than six teams have signal-callers who have performed admirably under fire in league games and some schools have an embarrassment of riches at the most important position.
Newberry not only has its starting QB Brandon Gantt back, it also has Eric McCollom, who was playing ahead of Gantt before he suffered a knee injury.
Carson-Newman, which dropped one game in 2007 ó that incredible 55-49 shootout with Catawba ó has quarterback depth that would make pro squads envious.
Preseason All-SAC QB Alex Good returns to run coach Ken Sparks’ devastating split-back veer option. Backup Alex Rouse has quarterbacked 15 wins for the Eagles and has been SAC Offensive Freshman of the Year. Maryland transfer Joel Statham, a physically imposing 24-year-old, once threw for 333 yards ó against Florida State ó and posted a 1,500-yard season in the ACC.
Doug Belk, No. 4 on the depth chart, has seen action in 10 games.
Mars Hill’s Ricky Spradling seems to have been around since Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office. Tusculum’s Corey Russell is a stud and a frequent SAC Player of the Week. Wingate’s J.D. Moore shattered school records last fall. Lenoir-Rhyne’s Justin Sanders broke the same hand twice in 2007, but he’s another former SAC Offensive Freshman of the Year.
Brevard’s Kye Hamilton, the son of coach Paul Hamilton, is new, but he threw TD passes in the Southern Conference when he played for his father at Elon.
The only SAC team not mentioned so far is Catawba, where the starting quarterback will be either Howard Williamson, who officially has thrown four passes, or Patrick Dennis, who has tossed 10.
Williamson and Dennis have combined for zero TD passes. That’s 45 fewer than Russell has launched in his career and 29 fewer than Moore fired last season.
The good news for Catawba fans is coach Chip Hester is smiling and using phrases like “great opportunity” and “excellent progress.”
Williamson and Dennis are first-class guys, they’ve busted their tails in the offseason to prepare physically and mentally for the SAC, and while neither will be Roach, one ó or maybe both ó will get the job done.
“If we played a game tomorrow,” Hester said, “all I can tell you is that both of those guys would play.”
The consensus of opinion is if Catawba gets adequate quarterback play, it can contend for the SAC championship because it is deep and talented in both lines, and SAC games are often decided by the struggle for physical supremacy in the trenches.
If either Williamson or Dennis emerges as an exceptional player, Catawba can be a regional power again and could prove more than worthy of its national preseason ranking by USA Today (11th), Lindy’s (15th) and Sporting News (19th).
“We’ll see if we can walk the walk as we did last year,” Hester said. “Yes, we’re breaking in a new quarterback, but we’re in a very good situation to break one in. We have a solid offensive line, with all five starters back, and we have proven running backs.
“We had key losses, but that’s the exciting thing about being in a college program. Every four years, you start over, you put it back together and try to create something special again.”
Hester said about half of Catawba’s returning players stayed in town to work out with conditioning expert John Fitz, the defensive coordinator, over the summer. That’s a good start.
Catawba’s out-of-conference schedule ó three CIAA teams, including crosstown foe Livingstone ó also isn’t as scary as the one most SAC teams are undertaking.
L-R’s Goldsmith was thrilled to see one team gone from his schedule ó Appalachian State. The Mountaineers beat the Bears 48-7 last September.
Every SAC team had trouble finding opponents. Carson-Newman’s Sparks, who will take on Gulf South power North Alabama in a televised game in early September and will travel to Boston to play Bentley, said he had to make “250 phone calls.”
Newberry coach Zak Willis joked that opponents were so scarce he and Sparks discussed playing each other twice ó or even three times.
Newberry, which was 9-2 despite a rash of offensive injuries in 2007, is taking on the ultimate challenge ó defending D-II champion Valdosta State ó to open the season.
Newberry also travels to Texas to play Midwestern State and tackles Carson-Newman and Catawba back-to-back in the first half of the season.
It could start 1-4. On the other hand, Newberry could be recognized as a national power if it survives.
“I feel like this little ol’ conference of ours is as competitive as any,” Willis said. “We’d like to set things straight about just how good it is.”
The SAC was victimized by the NCAA selection process last season.
Carson-Newman was obviously one of the region’s six best teams but stayed home from the playoffs. Newberry also had a decent case for recognition.
Following the top three in the preseason poll were Tusculum, Wingate, Mars Hill, L-R (which will soon become Lenoir-Rhyne University instead of Lenoir-Rhyne College) and Brevard, which will be a full-fledged SAC member for the first time.
In a normal year, Tusculum and Wingate would be picked higher. Both are brimming with talent, and Tusculum coach Frankie DeBusk, who sported a Tusculum-orange necktie, said “top to bottom we feel this is one of the best teams we’ve had.”
Tusculum handed Catawba its only league loss last season.
In years past, coaches have been introduced in alphabetical order by school, which meant Carson-Newman’s Sparks, who has a phenomenal 269-63-2 career record, and Catawba’s Hester, 47-20 in six seasons, took the podium very early.
The switch in rotation gave them a chance to sit back for an hour as Wingate’s Joe Reich land Tusculum’s DeBusk started the program.
New SAC commissioner Patrick Britz was introduced, and All-SAC preseason selections were announced.
Catawba has 10 preseason All-SAC choices, including four first-teamers ó offensive lineman Terence Crosby and Hunter Carnes, linebacker Charles McAfee and defensive line anchor Melquan Fair.
Tusculum has 11 All-SAC picks, second to Carson-Newman’s 14.

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