2008 Catawba Football: The defense

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 27, 2008

By Mike London
The South Atlantic Conference is loaded with outstanding quarterbacks this season.
That’s OK with Catawba. The Indians are well-equipped to survive in a pass-happy league because the best pass defense is still a great pass rush, and the Indians are absolutely loaded on the defensive line.
Catawba’s got the best of both worlds on the D-line. It’s experienced but young, with a flock of juniors and sophomores who have been there and done that, but no seniors.
Preseason All-SAC pick Melquan Fair (five sacks, 15 tackles for loss) is the marquee name on the D-line and an imposing force inside at 260 pounds.
But on a given Saturday any of a half-dozen guys could lead the team in sacks.
Marqus Davis (11 tackles for loss) is a stud at a defensive end. He checks in at 240.
“Fair and Davis have a chance to be real standouts,” Catawba coach Chip Hester said. “We want them to take on a leadership role.”
Fair and Davis will have plenty of talent to lead. Sophomore Julian Hartsell (275) and junior Wilbur Pender (300) are the other likely starters. Both are experienced. Arthur Cromartie (230), Terrence Porter (245) have been productive in supporting roles and could be ready for breakouts.
Robert Brown (285), a redshirt freshman, will be in the rotation, and the two most talented guys in the group may be vocal, high-energy sophomore Brandon Sutton (245), a former East-West All-Star Game MVP, and redshirt freshman Brandon Weedon, who has awesome athletic ability and has muscled up from 205 to 220.
Another candidate is Alex Hartsell, Julian’s brother. He played previously at The Citadel and has joined his brother at Catawba after a stint in the working world.
Catawba’s offense produced such astronomical numbers in 2007 that the defense got overlooked, but it was stout in a wide-open league that featured six offenses that produced more than 26 points a game.
Catawba was second to Newberry in scoring defense and pass defense, but its numbers against the run ranked sixth in the SAC. Catawba’s added bulk on the line could change those numbers this season.
Gone from the 2007 SAC champions are pass-rush demon Ron Ellington, fast linebacker Joe Brown and some quality defensive backs.
The unexpected loss of Brown hurts, but the linebacking crew is still strong.
Senior captain Charles McAfee led the team with 96 tackles, including 14 in the playoff loss at Valdosta State, and returns in the middle. Second team All-SAC last season, he’s the communicator and the glue for the defense.
E.J. Branch had a great game in the televised contest against Mars Hill last season, and the 210-pound former running back is probably as fast as anyone on the team.He made 26 tackles and will probably start outside.
If he doesn’t, it will be quick former West Rowan standout Julian Samolu, who has bulked up to 215 pounds.
Charlie Walker got seven starts at linebacker a year ago and was in on 43 tackles, but he may not be able to hold off true freshman LaKeem Perry, an East-West All-Star, who has wowed coaches.
“A lot of times you see guys with natural ability, but they don’t understand what’s going on in the college game,” Hester said. “That’s not a hangup with LaKeem. He can be a special player.”
Another talented true freshmen Kewone Harris has a big future.
The secondary took its licks from graduation, but the Indians still have senior Jasmon Carpenter (five career picks), a second-team All-SAC pick in 2007 as an anchor at one corner.
Ball-magnet safety Cortez Best picked off four passes, broke up six aerials and made 39 tackles. Senior Chris Noel, who broke his arm late last season, hits hard and forced two fumbles. Marcus Glenn is another veteran who has been in the fire.
There’s emerging young talent challenging the veterans. True freshman Bryant Vennable, a tall corner from Virginia state champion Gretna, could start opening night.
Redshirt freshmen Mike Benton and Derrick Brown are ready to play, and Benton is slated to start at safety.
Backup corner Terrence Jones got into nine games as a true freshman last year.
There’s also Aaron Cauble, an East Rowan product who’s bounced between receiver and safety and did well in the Blue-White Spring Game.
“We have the athletes on defense to cause problems for teams and we’re hoping to attack,” Hester said. “Sit back in this league and the quarterbacks will pick you apart.”
Veteran Cory Darnell is the likely punter. He handled that chore in 2005 and 2006.
Key contributors on special teams include Tony Littlejohn, backup linebacker Leon Ager, the special teams captain, and Davie County product Jaspen Gray, who made 28 hits last season.
The bottom line is Catawba’s defense will have to be even better than last season for the team to contend for another SAC title, but the potential is there for that to happen.
“We all understand the system going in,” McAfee said. “We’re ready to play.”