Catawba Football: The defense

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2011

By Mike London
SALISBURY — Every day that Julian Hartsell perseveres in the preseason camp of the Tennessee Titans is a reminder of how good a player Catawba’s defense lost.
But while Hartsell and his burly, gregarious running mate Brandon Sutton are missing from the interior, Catawba returns just about everyone else on that side of the ball.
That’s right — everybody. Nine starters, plus some good-enough-to-start backups, from a unit that ranked third in the SAC in most statistical measurements.
“Sure, we’re very excited,” said electrifying junior captain L.J. McCray, a safety and kick returner who is an All-America candidate. “The whole offseason we’ve been talking about all the guys we have back.”
But chatter only takes you so far.
“That’s right,” McCray said. “We still have to bring it together on the field as a team.”
While Catawba expects to be special defensively if key guys stay healthy, a special defense is required just to survive in the offensive-minded SAC, where seven of eight teams — including Catawba — averaged better than 30 points per game last season.
Tusculum and Newberry can throw it like crazy. Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne can run it right down your throat. Wingate and Mars Hill can move it in a hurry by either land or air.
“Definitely a challenge in the SAC every single week,” McCray said. “In our league you get to see everything.”
Catawba coach Chip Hester acknowledges the Indians won’t be as massive upfront without Hartsell and Sutton, but they’re likely to be quicker.
Damein Lee, 255 pounds, was named SAC Defensive Freshman of the Year after racking up six sacks and has a chance to be a major star.
The other returning regular up front is 235-pounder Brandon Weedon (32 tackles, three sacks).
Weedon is also a captain. Catawba envisioned superstardom for the talented senior before he suffered a torn ACL and he now appears to be as good as new.
“He’s more than a year removed from that injury and looking more and more like the old Brandon — good news for us but bad news for our opponents,” Catawba coach Chip Hester said.
Lee played end last year but could shift inside. Buster Phillips (285) offers bulk and experience.
Catawba also has high hopes for Jacob Hanes, a linebacker and special-teams demon who beefed up to 250 pounds in order to move to defensive end. Among the freshmen linemen, C.J. Barksdale (250), a potential beast from South Carolina, is the most likely to thrive right away.
“The cupboard’s not bare upfront by any means,” Hester said. “C.J. is a guy who’s living up to all the hype.”
At linebacker, there are no question marks. The four who played regularly are back.
Lakeem Perry (60 tackles, eight pass breakups) and Cory Johnson, who fought through injuries last season to make a team-high 73 tackles, are All-SAC types. Jeb Bass (52 tackles) is solid. Tra Ingram (48 tackles) brings it every week.
Impressive youngsters Deangelo Mouzon and Jason Taylor add depth.
Catawba’s defensive backs are potentially stellar. The top six return. McCray (61 tackles) and big junior cornerback Jumal Rolle (five picks, eight breakups, three forced fumbles) are as talented as any players the Indians have.
Bryant Vennable is a senior who’s been battle-tested since he was a freshman.
Scottie Floyd and Casey Hall have been in the fire. Kewone Harris (34 tackles, two interceptions) started seven games in 2010 before suffering an injury. Calvin Hunter, a Shrine Bowler, is a freshman with impact tools.
“We feel very good about our talent level and our experience level on defense,” Hester said. “I’m an offensive coach so it pains me to say this, but defense is always the most important thing. If they don’t score, you can’t lose.”
As far as special teams, opponents are going to try to kick the ball away from McCray, a game-changer who returned two kickoffs for scores last season.
Rolle and speedy local freshmen Trey Mashore (West Rowan) and Mark McDaniel (South Rowan) could figure into the return game.
D.J. Davis is a fine deep snapper, while Thomas Trexler (22 career field goals) is a reliable kicker.
Bobby Krauk is the returning punter, but there’s competition from Western Carolina transfer T.J. Morrison and freshman Tucker Wrenn.
Catawba opens in Durham against St. Augustine’s this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.