SALISBURY — Looking over UNC Pembroke’s two-deep chart, Jimmy Lewis, head of Catawba sports information, whistles and shakes his head.
“I’ve never seen a team more experienced,” says Lewis, who has been around a while.
When UNCP appears at Catawba for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, 21 of 22 starters for the Braves will be juniors or seniors and many had the luxury of an additional redshirt season that didn’t count against their eligibility. This is a team of 22-year-old men, and it’s a team coming off last Saturday’s destruction of FCS newcomer Charlotte.
Senior slot receiver Ben DeCelle (East Rowan), junior backup defensive end Cadarreus Mason (South Rowan) and senior backup quarterback/holder Jonathan Efird (A.L. Brown) will be Braves experiencing a homecoming of sorts at Shuford Stadium.
There’s no substitute for experience, which helps explain why UNCP is 5-0 and ranked 10th or 13th nationally, depending on which poll you like. Among others, UNCP has handled nationally ranked Winston-Salem State.
The team opposing UNCP will be the youngest Catawba team in memory, and that youth helps explain why Catawba is 3-3 after a 3-1 start and let a 19-point, second-half lead slip away at home against Wingate last Saturday.
“We’ll start six true freshmen,” first-year head coach Curtis Walker said. “Six more true freshmen will play, will be in the rotation. These guys should be getting their noses bloody on the scout team right now, but instead they’ve gotta play.”
Five true freshmen joined Walker at Tuesday’s press conference, sponsored by Arby’s in the Hayes Fieldhouse.
Offensive player of the week David Burgess (316 yards, seven TDs) and No. 2 receiver Carlos Tarrats (25 catches, 213 yards, three TDs, including the humongous one at Carson-Newman) you probably have heard about already.
The other three visitors were defenders — cornerbacks JaMarcus Moore and Terence Williams and linebacker Jalen Forrest, Catawba’s defensive player of the week.
“These are guys with good football sense,” Walker said. “There should be some very exciting years ahead of us.”
Moore is almost a Muggsy Bogues-type guy. The product of Chester, S.C., is just 5-foot-7.
“I went to Clemson camp for three years and always was in the ‘A’ group competing against guys who went on to the SEC or ACC,” Moore said. “One school was getting ready to offer me a (D-I) scholarship after my freshman year, but they decided to wait until I grew a little bit.”
He never did grow, but he has 4.4 speed, he’s a ball of muscle, and he has the heart of a lion.
“He’s aggressive and he’s got the kind of skill set I wish all our guys had,” Walker said.
Walker was the defensive coordinator at Western Carolina last season, and Moore was on the Catamounts’ recruiting radar.
“When I was came to Catawba, we found out Moore was still available, and we went after him immediately,” Walker said.
Moore has 15 tackles, two pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble.
Forrest had a tremendous career at East Forsyth High in Kernersville, the same school that produced Catawa QB Danny O’Brien and kicker Chad Hollandsworth.
A three-year starter and three-time all-conference player, Forrest set East Forsyth career records for tackles and tackles for loss. He had five sacks as a senior.
“I was recruited by several schools, but I didn’t make my test score until later,” Forrest explained. “By then, all but one school had moved on. Catawba was the only school that stayed committed to me.”
Forrest obviously had the talent to be a February National Signing Day recruit. Credit Catawba assistant Chris Collins, who coaches DBs and shares special-teams responsibilities, for sticking with Forrest.
Forrest earned a starting job at outside linebacker in preseason camp and has kept it.
“He came here and immediately opened some eyes,” Walker said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get a better late signee than him.”
Forrest has 23 tackles, five for loss, and he had a brilliant interception against Wingate.
“My first game against West Liberty I had zero tackles and guys were getting on me a little bit,” Forrest said. “But the game is slowing down for me more every week now, and starting alongside guys like Jason Taylor has been unbelievable.”
Williams is from Georgia and won his spurs even later than Forrest.
“He was our last official scholarship player for this year,” Walker said. “He actually came to camp as a walkon, but he also came with a swagger. He always plays with confidence. He was a sight to see in camp, and he won a starting position and a scholarship.”
Credit assistant Corey Ready, the receivers coach, with landing Williams, who has 25 tackles, a pick and three breakups.
“Coach Ready told me to come to camp and see how things played out and he thought it would work out for me,” Williams said. “At camp, I just went out and performed.”
Catawba’s key true freshmen also include starting offensive right tackle Brandon Floyd and backup linebacker Jamal Lackey (Davie), who had eight tackles against Wingate and was named special teams player of the week.
Williams says the early games have taught all the youngsters a lot.
“Each game has value as a learning experience,” he said. “We’ve played at a high level at times, but at other times we’ve made mistakes. We had great coaching last week and we had great play-calling. We just didn’t convert in some key situations.”
The future is promising for Catawba, and the present is interesting.
“We know we’re building something good, but the coaches want to win right now,” Walker said. “Our players also want to win now. That’s what we’re all working for.”
NOTES: Lackey has been “Desmond” on all the Catawba rosters and stat sheets to this point. Apparently that’s his give name, but he goes by “Jamal.” Credit Davie reporter Brian Pitts with figuring out that Desmond Lackey and Jamal Lackey were the same guy… Walker wasn’t thrilled with every call in the Wingate game, but he said the officials got it right on the crucial call on the Tyler Hamilton fumble on the Wingate sideline.
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