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College Football: Catawba Preview vs. No. 4 West Georgia

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By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

Opening the football season with West Georgia, a 2014 national semifinalist and a team ranked fourth in the American Football Coaches Association’s preseason Division II poll, has Salisbury barber shops buzzing and the Catawba Indians tossing and turning.
The AFCA poll has been around since 2000. This will be the first time Catawba has opened against a ranked opponent.
“I haven’t been able to sleep for a week, just thinking about it,” linebacker Michael Peppers said. “We win, and we’re probably ranked.”
Catawba head coach Curtis Walker wants Peppers to get his rest, but he understands the butterflies that are dancing in Peppers’ belly. As a former linebacker, Walker understands that urgency to hit someone wearing a different color uniform after weeks of intrasquad skirmishes.
“The plan is to bring the energy back to Catawba football,” Walker said. “We’re playing a big-time opponent, a tough opponent, right away. But what an exciting way to start our season.”
Kickoff today is at 1:30 p.m. at Shuford Stadium.
The appearance of West Georgia will evoke memories in Walker, Catawba’s linebackers coach when West Georgia made its last visit to Salisbury. That was on Nov. 18, 2000, and it was the first round of the Division II playoffs.
Catawba trailed, 24-14, heading to the fourth quarter, but Mitch Ellis threw a touchdown pass to Nick Means to get the Indians back in it. Then Catawba roared 71 yards, mostly on Ellis’ arm, in the final minutes to pull out the game. That was Catawba’s 11th straight victory, and 2,752 fans went crazy.
That’s the sort of atmosphere Walker wants to revive at Shuford Stadium. That’s why the Indians have chosen to tackle a powerful opponent.
“We’re going to check our oil, so to speak,” Walker said. “We’ll find out where we are.”
Added Catawba offensive tackle Lewis McCormick, “We love the challenge.”
West Georgia is located in Carrollton, Ga., 45 miles west of Atlanta. It’s a large school, relative to Catawba, with 11,700 students. West Georgia was known as the Braves when it visited in 2000, but it changed mascots in 2006, to the Wolves.
West Georgia, 12-3 last season, is the preseason pick to win the always tough Gulf South Conference.
Will Hall, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy — the D-II Heisman — as North Alabama’s quarterback in his playing days, is in his second year coaching West Georgia.
Three of the Wolves — defensive end Alex Armah, center Harley Vaughan and punter James Dugan — are unanimous preseason All-Gulf South Conference picks. Returning quarterback Dallas Dickey and receiver Shaq Hill are exceptional players.
“One good thing about playing a team like West Georgia in the first game is that you get a chance to watch their film all summer,” Catawba quarterback Mike Sheehan said.
After two 6-5 seasons that could be classified as rebuilding years, Walker believes the Indians are ready for a breakout.
While it was picked fourth in the South Atlantic Conference preseason poll, Catawba looks very stout.
Sheehan is back. Running backs David Burgess and Cary Littlejohn are back. Receiver Carlos Tarrats returns and is a game-breaker. The offensive line is strong and experienced. The kicking game should be a plus. The defense features familiar faces such as cornerback Mark McDaniel and linebackers Kyle Kitchens, Jamal Lackey and Peppers. Walker is excited about DB transfers Case Woodard and DaiQuan Lawrence.
“For a long time, it was like we had a bunch of puzzle pieces scattered around,” Walker said. “Now we’re starting to see all those pieces fitting into place.”
The defensive line gets a major boost from C.J. Barksdale’s return from injury and the linebacking corps welcomes back Trey Evans, a proven player from Georgia, who missed last season.
“Those additions help our defense tremendously,” McDaniel said.
There are a lot of reasons to go to this game. The Indians believe they can do more than compete. They believe they can win.
“We expect playoff excitement and we’re looking for a full stadium, supporting a great group of young men,” Walker said. “This should be one of the best games being played in Division II.”

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