College Football: Indians picked to repeat as SAC champs

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2016

SALISBURY — Catawba football officially became a target for everyone in the South Atlantic Conference on Monday.
Catawba paced the preseason poll in voting by the league’s eight coaches. Hunters for a long time, the Indians are finally the hunted again.
Head coach Curtis Walker embraces wearing the bull’s-eye. It’s a compliment. It’s a sign of success, and the Indians are successful. They were 9-3 in 2015, won their first SAC championship since 2007 and returned to the Division II playoffs.
“We’ll look forward to being the target,” Walker said. “It’s a good thing. Our guys have earned that target with their hard work and their dedication. They’ve earned respect, and we’re proud to be the preseason favorite.”
While Catawba got the most points in the voting, it’s not like it was a landslide. Coaches didn’t vote for their own teams, so only three of the seven coaches who could’ve voted for the Indians as the team to beat did so. Three voted for Carson-Newman, the league’s traditional powerhouse. Two coaches voted for Newberry, always among the league’s most talented squads, for the No. 1 spot. One of those two was Walker, who is impressed by Newberry QB Raleigh Yeldell.
SAC coaches aren’t the only ones who think Catawba has a chance to do some memorable things. The Indians are ranked No. 15 in the Sporting News national D-II poll.
While there’s obviously a lot of Catawba football for fans to be energized about — including nine returning starters on defense led by All-America linebacker Kyle Kitchens — the early schedule is daunting.
A trip to West Georgia, a consensus top-10 team, kicks off the season on Sept. 3. Next is Winston-Salem State, the defending CIAA champ and a program expected to repeat. That one is on Sept. 10 at Shuford Stadium.
Then on Sept. 17, the SAC opener in Salisbury is against Carson-Newman. Carson-Newman won nine games last year and tied for second in the SAC. Carson-Newman averaged 43.3 points per game in 2015, and the Eagles always are a measuring stick of how good or not-so-good Catawba is.
“There’s a lot of work to do and we’ll certainly be tested early, but our staff and our players have done a tremendous job preparing for the challenge,” Walker said. “Those nine defensive starters, along with other key players, stayed here and worked together all summer. Five of our six returning starters on offense also were here all summer working out. Players have to make that summer commitment now if they want be successful, and our guys did.”
The starters missing on defense are cornerback Mark McDaniel and line anchor Jonathan Jean. A lot more guys are missing on offense, including standout running back Cary Littlejohn.
In an offensive-minded league, Catawba usually won with stellar defense last season, and there’s no reason that formula can’t work again. In theory, the defense will be even stronger, while the offense, which still has QB Mike Sheehan to direct it, should be good enough.
Another strong recruiting class will be installed. The depth chart is getting longer, and that’s the key if Catawba is going to play with the West Georgias of the world.
“We had some surgeries after spring ball, but we’ve reached this point in the preseason healthy and in good shape,” Walker said. “We’re pleased that we’ve put ourselves in position to accomplish some things.”
Just how quickly things can change is illustrated by the SAC poll. Lenoir-Rhyne played for the national title in 2013 but is picked sixth in the SAC in the preseason.

Rank School (1st-place votes) Points
1. Catawba (3) 45
2. Carson-Newman (3) 43
3. Newberry (2) 36
4. Mars Hill 30
5. Wingate 27
6. Lenoir-Rhyne 22
7. Tusculum 14
8. Brevard 7