College football: Catawba newcomers impressive

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2016

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Catawba true freshman Lamontico “LJ” Melvin tossed and turned through a sleepless night before opening day at West Georgia, not from apprehension, but from his eagerness to make a play on special teams.
“I’d already told myself I was going to make a big play on the opening kickoff,” Melvin said. “My first college tackle was going to be on the kickoff.”
Melvin had to wait longer than he anticipated. Catawba got the ball first, and Catawba didn’t score in the first half.
So the Indians didn’t kick off for the first time until the start of the second half.
Lee Brackman put his foot into the ball, 6-foot-5 West Georgia receiver DeNiko Carter fielded the boot and started striding upfield. Carter encountered Melvin at the 32-yard line, and Melvin delivered on a promise he’d made to himself.
He forced a fumble — and then recovered it — and his Catawba career officially was under way.
“My first college stat was a good one,” Melvin said.
Melvin is not overly large (6 feet, 200 pounds), but there’s little doubt that he has a future as a starting linebacker or strong safety. He’s smart, he’s tough, and he has unusual wheels — 4.4 to 4.5 in the 40.
“He has that nose for the ball you look for, and he’s very knowledgeable for a young player,” Catawba coach Curtis Walker said. “He played in a very good high school program against strong competition, so he’s better prepared to play at this level than a lot of freshmen are.”
Melvin had a tremendous prep career at Jack Britt High, a 4A power in Fayetteville that often rules the Mid South Conference.
Melvin was Mid South Defensive Player of the Year as a senior and set records with 359 career tackles. Melvin’s highlight tape is several relentless minutes of pick-sixes, physical hits and pile-driving sacks  — sprinkled with several offensive touchdowns as a “Wildcat” quarterback. People just bounce off Melvin, and then no one can catch him.
“I think I touched the ball like six times on offense and scored five touchdowns,” Melvin said with a smile.
Jack Britt High has been good to Catawba in the past. Britt’s Cory Johnson was a terrific linebacker at Catawba, and Britt running back George Bell made an impact at Catawba after transferring from Virginia Tech. Bell actually is Melvin’s uncle, just one of a long line of exceptional players who are part of Melvin’s family tree. Like Melvin, Bell wore the No. 34 jersey for the Indians.
Jack Britt battles schools such as Scotland County and Richmond County for regional supremacy, and Melvin lists Richmond County as his biggest rival. Richmond ended his high school career with a 29-28 victory on a two-point conversion in the second round of the 2015 state playoffs.
“Richmond’s running back Quientel Goodwin is at Catawba now, too,” Melvin said. “Our schools were fierce rivals, but now we’re close friends. We look at a lot of film together.”
Melvin attended Catawba’s summer camp prior to his senior year, and Catawba coaches were wowed by his speed and athletic ability.
“He’s a guy that we offered as one of our campers,” Walker said. “Then we followed his senior year closely, and he came and watched us play. He’s been part of the family for a while.”
Catawba offensive line coach Brian Hinson handled most of the recruiting on Melvin, who made things official with Catawba on National Signing Day last February.
“I was recruited by some of the smaller D-I schools, but Catawba is where I really felt most comfortable,” Melvin said.
Being able to successfully recruit a linebacker with Melvin’s credentials, even with all four starters returning for this season, says good things about Catawba’s program.
Catawba’s linebacking corps includes senior Jamal Lackey and juniors Kyle Kitchens Tre Evans and Michael Peppers, and the idea is to groom Melvin as a special teams player and second-team linebacker to be an eventual replacement.
It’s the sort of depth that the top D-II programs have. Just a few years ago, Melvin would’ve been thrown right into the pool to sink or swim. Now Catawba can ease him into the mix, as he learns the system and adds weight.
Walker said that at this stage of his career, Melvin reminds him most of Evans.
Melvin made another tackle on a kickoff in Saturday’s loss to Winston-Salem State, and he got his first action at linebacker. Jack Britt played a 4-2-5 defense, while Catawba’s base is a 3-4, so there’s been some adjusting for Melvin to do.
“The speed of the game is definitely different than high school,” said Melvin, who is listed on the depth chart as the backup to Evans at inside linebacker. “But I got used to it, and I loved being out there. The gap responsibilities are new, but I’m sure the learning curve is going to be short.”
Catawba coaches agree.
“He’s going to be a big part of our future,” Walker said.
Offensive Player of the Week Sam Mobley
Catawba emphasized speed with this year’s recruits, and Sam Mobley, a junior wideout with 4.5 speed who played at Monroe’s Parkwood High and Louisburg Junior College, also fits that description. Mobley made three catches for 59 yards on Saturday, including a tough, 24-yard grab over the middle against two Winston-Salem State defenders.
Catawba doesn’t recruit many junior college players, but it made an exception for Mobley, an athlete the Indians liked during his high school career and stayed in touch with.
Hinson recruited him.
“We had a need at wide receiver for a more experienced guy,” Walker said. “We’ve been giving him opportunities and he’s been showing up.”
Mobley made a lot of huge, 660-yard and 70-yard plays for Louisburg, and Walker is hopeful he can do that for the Indians. On the 24-yard catch, he showed his potential.
Mobley was the inside man in a formation that had a trio of Catawba receivers lined up on quarterback Mike Sheehan’s right.
“I saw the safeties split wide, and I knew the ball was coming to me in the middle, and I’d have a chance to make a play,” Mobley said. “Then I went up and got it.”
Mobley has earned the trust of his teammates.
“When it’s time to make a play, he makes them,” said veteran defensive end C.J. Barksdale, Catawba’s Defensive Player of the Week. “I’m sure we’re going to use him more and more.”
Catawba (0-2) hosts Carson-Newman (1-1) in the SAC opener for both teams on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Carson-Newman leads the series 37-11-1.