College Football: Carlton takes over at QB for Catawba
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Last Saturday was a disaster for Catawba’s football team — a 35-14 South Atlantic Conference setback at Newberry in which special teams faltered, tackles were missed and senior quarterback Mike Sheehan ended his career with a broken ankle.
Head coach Curtis Walker arrived at Tuesday’s press conference armed with fierce optimism, grim determination and his new quarterback — sophomore Reid Carlton.
The Indians will no doubt have to run the table the next six weeks to repeat as a Division II playoff team, a daunting task, although not an impossible one. The brutal segment of the schedule is now in the rearview mirror.
Catawba (2-3, 2-1 SAC) is also still in the mix for the SAC championship. Newberry and Lenoir-Rhyne are still unbeaten in the league, but Catawba won the SAC title in 2015 with a 6-1 record. A lot can happen between now and the Indians’ season finale at L-R on Nov. 12.
“Saturday was a tough loss, but this is not the first time we’ve been 2-3, and we’ve got to move past Newberry,” Walker said calmly. “I got a text from (former Catawba defensive coordinator) Richard Kent right after the game and his message was ‘Keep chopping.’ We’ve grasped hold of those two words this week, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll keep chopping. We’ll stay focused on our jobs. Our season’s not done yet. Our work’s not done yet.”
Sheehan underwent surgery on Tuesday. A three-year starter who piloted last season’s voyage to the SAC championship, the last of his 719 passing attempts for the Indians was an 8-yard completion.
The new director of the offense, is Carlton, who turns 21 today.
Sheehan was listed at 6 feet, 210 pounds, although he appeared to be smaller. When the helmet and pads came off, he looked like a shortstop.
Carlton looks like a Division I tight end. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and those lumberjack dimensions don’t appear to be an exaggeration.
Carlton also has a distinctive appearance. With extra-long hair flying, he’s remindful of Tim Riggins, the fullback who ran wild for the Dillon Panthers for several years in TV’s version of “Friday Night Lights.”
If you were choosing up sides in gym class, you’d pick Carlton ahead of Sheehan. He’s the more imposing guy physically, not only larger but a more rugged runner and blessed with a stronger arm.
But what made Sheehan such a good player was the cerebral stuff, the decision-making stuff, the leadership stuff. A lot of what made Sheehan who he was couldn’t be measured by stop-watches or bench-presses.
“There actually was a pretty good battle for the quarterback job between Mike and Reid in the preseason,” Walker said. “Mike prevailed because of his experience, because of his knowledge of our system. But Reid is a big guy. He brings different assets to the position.”
Catawba coaches first encountered Carlton, who threw for more than 2,000 yards as a senior at Trinity Catholic High in Ocala, Fla., at the “War of the Border.” That’s a showcase event pitting Florida all-stars against their Georgia counterparts. That game was played in January 2014. Carlton threw three interceptions, but he ran for a touchdown and he looked athletic and competitive.
“Catawba picked me up pretty late in the recruiting process,” Carlton said. “They saw me at that all-star game, asked me to visit, and I really like the campus.”
Carlton has QB genes. His father, Andy, had some success at Wake Forest in the early 1970s and was sixth in the ACC in passing yards in 1973.
It was initially believed Carlton would become the Indians’ starting quarterback earlier than he has. That’s because no one expected Sheehan, who arrived at Catawba as a walk-on, to develop into one of the SAC’s better QBs.
In 2014, as a true freshman, Carlton backed up Sheehan. He produced two rushing touchdowns in limited action, but he was 0-for-4 on passing attempts.
A labrum injury led to a redshirt year for Carlton in 2015. That doesn’t mean he took a year off. He was still involved in the quarterback meetings, still learning from the coaching staff as well as from Sheehan.
Carlton entered this season as the backup, but as a more active backup. He had the first completion of his college career in the opening loss at West Georgia. In the final minutes, he hit Sam Mobley for a 31-yard completion.
Then Carlton added a rushing touchdown in Catawba’s wipeout of Wingate.
Newberry came next, and when Sheehan went down in the second quarter, Carlton suddenly became “the guy.”
He did OK. It was a difficult situation, on the road against a strong team, and with Catawba trailing. The deficit was 28-7 early in the second half, and Catawba had to trade its run/pass mix for a throw-it-around approach. Carlton was 8-for-21 passing for 83 yards and he scored Catawba’s second — and final — TD on a short run.
“I wasn’t that nervous,” Carlton said. “The way it’s always been for me is after that first contact, I’m set from there, and then I just go play football. I’m a guy who’s going to fight for every yard, a guy who’s going to do anything he can to help his team win.”
It will be a much friendlier environment for Carlton on Saturday afternoon when Catawba hosts Limestone at 1:30 p.m.
This week of practice will help. He’s always been prepared to play, if needed, every Saturday, but it’s a different feeling practicing with the first-team troops.
“The practice reps have really picked up this week — that’s the only change,” Carlton said. “And running with the “1’s” for the first time, it’s a chance to get my timing down with those guys.”
Walker expressed confidence in Carlton’s ability, but he also expressed hope that other things will fall in place on Saturday — that the defense will give Carlton short fields and that the running game can put him in favorable down-and-distance situations. Most of all, Walker wants a fast start, so Carlton can relax, settle in — and just play football.
“This is Reid’s third year in the system, and we believe he can operate our offense at a very high level,” Walker said. “He’s a big young man with a big arm, and he can throw with velocity. We’re excited about his first game as our starting quarterback. We believe he’s ready for the challenge.”
Carlton, who majors in integrated marketing communication, doesn’t seem worried about what’s coming next.
“It’s time,” he said quietly. “It’s time.”