College football: Catawba giving youngsters a chance; Mars Hill is Saturday’s homecoming guest
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Even avid Catawba football fans had never heard of Luke Cerasi before Saturday.
But the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive lineman was noticeable during a 44-21 home loss to Newberry. He was active. He was aggressive. He made tackles.
Cerasi, a redshirt freshman, showed enough that he’ll see increased action as this season moves forward.
When you’re 1-6, when little is going right, one of the things coaches do is find out if guys who haven’t been playing deserve to play more. Practice provides insights, but game action is even more enlightening.
“There’s no experience like game experience, and we’ve got some young guys who will be learning under fire,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “Cerasi got a chance the last two weeks and he made things happen. He’ll be in the rotation for Mars Hill.”
Cerasi was a fine high school player, an all-conference performer who earned awards such as Team MVP and Defensive MVP. He played for a new school in the growing Apex area, southwest of Raleigh. He wasn’t heavily recruited. After his senior season, he attended a workout/tryout at Catawba. The Indians liked him and assured him he had a spot on the team, but he’s basically a walk-on.
Cerasi was part of the first graduating class at Apex Friendship High in the spring of 2018. He arrived at Catawba last fall.
Catawba had three senior defensive linemen a year ago, so Cerasi was able to redshirt.
“I got stronger during that redshirt year and my technique improved,” Cerasi said. “I learned what I needed to do to compete as a college player.”
Cerasi is young. He turned 19 in June. He’s become one of the strongest players on Catawba’s team. With that sort of work ethic going for him, his future looks bright.
“He can be a presence inside,” Walker said. “For the number of snaps he’s been in there, he’s made an impact on a high percentage of them.”
Catawba faces a good Mars Hill team Saturday at 1:35 p.m. It will be homecoming at Shuford Stadium.
Walker is looking forward to seeing a lot of returning players after the game, but the priority is to have a victory to talk and laugh about it.
Catawba (1-6, 0-4) is desperate for success. The losing streak is at five games. The last win, the only win, came on the road on Sept. 14.
This is the same program that went 9-2 two years ago, with many of the same players and coaches, but things have been bumpy since opening day.
Injuries have been part of it, but Catawba got two good players (receiver Will Sweeper and DB Caleb Allen) back last week.
Catawba is down to its third quarterback, but everyone is upbeat about seeing what true freshman Kaylon Wade, who turned 19 in August, can do in his first start.
“He’s a talent,” Walker said. “He can run and throw and he went from nervous to game-ready in a matter of seconds last week.”
Mars Hill is 4-3 overall and 3-1 in the SAC. The Lions are still factors in the league race, although they’ve still got Carson-Newman and Wingate ahead of them.
Mars Hill has beaten two teams — Newberry and Limestone — that beat Catawba.
Still, the Lions are only four-point favorites to continue Catawba’s woes.
Maybe that’s due to the history of the series. Mars Hill’s veteran coach Tim Clifton has led teams against Catawba 26 times and is 7-19.
Walker is 4-2 against Mars Hill, although Mars Hill prevailed 39-33 in the mountains last season.
Mars Hill’s marquee player is quick, sure-handed receiver Craig Rucker, an All-American who is putting up crazy numbers. He’s tied for second nationally in Division II with 58 catches and is seventh with 772 receiving yards. He’s had 10 or more catches four times this season. Eight of QB Collin Sneed’s nine TD passes have been snared by Rucker, so he’s an obvious problem.
Catawba’s beleaguered defense would like to be able to double-team Rucker, but the Indians have to fix the run defense first. The Indians made a legend out of Newberry back Chance Walker last Saturday. Catawba currently ranks 160th out of 166 D-II teams in rushing defense, allowing 253.9 yards per game.
Mars Hill likes to throw it to Rucker, but Clifton is as aware of Catawba’s run-defense issues as anyone. The Lions are liable to come in looking to establish their ground game, and that’s where Catawba’s defense has to make a stand, one down at a time. Stop the run, force the third-and-long pass, and then try to deal with Rucker.
Mars Hill likes to blitz, so Catawba will have to protect its young quarterback. Wade has fleet feet, but no one, except Clifton, wants to see him running for his life all day.
Homecoming is usually fun. The Indians can use some of that.
“Homecoming last year (a 57-33 win against Tusculum) was the most exciting game in my tenure as head coach,” Walker said. “We had so many explosive plays in that game, and we made them in all phases. I hope we can make more plays. I hope we can put on a good show.”
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