College football: Catawba believes it can compete

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2021

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Picked by the league’s coaches to finish ninth in the nine-team South Atlantic Conference, Catawba College football probably won’t be hanging any banners at the end of this season.

A realistic goal for the Indians, who will play on a sweet turf field and with an inspiring new scoreboard, is a return to relevance.

“Ninth is motivation, but I’ve never worried about where we were picked in a preseason poll,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “It’s like I told my son (Salisbury High linebacker Jalon Walker), ‘You’re preseason All-State, and that’s great, but preseason doesn’t mean a thing unless you go out and do it on the field.’ Preseason polls aren’t something we have any control over, so we’re not concerned about them. Practices have gone well, and as crazy as last spring was, we’re excited about this fall. We’re reasonably healthy. We’re going to be OK.”

Champions of the SAC in 2015 under the direction of Walker, the Indians were still confident and competent in 2016 and 2017, but nothing has gone right for the program since mid-November 2017 when a 9-2 Catawba team was snubbed for a berth in the Division II playoffs. Things crashed in 2018 when the Indians were 4-7 and basically burned to the ground in 2019 when the Indians went 1-10. Someone seemed to get hurt every day in 2019 and Catawba was starting waves of freshmen by the end of a dreary slide to the bottom of the SAC.

Catawba was eager to make amends, but COVID canceled the 2020 fall season. Then the 2021 spring season saw Catawba lose to Newberry and Wingate before the remainder of  the planned schedule was aborted.

So as a new season begins on Saturday with a 1 p.m. home kickoff against Erskine, Catawba hasn’t won a football game since Sept. 14, 2019. The Indians haven’t prevailed in front of the home folks on Kirkland Field at Shuford Stadium since Nov. 17, 2018. They haven’t beaten a SAC opponent since Oct. 27, 2018. They’ve lost 19 of 24 games over a three-year stretch.

That’s why the Indians are picked ninth, even behind the league’s newer faces, Limestone, which came on board in 2017, and UVa Wise, which entered the league in 2019. UVa Wise won just one game on its first tour of the SAC — it beat Catawba.

Walker is 40-40 in eight seasons, and it’s not like the 2015 SAC Coach of the Year has forgotten how to coach. But coaches need players — healthy, experienced players.

Walker is confident Catawba is healthier and more mature than it’s been since the Indians were winning on a regular basis.

“While we only played two games against outside opponents in the spring, we’ve had the benefit of 50-plus practices,” Walker said. “I’m not disappointed with where we are right now.”

COVID provided a redshirt option for everyone, and Catawba is counting on six young men who are college graduates — quarterback Ken Avent III, defensive linemen Keundre Rias and Anthony Davis, tight end Evan Rojas and offensive linemen Demetrius Blackwell and Darius Jackson.

Graduates help the maturity level, especially smart ones. Blackwell is an Academic All-America. Avent has proven he can be a solid starting quarterback.

Avent won the starting job way back in 2018. His injury on the cusp of the 2019 season started a chain reaction of events that led to the 1-10 disaster.

Avent can read a defense and throw to the right guy and he looked surprisingly dazzling as a runner in the spring, breaking touchdown gallops of 50 and 43 yards against Newberry. He had a standard redshirt his first year at Catawba and a medical redshirt in 2019. Then everyone got a redshirt for 2020. While it seems like he’s be in town forever, he’s only played one season.

“He’s a college graduate with three years of eligibility,” Walker said. “We’re fighting to get him at least two years. He can run our offense and be the leader of our offense and he should do some great things for us.”

Daniel Parker is set to be the primary running back, but keep an eye on freshman Jyrea Martin, whom Walker describes as “a bowling ball.”

Walker believes Catawba has big-play wideouts in sprinter Rasheed Singleton and 5-foot-6 buzz saw Kujuan Pryor, who looked explosive in the spring. Will Sheehan will have a key role as a possession receiver.

Catawba has four tight ends who can play, a situation that provides a lot of formation options. Catawba hasn’t had depth at that critical position in quite a while.

The offensive line could be in the best shape it’s been in for several years, with graduate students Blackwell and Jackson providing savvy and leadership. Cameron Ivey-Young is another seasoned lineman.

“We’re going to be playing offensive linemen that, as a group, are stronger and more experienced,” Walker said.

Special teams should be an asset. Keaton Chambers is considered a top-notch long snapper. Clayton Kriel returns to handle kicking and punting duties.

“The ball is really popping off his foot,” Walker said. “He’ll give us a chance to make field goals from 50-plus yards.”

After things came unglued late in 2019, Catawba had seven freshmen starting on defense. They took their lumps and suffered their growing pains, but most of them hung in there. They’re more muscular and experienced now.

Safety D’verik Daniel is a vocal leader on defense. Corner Izaiah Taylor, long and athletic, has emerged as another potential standout in the secondary.

Walker is excited about linebackers Landen Johnson and Christian Bennett, the former East Rowan star. They’re still young, but they should more than hold their own when it comes to tackling people.

Familiar names such as John Oxce, Luke Cerasi and Robert Chery will provide the energy and push up front on defense. Christian Campbell and Alabama A&M transfer Tyrell Reid will help. They’ve been impressive in practice.

Walker said more positive vibes have been provided by the assistant coaches who were recent hires.

Everette Sands, who carries the titles of co-offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and running backs coach, is a veteran with D-I experience.

Pat Clark, who played at Georgia Tech, will coach the defensive backs.

The Indians will start finding out where they stand on Saturday.