Gardner-Webb ranks No. 22 in HERO Sports’ FCS Preseason Top 25.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs finished 7-6 overall last year, 6-3 vs. the FCS, and 5-0 in the Big South. They beat Eastern Kentucky 52-41 in the first round of the playoffs before losing 54-14 at William & Mary. Three of their regular-season losses were to FBS opponents: Coastal Carolina (31-27), Marshall (28-7), and Liberty (21-20).
Here’s a look at this year’s Gardner-Webb football squad.
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Returning 2022 FCS All-Conference Players (8)
RB Narii Gaither
OL Gabriel Thompson
DE Ty French
LB William McRainey
CB Raequan Ousley
S Jamari Brown
S AJ Thomas
LS Jamie Wilson
Players In 2023 FCS Positional Rankings (5)
Transfer Portal Movement
Transfers Lost To The FBS (2)
Travis Burke (OL) to FIU
Clayton Frady (OL) to Virginia Tech
Transfers Coming In From The FBS (7)
Ty Lyles (QB) Coastal Carolina
Nemo Squire (RB) East Carolina
Gino English (QB) Florida State
Brandon Wilson (DL) Georgia Southern
Isaac Vance (WR) Kent State
Rashad Whitehead (DL) Liberty
Andrew Threatt (OL) Navy
Transfers Coming In From The FCS (1)
Ayden Bell (DL), Lamar
Gardner-Webb returns 17 starters on offense and defense, featuring seven on the offensive side.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs scored 32.2 points per game in 2022, ranking No. 28 in the FCS. They ran for 178.7 yards per game (No. 34) and threw for 262.8 (No. 25).
The passing attack loses its All-Conference quarterback and two leading All-Conference wide receivers. But Gardner-Webb will have a strong run game.
Narii Gaither looks to add to his prestigious career. The three-time First Team All-Big South running back ran for 1,119 yards and eight scores last season after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards in 2021. No. 2 rusher Jayden Brown (459 yards, six TDs) and No. 3 rusher Donovan Jones (278 yards, three TDs) are also back.
The offensive line has three starters returning up front, led by three-year starter and 2022 All-Big South selection Gabriel Thompson (6-3, 305 lbs).
Gardner-Webb has to replace the solid play of quarterback Bailey Fisher.
Matthew Caldwell was last year’s primary backup (and started one game) after transferring from Jacksonville State. Xavion Brower played in four games last season. Will Mattison will also be in the mix after redshirting in 2022. Two FBS transfers add to the QB1 battle. Ty Lyles comes in from Coastal Carolina. And Gino English spent 2019-2022 at Florida State with only one game appearance.
New go-to targets will need to emerge after losing last year’s two receiving leaders.
Gaither was third on the team in receiving yards (220). Karim Page returns at WR after having 210 receiving yards. Plus, tight ends Deland Thomas and Jonathan Burns each had two receiving touchdowns.
Gardner-Webb also gets Justin Franklin back from injury. He was a 2022 preseason All-Big South pick after catching 37 passes for 562 yards and four touchdowns in 2021, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the season-opener.
The offense is excited for AJ Johnson to take the field after he redshirted last year. Johnson originally committed to LSU but ended up signing with Gardner-Webb as the program’s highest-rated recruit. 247Sports, Rivals, and ESPN all ranked Johnson as a four-star recruit, and he was rated as the nation’s No. 20 receiver prospect in the Class of 2022 by Rivals.
Ten starters are back on defense. There are standout names on all three levels to improve on last year’s 29.0 points allowed per game, which ranked No. 69 in the FCS.
Two-time All-Conference First Teamer William McRainey returns at linebacker. He has led the team in tackles the last two seasons with 109 in 2021 and 111 in 2022, adding nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year. Brendan Jackson (30 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, three sacks) and Tray Dunson (33 tackles) are also returning starting linebackers. Ty Anderson (42 stops, six TFLs, 1.5 sacks) is another impact LB who was named the 2022 Big South Defensive Freshman of the Year.
The d-line is led by DE Ty French, who was last season’s Big South Defensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in the 2022 Buck Buchanan Award voting. He racked up 72 tackles, 15 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, and 18 QB hurries. Charlie Jackson plugs the middle at 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds, totaling 47 tackles and two TFLs in 2022. Brice Bass is a returning starter at DE, finishing last year with 30 tackles, four TFLs, and one sack. Willie Harris can play multiple positions across the d-line at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds. He had 27 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks.
Georgia Southern transfer Brandon Wilson and Lamar transfer Ayden Bell look to make an impact on the DL as well.
CB Raequan Ousley is coming off a year where he led the conference with 19 passes defended (17 pass breakups, two interceptions), plus 56 tackles. The Runnin’ Bulldogs have two other returning All-League performers in the secondary in safeties Jamari Brown and AJ Thomas. Brown totaled 65 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and three interceptions. Thomas had 51 stops, 1.5 TFLs, and three interceptions. Josiah Wright is another experienced safety, tallying 50 tackles, six pass breakups, and three picks in 2022.
Gardner-Webb has added two All-American DBs from Division II this offseason: Diondre Glover from Central Missouri and Wendell McClain from Notre Dame (OH) College.
Last season’s unit had the No. 34 FCS rush defense (133.3 YPG), but the No. 110 pass defense (261.4 YPG).
9/2 at Appalachian State
9/9 vs RV Elon
9/16 at Tennessee State
9/23 at East Carolina
10/7 vs Robert Morris
10/14 at RV Austin Peay
10/21 vs No. 21 Eastern Kentucky
10/28 vs UT Martin
11/4 at Bryant
11/11 at Tennessee Tech
11/18 vs Charleston Southern
HERO Sports’ rankings
RV = Received Votes
Bold indicates Big South-OVC games